Then & Now: U.S. Life-Saving Service

From 1890 to 1968, the U.S. Life-Saving Service watched Point Reyes' eighty miles of undeveloped coastline and sent its surfmen out into the rough coastal waters on numerous rescues. Initially situated along the turbulent Ten-Mile Beach (aka, Point Reyes Beach or Great Beach), the Coast Guard relocated the station to the protected waters of Drakes Bay near Chimney Rock in 1927.

Click and drag the circle at the center of the photos left and right to compare the then and now images.

 
Old Life-Saving Station, ca. 1890
A black and white photo of several wooden structures adjacent to an ocean beach on the right with rugged headlands rising in the distance. A color photo with a couple of delapidated buildings in the foreground adjacent to an ocean beach on the right with rugged headlands rising in the distance.
U.S. Life-Saving Service Station on Ten-Mile Beach. (ca. 1890) Credit: Point Reyes National Seashore Archives #000370.
The site of the decommissioned Life-Saving Station on Ten-Mile Beach. (2019) Credit: NPS Photo / Ted Barone.

In January of 1888, a 3.5 acre plot was purchased by the U.S. Life-Saving Service on Ten-Mile Beach, about three miles north of the lighthouse. USLSS crews served at this location from July of 1890 until 1927.




 
Life-Saving Service Cemetery, ca. mid-1890s
A black and white photo of four grave markers surrounded by a picket fence and trees. A black and white photo of six grave markers surrounded by a picket fence and trees.
The Life-Saving Service Cemetery at G Ranch. (ca. mid-1890s) Credit: Point Reyes National Seashore Archives #009550.
The Life-Saving Service Cemetery at G Ranch. (2019) Credit: NPS Photo / Ted Barone.

The Life-Saving Service's station's exposure to intense winds and currents made rescues a dangerous duty. Three surfmen were killed while trying to land their boats. Their graves, and that of another surfman who died of a lung illness, are in a small cemetery donated by the Claussen family of G Ranch.




 
Life-Saving SurfBoat, ca. 1900
A black and white photo of two men in white uniforms maneuvering an approximately 25-foot-long open-top surfboat on a wheeled cart. A color photo of a sandy beach covered with driftwood and beach grass in the foreground and white-capped ocean waves in the background.
Surfmen used a cart to move their surfboat from the boathouse to the ocean at Ten-Mile Beach. (ca. 1900) Credit: Point Reyes National Seashore Archives #0013370.
Point Reyes Beach (aka Ten-Mile Beach). (2019) Credit: NPS Photo / Ted Barone.

During the thirty-seven years the old station on Ten-Mile Beach operated, there were fourteen major shipwrecks and countless minor incidents. The surfmen had to row out into the raging surf in their attempt to rescue any crew and passengers.




 
Ocean Rescue of the Samoa, 1913
Black and white photo of two men on a beach with a ship caught in heavy surf very close to shore. A color photo of an ocean beach with piles of driftwood in the foreground and waves breaking in the background.
Surfmen run towards the steamer Samoa, which flounders in the surf. (1913) Credit: Point Reyes National Seashore Archives #014700.
The site from which surfmen rescued the crew from the steamer Samoa. (2019) Credit: NPS Photo / Ted Barone.

Oftentimes, the water was too rough to get a boat into the water and the surfmen had to rely on the "beach apparatus" to respond to emergencies. The steamer Samoa wrecked on January 28, 1913, while en route from Eureka to San Francisco with a load of lumber. The rescue was hampered by a "mess of drifting lumber and heavy timbers that was thrown up by the rough sea." All twenty-one crewmen were rescued without serious injury.




 
Auxiliary Boathouse at B Ranch on Drakes Bay, ca. 1920
A black and white photo of a garage-like structure and a surf boat adjacent to the beach to the left with cliffs in the background. A color photo of a bay to the left with waves washing up on to a beach in the center. Eroded cliffs rise from the beach, with pasturelands extending to the right from the bluff tops.
The auxiliary boathouse on Drakes Bay. (ca. 1920) Credit: Point Reyes National Seashore Archives #013600.
The site of the auxiliary boathouse on Drakes Bay. (2019) Credit: NPS Photo / Ted Barone.

In 1894, the Life-Saving Service was given permission to construct an auxiliary boathouse on the more protected Drakes Bay, across the peninsula from Ten-Mile Beach. It held two boats and beach apparatus that was manned only when needed. Surfmen could make it fairly quickly across the peninsula to respond to problems in Drakes Bay when needed.




 
Launching the Surfboat from the Lifeboat Station near Chimney Rock, 1943
A black and white photo of uniformed men lowering an open-topped surfboat down a rail into a bay. A color photo of a lichen-covered pier with a rusty railway descending into a bay. Eroded cliffs rise in the distance above the far side of the bay.
Launching the surfboat. (1943) Credit: Point Reyes National Seashore Archives #023610_I.
The decommissioned lifeboat launch ramp at the historic Point Reyes Lifeboat Station at Chimney Rock. (2019). Credit: NPS Photo / Ted Barone.

