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Inquiry Question

Historical Context


Reading 2
Reading 3



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Determining the Facts

Reading 1: A Noble Service

Establishing the United States Lifesaving Service was not an easy job. Limited federal funding allowed for the construction of stations, purchasing of equipment, and the hiring of crews. The U.S.L.S.S. experienced a number of growing pains because there was no lifesaving tradition in this country to serve as an example. Fortunately, Sumner L. Kimball, the first superintendent of the U.S.L.S.S., suggested and implemented many good practices. Emphasizing training and inspections, selection and use of proper rescue equipment, and overall professionalism, Kimball brought the Service through its early hardships. He was largely responsible for making it the successful, noble, and heroic agency it became.

Once a new lifesaving station was established, a Keeper was chosen and placed in charge of recruiting lifesavers or "surfmen." Men with fishing, boating, or coastal water experience received preference. Applicants had to pass a swimming test as well as a strict medical exam. Once accepted, the life of a surfman was carefully regimented under the overall command of the Keeper. On the East Coast, surfmen served only during the winter when wrecks were much more likely to occur. The Keeper, however, lived at the station throughout the year. Surfmen worked in units that usually included eight men. Each received a ranking according to his experience and duties.

The surfmen took shifts performing various duties each day and night. One lifesaver kept watch from the watchtower, while two others patrolled the beach on either side of the station. Every surfman also was responsible for cooking one day of the week. A weekly training schedule was established for all U.S.L.S.S. crews. Each day of the week was dedicated to a particular aspect of lifesaving duty: Monday for inspecting the equipment; Tuesday for lifeboat practice; Wednesday for signal training; Thursday for the beach apparatus drill; Friday for practicing resuscitation (similar to modern CPR); and Saturday for cleaning and polishing everything at the station. Sunday was a day off. Day after day, week after week, they followed this routine. The pattern was broken only by shipwreck rescues or inspections by the district superintendent.

Such a strict regime made the crew proficient and ready to use the standard U.S.L.S.S. rescue procedures. For the most daring of the two main types of rescues, lifesavers rowed to the wreck in surfboats, which they pulled to the shore by horse and wagon and then launched into the pounding surf. If the surf was too high or the vessel was close to the shore, the surfmen used the beach apparatus method. This procedure involved using a small cannon--a wreck gun--to fire a line out to the wreck that could be recovered by the crew and attached to their ship. The secured line carried a breeches buoy, a life ring with short trouser legs into which one person at a time climbed and was pulled from the wreck by surfmen. Lifesavers hauled the breeches buoy back and forth to the wreck until the last person, usually the captain, was safe.

The surfmen of the U.S. Lifesaving Service established an impressive record of success and bravery. Seafarers came to depend upon these men as a constant presence, a source of hope amidst the wrath of the sea. Sensational and dramatic rescues drew newspaper headlines and widespread praise, but it was the drudgery of constant drill, the misery of nightly beach patrol in the worst of weather, and an ongoing dedication to duty that earned the life savers the respect and gratitude of seamen from all over the world.

By 1900 ships were built of steel and were machine-powered, thus no longer completely dependent on winds. As improvements in navigational aids and equipment were made, ships no longer had to stay as close to the shore and were less likely to run aground.¹ Accordingly, the need for lifesaving stations diminished. In 1915 the U.S.L.S.S. and the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service combined to create the U.S. Coast Guard. Today, it is easy to underestimate the challenges faced by the U.S. Lifesaving Service and to take its efforts for granted. No one knows how many lives were lost before the Service was established, but it is known that during its 44-year existence, the U.S.L.S.S. saved 177,286 lives. Modern technology has changed the nature of lifesaving, but today's Coast Guard crews continue the tradition of excellence in rescue established by the U.S. Lifesaving Service.

Questions for Reading 1

1. Who was the first superintendent of the U.S. Lifesaving Service? Why was his job difficult?

2. Why were some stations only manned part of the year?

3. Why do you think Kimball established a regimented training schedule for members of the U.S.L.S.S.?

4. Why did the need for lifesaving stations eventually decrease? What happened to the U.S.L.S.S. as a result?

Reading 1 was compiled from Jerome A. Greene, "Historic Structure Report, Historic Data Component: Little Kinnakeet Lifesaving and Coast Guard Station, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, North Carolina," U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1987; Karl Baarslag, Coast Guard to the Rescue (New York Farrar & Rinehard, Inc., 1936); and Dennis L. Noble, That Others Might Live: The U.S. Life-Saving Service, 1878-1915 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1994).

1Dennis Noble, That Others Might Live: The U.S. Life-Saving Service, 1878-1915 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1994), 148.


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