Frequently Asked Questions
About The United States Life-Saving ServiceQ. What was the U.S. Life-Saving Service?
A. The United States Life-Saving Service came into being between the years 1871
and 1878 after the U. S. Congress reluctantly realized that prior efforts with a largely volunteer service had been a failure. The purpose of the Service was to have a government supported system in place on the East Coast of the United States to aid mariners in distress at a time when most vessels were still powered by sail.
Q. Why did the service come into being during this time period?
A. Following the War Between The States there was an increase in coast-wise shipping along the Atlantic coast as reconstruction of the South commenced. This was also a time of rapid industrial growth in America necessitating the transport of industrial raw materials and finished goods by ship. It was also the era when there was increased immigration to the United States from Europe. All of these events focused the public eye on shipping disasters that occurred and the subsequent need for a rescue service. It has been observed that in the 20 years preceding the organization of the Service 512 lives were lost on the Coast of New Jersey and Long Island alone.
Q. Who was responsible for the establishment of a competent, government run, life-saving service?
A. On June 18, 1878 President Rutherford B. Hayes signed a bill enacted by congress that created the U. S. Life-Saving Service as a separate agency within the U. S. Treasury Department. Soon thereafter he nominated Sumner Increase Kimball to become the General Superintendent of the service. Kimball, a native of Maine, had been appointed to a position in the Treasury department years earlier by President Abraham Lincoln and had quickly established a reputation for competence and hard work. Following his appointment the Senate rapidly confirmed him. Kimball was the only Superintendent of the Life-Saving Service, serving from 1878 to 1914.
Q. How did Kimball organize the service?
A. Kimball astutely realized that lack of organization, competence, and discipline had been the downfall of prior life-saving efforts. He set out to create a quasi-military organization that would rectify past failures. Kimball produced a 45 page book entitled ?Regulations for the Government of the Life-Saving Service of the United States? that contained regulations for every aspect of the organization and operation of the service. So well done, it received only three revisions during the entire history of the Life-Saving Service.
Q. How did the service achieve its goal of being an effective aid to mariners?
A. In a time of limited communication resources Kimball's plan included the establishment of Life-Saving Stations approximately six to eight miles apart along the Atlantic coast of the U. S. These stations would be generally manned by a Keeper (Person in Charge) and six Surfmen who would drill and train so as to be available around-the-clock for maritime emergencies. However, the number of men composing a crew was determined by the number of oars needed to pull the largest boat at the station. This meant the crews ranged from six to eight, but by the turn of the century, some stations were staffed with at least ten men. The stations would house all equipment necessary to effect a rescue. In time this system of stations was extended to the Great Lakes and the West Coast of the U. S.
Q. Were there stations along the coast of Delmarva?
While not all were constructed at the same time, there were eventually nine stations on the Virginia coast, four stations on the Maryland coast, and six stations on the Delaware coast for a total of nineteen stations.
Q. How did this system of Life-Saving stations function?
A. The Keeper and the six Surfmen maintained a lookout watch during daylight hours from a watch tower constructed on the top of each station. The spacing of the stations allowed visual surveillance of the entire coast simultaneously during daylight hours. In the non-daylight hours surfmen took turns walking a beach patrol, one surfman going in each direction from each station. They walked the patrol looking for mariners in distress and were required to meet the fellow patrolman from the next station before returning to their home station. If trouble was found they quickly returned to the station and advised the Keeper of the circumstance. The Keeper then organized the crew for a rescue.
Q. What equipment was used for a rescue?
A. There were three basic methods of rescue: the Lyle Gun and Breeches Buoy, the Pulling Surfboat, and the Life-Car. A visit to the Ocean City Life-Saving Museum will allow visitors to see all of this equipment in a restored condition. For school or group tours every effort will be made to have personnel available to give explanations of each piece of equipment and the numerous visual displays. This is one of the few places in the United States where a complete set of equipment is available for viewing.
Q. What happened to the U. S. Life-Saving Service?
A. Primarily as an economic move, the U. S. Congress merged the U. S. Revenue Cutter Service with the U. S. Life-Saving Service to form the present day Coast Guard. The ?Act to Create the Coast Guard? was approved on January 20, 1915 thus ending the U. S. Life-Saving Service as a separate agency. However, many of the basic functions of the present-day Coast Guard remain similar to that of the old Life-Saving Service. The law which created the U.S. Coast Guard by combining the two services, also provided for the retirement of Kimball and many of the older keepers and surfmen. The U.S. Life-Saving Service performed nobly over its forty-four years of existence. During this period, 28,121 vessels and 178,741 persons became involved with its services. Only 1,455 individuals lost their lives while exposed within the scope of Life-Saving Service operations.
Q. What happened to the Life-Saving Stations and their equipment?
A. Advances in technology and communications eventually made the stations unnecessary and obsolete. The development of the helicopter especially changed the nature of rescue at sea. By the 1950's many of the stations were closed and much of the equipment destroyed. Only stations similar to Ocean City that were located in major population areas survived. Many stations were abandoned to vandals and the elements. The Ocean City station, when replaced by a modern Coast Guard Station, was used for many years by the Town of Ocean City and eventually moved to its current location to save it from demolition. There it has been restored and is maintained as a museum and monument to the many brave men who so competently served as life-savers.
Q. Is there a connection between the U. S. Life-Saving Service and the present day Beach Patrol?
A. Only indirectly; the present day Ocean City Beach Patrol (Lifeguards), was established in 1930 by the Town of Ocean City to protect bathers and swimmers who vacationed at the resort. As such, O.C.B.P. never had any connection to the Life-Saving Service. However, as a practical matter, the Life-Saving Service often served in the capacity of aiding swimmers in distress during the early days of the resort. Still today, the U. S. Coast Guard routinely assists the O.C.B.P. with difficult rescues. It should also be noted that the presence of a U.S. Life-Saving Station in a local community was always considered a positive consideration in their development as a seaside community. The men who manned the stations had to be of strong moral character as well as robust in strength. Many communities, such as Ocean City, Maryland, prospered partially because they could boast of having a Life-Saving Station.
Q. How may I take advantage of the educational services offered by the museum?
(This information was prepared by Thomas D. Wimbrow, a volunteer docent at the Museum and a retired educator. For additional written information Mr. Wimbrow recommends two books, That Others Might Live by Dennis L. Noble; Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland; 1994 and Shipwrecks and Rescues Along The Barrier Islands of Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia by George and Suzanne Hurley; The Donning Company, Norfolk/Virginia Beach, Virginia; 1984.)
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