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History Of The U.S. Life-Saving Service - I
Part I : Why Was The Life-Saving Service Needed?
by Tom Wimbrow
January 2014

Following the War of 1812 the United States experienced rapid growth as a nation. The manufacturing capability of the northern states was accelerating requiring movement of vast quantities of raw materials and finished products. Then, as is true now, the most economical means of transportation was by water. It was also the most expedient means of transport since passable roads were largely non-existent beyond the boundaries of the major manufacturing cities. Water transportation was almost exclusively by sailing vessel and those vessels that plied the east coast of the United States did so without the benefit of advance warning of foul weather and often without the provision of satisfactory navigational aides. Many captains means of navigation was by visual landmarks requiring that they never ventured out of sight of the coastline.

Today it is difficult for those who enjoy a vacation at the seashore to envision just how devoid of civilization the immediate Atlantic coast was at that time. Much of the shoreline from New York to Florida was without human habitation. Any mariner in distress along this stretch of the Atlantic coast was pretty much on his own. If the ship and its crew were plagued by bad weather or navigational mistakes that caused it to founder on one of the many barrier beaches the likelihood of survival was slim. The simple act of swimming from a vessel beached on a bar one hundred yards from the shore in a raging February snowstorm was heroic, if accomplished. If the seaman did manage to make it safely to the beach he found himself alone, cold, and wet on an uninhabited stretch of land that was often separated from the mainland by another body of water. Survival in such a circumstance was a miracle if it happened.

Aside from the dangers to human life there was the consideration for the value of the vessel and its cargo. Ships were launched as money-making ventures and ship-owners were not pleased when their investment was pounded to pieces on an isolated barrier island. Equally, the loss of the vessel’s cargo was of concern to all.

National growth in nineteenth century America was also to be found in the many persons who immigrated from Europe in the hope of improving their lot. Shiploads of emigrants became commonplace, most often headed for the port of New York, but also arriving in Philadelphia and Baltimore. Winter storms sometimes brought tragic consequences for these poor souls before they could land on the American shore. One only needs to look at the fate of the American bark Mexico as she approached New York Harbor from Liverpool, England on New Year’s Day, 1837. Aside from his crew, Captain Charles Winslow also held in his hands the lives of 112 seasick emigrants as he arrived off the New Jersey coast. Unfortunately, the vessel arrived on a Sunday when no pilot was available. To make matters worse, the wind was rising due to an approaching blizzard. Captain Winslow fought bravely to keep his ship in deep water until the storm passed but his efforts were unsuccessful. The Mexico slowly drifted ashore and struck heavily on the beach at 5:00 a.m. on January 2, 1837. All hands on board were lost.

The attention of the American public was directed to such losses as the fate of the Mexico and, just as today, the citizens asked their government what could be done. One of the first elected officials to atsitet a solution to the problem was Congressman William A. Newell of New Jersey’s Second Congressional District. Shortly after he was elected to Congress in 1847 he introduced a resolution calling for the House Committee on Commerce to investigate the possibility that the federal government might provide assistance to those in distress along the coast of his district. Initially his resolution did not pass, but he was eventually successful in gaining an appropriation of ten thousand dollars that could be used by the U.S. Revenue Marine of the Treasury Department’s Revenue Marine Bureau to begin some means of offering assistance. Here began the chain of events that ultimately resulted in the formation of the United States Life-Saving Service.

Things were to move slowly. Not everyone in Congress was convinced that the government should become involved in the Life-Saving business. Some persisted in the thought that such service essentially benefited shippers and manufacturers and, as a result, they should be the ones who should financially support any such venture. Nonetheless, loss of life continued to occur. On April 16, 1854 the emigrant packet Powhatten grounded near Beach Haven, New Jersey with a high loss of life. In November of that same year 230 lives aboard the vessel New Era were lost in the same area and Congress finally acted to authorize additional funds for what was to be essentially a volunteer Life-Saving Service. Events were soon to prove that a voluntary service was not the way to proceed.

Next time - Part II: The Volunteer Years Lead To The Kimball Years

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