Five crewmen launch a surfboat on rails. The crew was typically occupied with equipment maintenance and practice for intermittent emergencies. The drills took on more of a military quality after the U.S. Life-Saving Service merged with the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service to form the U.S. Coast Guard in 1914. During World War II, the station was transferred to the Navy Department and the fifty men stationed there served to rescue pilots who dumped their planes in the ocean during bomb training runs.




 
Clearing a Landslide at the Point Reyes Lifeboat Station at Chimney Rock, 1956
A black and white photo of men clearing landslide debris from a road that leads down to some bay-side buildings. Steep bluffs rise on the right and in the background. A color photo of a single-lane paved road leading down to a white-sided, red-roofed, two-story building located on the shore of a bay. Steep bluffs rise on the right and in the background.
Crews clear a mudslide at the Point Reyes Lifeboat Station on Drakes Bay in 1956. Credit: Point Reyes National Seashore Archives #22730.
The Point Reyes Boathouse access road. (2019) Credit: NPS Photo / Ted Barone.

Landslides were and are a regular occurrence along the shores of the Point Reyes peninsula. Crews clear mud from the access road leading down to the boathouse at Chimney Rock. The rugged weather and porous soils on the Point Reyes peninsula resulted in many slides and land regularly fell into the ocean. Major rains in January of 1956 and subsequent mudslides destroyed a number of buildings, some of which were never replaced. After World War II, the crew saw less action as a result of improved navigational technology at sea and the diminishing size of the fishing fleets. In 1956, only one distress case required assistance.




 
Lifeboat Approaching Launchway from Drakes Bay, 1957
A black and white photo of a man on the left at the helm of a boat as it is guided up a ramp to a boathouse. A color photo of a two narrow piers stretching alongside a marine railway that leads up and into a red-roofed, white-sided boathouse at the base of a steep, grass-covered hill.
The lifeboat approaches the launchway from Drakes Bay in 1957. Credit: Point Reyes National Seashore Archives #007440.
The launchway into the historic Point Reyes Boathouse on Drakes Bay. Credit: NPS Photo / Ted Barone.

During its first decade of operation, forty-five vessels were rescued, saving some three million dollars worth of property. The boatmen were occupied with hauling stranded fishing boats and yachts out of the surf. But there were some major shipwrecks, including the Richfield Company's flagship gasoline tanker, the Richfield, which ran aground in May 1930 off Chimney rock, tore her hull open, and spread gasoline over the sea. While every member of Richfield's crew was rescued and 23,000 of the 25,000 gallons of gasoline were pumped off the ship to lighters (averting a worse environmental disaster), the ship was a total loss.




 
Point Reyes Boathouse on Drakes Bay near Chimney Rock, 1962
A black and white photo of a man in a plaid, long-sleeved shirt rowing a boat away from a white-sided, two-story boathouse. A color photo taken from a vessel of a red-roofed, white-sided, two-story building at the edge of a bay. A dock stretches off to the right. Grassy hills rise in the background.
A man rows a boat away from the Lifeboat Station. (1962) Credit: Point Reyes National Seashore Archives #006640.
The decommissioned, historic Point Reyes Boathouse at Chimney Rock. (2019) Credit: NPS Photo / Ted Barone.

Morale and conditions at the Ten-Mile Beach station deteriorated during and after the First World War. The District Superintendent visited the station and noted how discouraging a place it was for the crew. Design and construction on a new lifeboat station in Drakes Bay began within a few years after his visit.

A new Lifeboat Station on Drakes Bay near Chimney Rock opened in 1927 and was designed to house 36-foot motor lifeboats, which had become the U.S. Coast Guard standard for lifesaving operations. It was decommissioned in 1968.




 
Surfmen, Drakes Bay, CA. 1960s
A black and white photo of three men sitting on railing of a white building.. A color photo of two men in NPS uniforms behind railing of a white building.
Credit: Point Reyes National Seashore Archives #007520.
Credit: NPS / Ted Barone.

Three of the Lifeboat Station's crew (Harvey, Charlie R., and Punchy Coughlan) sit on the boathouse's deck enjoying a warm, sunny day.




 
Point Reyes Lifeboat Station from Above, ca. 1950s
A black and white photo of buildings and piers on a steep hillside on the left with a bay filled with boats on the right. A color photo of a two-story building with a pier in the foreground, a few buildings on a steep coastal hillside on the left, and a bay on the right.
Credit: Point Reyes National Seashore Archives #008590.
Credit: NPS / Ted Barone.

The Point Reyes Lifeboat Station on Drakes Bay is in the foreground. Paladini's wharf and fish processing facility, built in 1923, is directly beyond the boathouse and its launchway. It burned in 1970. The Consolidated Fisheries pier is in the background. These wholesale fish dealers received and cleaned fish before shipping them by truck to wholesale houses in San Francisco.




Last updated: February 17, 2020

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