The U.S. Life-Saving Service at Sandy Hook

"Wreck of the Edmund J. Phinney Sandy Hook December 14, 1907. driving rain storm wind 70 miles per hour. Brin[g]ing the Captain and Mate ashore in the breeches buoy. Showing [USLSS] Captain Woolley and [USLSS] James Moran waist deep in the surf"
"Wreck of the Edmund J. Phinney Sandy Hook December 14, 1907. driving rain storm wind 70 miles per hour. Brin[g]ing the Captain and Mate ashore in the breeches buoy. Showing [USLSS] Captain Woolley and [USLSS] James Moran waist deep in the surf"

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Life-Saving stations at Sandy Hook

Travel by sea, especially in the early years of the republic, was often dangerous. The coast of New Jersey saw hundreds of shipwrecks. Small life-saving stations were built on the East Coast starting in 1849 but were staffed by volunteers. In 1878, Congress established an official U.S. Life-Saving Service (USLSS) within the Department of the Treasury. Paid six-member crews were rated numerically by their experience and capability to staff the larger stations built in the 1870s.

Out of 40 stations in New Jersey, the Sandy Hook Life-Saving Station (near the tip) was Station No. 1; Spermaceti Cove was Station No. 2. Each station's rescue equipment included a surfboat mounted on a wagon, a small line-throwing mortar, and a small enclosed metal lifeboat called a "lifecar." The lifecar held up to six passengers and was used to haul them back to the beach using rope lines stretched from shore to shipwreck. Crews conducted daily tower watches, nightly beach patrols and participated in frequent drills to keep their skills sharp.

 
USLSS Captain Trevonian Patterson (top center) and crew try out a new surfboat. NPS ARCHIVES
USLSS Captain Trevonian Patterson (top center) and crew try out a new surfboat.

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A few of the men who saved lives

Information about the men who worked at Stations 1 and 2 is far from complete. What we do know is that their work combined long hours of training, preparation and inactivity with bursts of brutal, agonizing, life-threatening activity that demanded quick thinking.

Men who knew the sea like Jonathan "Captain Jack" Edwards, keeper at Spermaceti Cove Life-Saving Station beginning in 1879, ran the stations and teams of "surfmen." The work was both physically demanding and dangerous. An injury incurred during a surfboat drill in 1899 forced Keeper Edwards to resign after 20 years of service.

Surfmen were held to rigorous standards and lost their jobs when they failed to perform their duties. Monmouth County native Edmund W. Price began serving at Spermaceti Cove Station in 1880, when he was 43 years old. In 1883 a hearing determined that he had failed to complete the exchange of beach checks while on duty and was fired. A man named Louis Price was hired to take his place but, in 1890, he too was fired when he failed to "cross the wash" during a storm while on south beach control. By then, Edmund had been rehired. He served until 1910, when he left on sick leave. He died later that year.

Eventually, the "Red House" Stations were replaced by larger and sturdier structures. A new station was built near the north end of Sandy Hook in 1891. A new station was also built near Spermaceti Cove in 1894, where James Wooley became keeper five years later. He would be captain when the Edmund J. Phinney capsized in 1907.

Keeper Trevonian H. Patterson, the son of Sandy Hook Lighthouse Keeper Charles W. Patterson, entered the USLSS in 1878 at age 18. An 1888 article described him as a person who had "...lived at Sandy Hook since he was one year old, knows every inch of the beach, and is as familiar with the treacherous shoals as he is with the plank walk leading from the station to the Ordnance dock." He served 30 years at Sandy Hook Number 1 Station.

 
Another photo of the rescue of the captain of the Edmund J. Phinney. Inscribed message says, "Removing the Captain and Mate from the breeches buoy / Was the last to leave the barque [watercraft], Crews the ten [a crew of ten]"
Another photo of the rescue of the captain of the Edmund J. Phinney. Inscribed message says, "Removing the Captain and Mate from the breeches buoy / Was the last to leave the barque [the ship], Crews the ten [a crew of ten]"

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Rescue of the Edmund J. Phinney crew

On December 17, 1907, the sailing ship Edmund J. Phinney wrecked during a fierce gale 300 yards off the Hook's North Beach area. Keeper Woolley's crew pulled their beach apparatus cart two and one-half miles against raging winds and over flooded beaches to meet Keeper Patterson's staff to save the crew of ten. Through freezing wind-swept waves, five seamen were laboriously hauled ashore by breeches buoy. With the ship on the verge of breaking up and no time to spare, the captain and first mate crammed themselves into the breeches buoy. They were just reaching the churning shore when the Phinney broke apart. The ten crewmen were wet, cold and dazed, but still alive.

 

From sail to steam, from USLSS to the Coast Guard

From 1871 through 1914, the USLSS aided 28,121 vessels and rescued or aided 178,741 persons, with only 1,455 people losing their lives. But as iron-hulled steamships replaced sail-powered vessels, the need for a life-saving service changed as well. In 1915 the USLSS was merged with another agency to form the U.S. Coast Guard, which continues its presence at the tip of Sandy Hook and maintains the light in the Sandy Hook Lighthouse.

Last updated: June 19, 2015

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