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How The U.S. Life-Saving Service Saved Lives

The U.S. Life-Saving stations were typically either lifesaving stations, lifeboat stations, or “houses of refuge.”  The first stations, in Monmouth County, were all lifesaving stations.  Lifeboat stations were those near piers or wharves where larger lifeboats could be launched from land into water; many of these were built to protect the Great Lakes.  Houses of Refuge were manned structures along the shores of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.  These were passive operations, where those who managed to make it ashore from a shipwreck could find temporary food and shelter.  Keepers at Houses of Refuge were to search the coastline for survivors after storms, but could not effect rescues at sea.

Lifesaving stations such as those from Sandy Hook to Egg Harbor initially were manned by full-time crews only from November to April on the east coast, the “active season.”  By the turn of the century, the active season was year-round.  Most stations were in isolated areas and crewmen had to be able to launch their boats from the beach into the surf.  Before the turn of the century, there were very few recreational boaters and most assistance cases came to the aid of ships engaged in commerce.

The Service’s lifesaving stations featured self-bailing, self-righting surf boats of varying size, rowed by six surfmen.  The surfboat could be pulled on a cart by crewmen, or horses, to a site near a wreck and then launched into the surf.  The lifeboat, following a design originated in England, could be fitted with sails for work further offshore and was used in very heavy weather.  Some crews, at first, viewed the lifeboat with skepticism because of its great weight and bulk.  The skepticism soon changed and crews began to regard it as “something almost supernatural,” for it enabled them to provide assistance “when the most powerful tugs and steam-craft refused to go out of the harbor.”

When a ship wrecked close to shore and the seas were too rough for boats, then the Service could use Life-Cars, such as was used in the rescue of the Ayrshire off Squan Beach on January 12, 1850, in which 201 out of 202 people aboard were saved.  Patented by Joseph Francis in 1845, the Francis Life-Car was one of the most successful life-preserving devices developed at the time.  Buoyant from a covering of cork, the pod-shaped metal life-car was used to rescue shipwreck victims when the vessel was foundering near land. While standing on the beach, a person from a lifesaving station used a cannon-like gun to shoot sturdy lines out to the ship, which would then be tied to the ship’s mast. The life-car was attached to, and pulled, along these lines. Up to four people were bolted into the airtight compartment. They laid flat as they were hauled through the rough waters to the safety of the shore.  Over the next three years following the successful rescue of the Ayrshire, this device rescued at least 1,400 people on the New Jersey shore alone, as well as countless amounts of valuable cargo.

But, successful as they were, Life-Cars were heavy and difficult to handle, and so were eventually replaced by the “breeches buoy.”  A breeches buoy resembles a life preserver ring with canvas pants attached.  As with the Life-Car, rescuers used  a special gun to fire a rope out to a stricken ship; the breeches buoy could be pulled out to the ship by pulleys, enabling the endangered sailor to step into the life ring and pants and then be pulled to safety much more easily than the heavier Life-Car.

Sources:

Timeline 1700’s-1800’s (sic).  (2020).  United States Coast Guard Historian’s Office. Available: https://www.history.uscg.mil/Complete-Time-Line/Time-Line-1700-1800/

Means, Dennis R.  (1987).  A Heavy Sea Running: The Formation of the U.S. Life-Saving Service, 1846-1878.  Prologue Magazine, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.  Winter 1987, Vol. 19, No. 4.  Available: https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/1987/winter/us-life-saving-service-1.html#SL4

Public Acts of the Thirtieth Congress of the United States.  (1848)  August 14, 1848, P. 114.   Available: https://www.loc.gov/law/help/statutes-at-large/30th-congress/c30.pdf

Noble, Dennis L.  (1994).  That Others Might Live: The U.S. Life-Saving Service, 1878-1915.  Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 1994.

Joseph Francis Life-Car. Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Available: https://uslife-savingservice.org/about-us/history-of-the-uslss/

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