There were three main classes of Life-Saving Stations. Life-Saving Stations were designed to house paid crews, equipped with surfboats and other equipment to be used in the saving of lives from wrecked ships just off shore. These stations primarily were built along the Atlantic coast, but were later established along the shores of the Gulf, Pacific and the Great Lakes. Houses of refuge were built only to provide shelter, food and other provisions to those who were able to reach shore with out aid, and were found exclusively along the eastern coast of Florida. Lifeboats stations were the last type of station established. These stations were modeled after the British system, using volunteer crews equipped with lifeboats used in rescues. Stations of this type were also established along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and the Great Lakes as well.
The origins of life-saving services can be traced back to China, where the first organized life-saving service was formed. In 1708, the Chinkiang Association for the Saving of Life was first established, and quickly developed into a series of manned stations, equipped with specially designed tool aimed at saving passengers from wrecked ships just off shore. After the British and the Dutch first observed the world’s first organization intended for this purpose each began similar efforts in the mid 1700’s.
In 1784 the first organization dedicated to the saving people from ships wrecked on storm tossed seas was established and was known as the Humane Society of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and was widely supported by dignitaries of the day including George Washington and Paul Revere. Three years later, small structures were being constructed along the shoreline of Massachusetts, intended to provide shelter and supplies for mariners who were lucky enough to have made it to shore alive.
These structures, often located in isolated and remote locations, fell victim to theft, vandalism and a number of other problems caused by the stations being unmanned. Frequently, mariners who made it to shore alive arrived at the stations to find that there were little to no supplies and that the structures themselves had suffered damage. Local people who the society felt could be trusted were asked to watch over the stations. Improving the situation to some degree, the stations were still vulnerable.
1807 brought about the first use of a lifeboat, a boat specifically designed to allow a crew of ten men to row out to a wrecked ship to retrieve people from the ship, lifeboats continued to be placed in the Massachusetts stations. Manned by volunteer crews with one person placed in charge of the station, the lifeboats and other tools were successfully used in saving lives. While the crews were predominately volunteers, crews received payment for their service and were often times awarded medals as well.
With a number of successful rescues at the Massachusetts stations, other coastal areas of the country began establishing similar stations to reduce the loss of lives in other parts of the county. Again, manned with volunteer crews, there was little to no training, no regulations in place to govern conduct during rescues, these stations continued to be plagued by a lack of organization and their effectiveness was compromised.
In winter of 1870-1871 proved to be a disastrous one, with a large number of fatalities and lost ships along the US coastline. Public outcry prompted Congress so allow $200,000 to create a true life-saving system on April 20, 1871. With these funds in place, the Treasury Department employed John Faunce to visit and report on the conditions and activity at all stations. When his report was finalized and submitted later that year in August, a list of major issues was recognized.
1. Most of the stations were too remote and far from each other.
2. Many of the structures were in such bad shape that they either were unusable or needed extensive repairs.
3. Stations were neglected and filthy.
4. Equipment was either missing or in disrepair
5. Keepers and crews were unfit to conduct this service.
With this report in hand, Sumner Kimball was given the tremendous task to fix these problems. Kimball when to work and with the help of the Act to Organize the Life-Saving Service being approved by Congress on June 18, 1878 by a unanimous vote, the bill was then signed into law. This bill officially established the Life-Saving Service under the Treasury Department, with Kimball as the headman in charge.
Kimball set about organizing the service into what would eventually become thirteen districts, with each district being lead by a District Superintendent. The District Superintendent was responsible for acting as customs inspectors who ensured the property recovered from the ship was handled properly. The District Superintendent also visited each station quarterly, oversaw the business of the stations, ordered supplies, and oversaw repairs. The Assistant Inspectors (also one per district) oversaw the personnel assigned to the stations. He ensured that the keeper and crew were qualified both physically and mentally for the job, exam potential employees, and investigates rescues where loss of life occurred. A keeper or head surfmen, who oversaw and directed the surfmen at his particular station, supervised each station.
Just before the the Life-Saving Service was merged into what would become the Coast Guard in 1915, there were 279 life-saving stations in the US, located along the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf coasts, as well as the Great Lakes and Alaska. Under Kimball’s direction, the Life-Saving Service finally had an adequate chain of command, and with frequent inspections, strict regulations, well-trained crews who were paid to perform under extreme circumstances, these stations were better managed and more lives were being saved. The men of the tightly run stations were recognized as heroes and their heroic efforts are still recognized as such today.
While a number of these stations have been destroyed or allowed to fall to ruins over time, several still remain today. Some have been or are being restored and a few are open for the public to enjoy. Others are in private hands and used for a number of purposes. Those that are remain stand as a tribute to those hero's who gave their lives to help save others.