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The U.S. Life-Saving Service Comes to the Rescue of the Doomed Ayrshire

The early Life-Saving stations from Sandy Hook to Egg Harbor had a single keeper on paid duty who received $200 a year, and if he discovered a vessel in distress he had to collect a volunteer crew.  A keeper might have to hike for miles before he could get a crew together, and perhaps by the time they reached the station, the vessel would be broken up and all hands lost.   There was no central organization or management, and no inspection system to insure that men and equipment were up to standards.  

And yet, it was not long before the new service would prove its mettle.

On New Year’s Day, 1850, two years after the founding of the U.S. Life-Saving Service, the Scottish bark Ayrshire ran aground on a sandbar off Absecon Island, in Atlantic County.  Winds from the furious storm soon tore the sails from her spars, dismasted the ship and disabled the rudder.  Eventually, the storm subsided, and the Ayrshire was blown free of the sandbar, but, unable to navigate, drifted at the mercy of winds and current for twelve days, traveling some 50 miles northward.  The ship was getting closer to shore, but blinding snow made visibility almost impossible.  Those on shore could hear the anguished cries of those who were just beyond reach.  The Ayrshire finally breached off Squan Beach and turned over on her side in the surf.  

One passenger later described seeing a flash from shore, and suddenly a heavy rope flew over the ship.  The seas being too rough for surfboats, U.S. Life-Saving Service Station Keeper John Maxson was eager to try out their new Francis Life-Car.   Over the next two days, Maxson and his crew of volunteers on shore rescued 201 people aboard the doomed ship, with only one death, from a young man who panicked and tried to jump on top of the Life-Car, but was blown into the sea and drowned.

The amazing success of the rescue of the Ayrshire quickly prompted Congress to allocate funds to extend the new Life-Saving Service all the way to Cape May. The Francis Life-Car used in the Ayrshire rescue was donated and is on exhibit at the Smithsonian Institute.


Timeline 1700’s-1800’s (sic).  (2020).  United States Coast Guard Historian’s Office. Available:

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:

Public Acts of the Thirtieth Congress of the United States.  (1848)  August 14, 1848, P. 114.   Available:

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

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