United States Life Saving Service on Assateague Island

United States Life Saving Service Boat
United States Life Saving Service boat and crew.
“You have to go out, but you don’t have to come back.” Imagine living up to the unofficial motto of the U.S. Life-Saving Service. These brave men performed heroic rescues with limited equipment in nor’easters and hurricanes. The USLSS employed three main tools. The Coston flare launched a bright red light into the sky to alert distressed ships that they had been spotted or to warn ships of imminent danger. A Lyle gun would launch a heavy line over the rigging of ships stranded near shore. The ship’s crew would secure the line and the USLSS surfmen would set up a pulley system to convey the ship’s crew to shore one at a time in a breeches buoy or in small groups in a life-car. Surfboats were used to reach ships stranded out of the range of the Lyle gun. Crews would pull the boat along the beach on a cart, sometimes for miles, and row through the breaking surf to reach the stranded ship. Rescued crewmen were commonly given dry clothes and brandy at the station house. In 1915, the USLSS merged with the Revenue Cutter Service to become the US Coast Guard. Today, most vessels navigate with the aid of radars, GPS, depth finders and other electronics.
 
Green Run Station and Crew
Green Run Station and Crew
Assateague Island was home to four USLSS stations: Assateague Beach, Pope Island, Green Run, and North Beach. In 40 years of service (1875-1915), these four USLSS stations responded to over 250 ships in peril. Assateague Beach was the busiest of the four stations. Of those 250+ rescues, only two resulted in loss of life with four seamen lost.
 
Pope Island Station
Pope Island Station
The northernmost station, North Beach was located near the present shipwreck exhibit and boathouse museum. The Green Run Station was eight miles further south. Pope Island Station was situated near the Maryland and Virginia state line. The USLSS Assateague Beach Station was built less than three miles from the Assateague Lighthouse in 1875. Prior to the formation of Toms Cove, this area was referred to on nautical charts as Assateague Anchorage. The station was situated 8.5 miles southwest of the Pope’s Island station and about 4 miles east of the Wallop’s Island station. The station is long gone, but its location was near the current Woodland Trail.
 
Assateague Beach Station Crew
Assateague Beach Station Crew
One notable wreck and rescue occured in 1891; when the Presidential yacht USS Despatch struck a shoal about 2.5 miles northeast of the Assateague Beach USLSS station. It was on its way from New York to Washington, D.C., to pick up President Harrison. No injuries were reported, but the ship was a complete loss and the hull sold for salvage.
 
Today, little tangible evidence remains of the stations; often covered by shifting sand, only to be re-exposed briefly during storms. The largest existing evidence of the USLSS presence in the Maryland district, is the Pope Island boat house. Currently located in the North Beach area, the boat house is occasionally open for viewing. When visiting the Virginia district, the Assateague Beach Coast Guard Station is visible from Toms Cove, and seasonally the grounds are open to walk.

Last updated: July 23, 2018

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