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History of The U.S. Life-Saving Service - IV
“The Book Says You Have To Go Out; It Don’t Say Nothing
About Coming Back.”
by Tom Wimbrow
October 2014

William D. O'Connor assisted Sumner Kimball in publishing the Annual Reports of the U.S. Life-Saving Service.
It is remarkable that the U.S. Life-Saving Service was able to recruit competent men to staff the stations established throughout the nation. Certainly they had little to offer by way of salary and benefits. In the beginning the salary was $1.33 per day and the required uniforms had to be purchased by the recruit. The job was not a full-time position for the Surfmen. Only the Keeper was employed on a year round basis. The rest of the crew was sent home without pay during the slack season which on the East coast was the summer months. The Service did not have a pension system; it was not until the establishment of the U.S. Coast Guard in 1915 that a retirement program was enacted.

One can only assume the appeal of a steady government paycheck, the camaraderie of station life, and the adrenaline rush that accompanied the job was sufficient to keep the stations fully manned. The employment procedure was rather straight forward: demonstrate U.S. citizenship, be at least 18 years of age but not over 45 years of age, be not less than 135 or more than 205 pounds, reside in the area to be served, and pass a physical examination to assure strength and fitness. Continued employment and promotion was determined by the performance of the individual on the job.

If those employed were not already aware at the time of employment, it was soon made abundantly clear through constant drill and training that the job entailed its share of danger with the subsequent sacred duty to serve mariners in distress regardless of personal cost. Many Lifesavers paraphrased the regulations with the somewhat sardonic statement, “The book says you have to go out; it don’t say nothing about coming back.”

To determine what the “Book” really said one must go to Kimball’s regulations. If we turn to Article VI, Section 252 entitled Action At Wrecks of the 1899 Regulations For The Government of the Life-Saving Service of the United States we are struck with the importance placed upon the actions to be taken at a rescue. There was little doubt that personal safety was secondary to a successful rescue and cowardice was a possible consequential accusation if Section 252 was not followed. Section 252 states; “In attempting a rescue the keeper will select either the boat, breeches buoy, or life car, as in his judgment is best suited to effectively cope with the existing conditions. If the device first selected fails after such trial as satisfies him that no further attempt with it is feasible, he will resort to one of the others, and if that fails, then to the remaining one, and he will not desist from his efforts until by actual trial the impossibility of effecting a rescue is demonstrated. The statement of the keeper that he did not try to use the boat because the sea or surf was too heavy will not be accepted unless attempts to launch it were actually made and failed, or unless the conformation of the coast – as bluffs, precipitous banks, etc. – is such as to unquestionably preclude the use of the boat.”

Often assistance rendered provided little exertion or excitement for the crew. It could be as simple as a local fisherman running aground in the bay behind the station or his losing a sail during a thunderstorm. Nonetheless, there were many times when the strength and fortitude of the station’s crew were put to the test. The best way to experience such circumstances is to turn to the pages of Kimball’s Annual Reports. At the time of organization in the 1870’s Sumner Kimball, a man wise in the ways of Washington politics, shrewdly appointed as his assistant a journalist by the name of William D. O’Connor. While O’Connor had little or no maritime experience he was an accomplished writer who could tell the story of the Life-Saving Service to an interested public and, more importantly, to Congress who held the purse strings. Each year, with the help of the U.S. Government Printing Office, Kimball and O’Connor published the Annual Report of the Operation of the United States Life-Saving Service. In the florid language of the Victorian era this tome not only held pages of statistics on the operations of the Service but also gleaned from the Wreck Reports of the various stations the most heroic rescues that had been accomplished during the past year. Kimball also used the Report as his “bully pulpit” to lobby for what he wished Congress to fund in the ensuing year. A copy of the Annual Report was placed in the hands of every member of Congress and was widely distributed to Public Libraries throughout the nation. In an age prior to electronic media, it soon became a much anticipated publication.

To experience a circumstance when the crew of a station surely earned their keep, we turn to the Annual Report for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1883. This document reported on the year that occurred five years after the founding of the Ocean City Life-Saving Station which had opened on December 25, 1878.

On January 10, 1883 a brutal and long lasting snow storm hit the Delmarva coast. In the vicinity of present day 90th Street in Ocean City, Md. the Sallie W. Kay of Somers Point, N.J., bound from Baltimore to Boston, with a cargo of coal, experienced trouble. The ship, with a crew of seven, was sailing into the chaos of snow at 6:15 a.m. The lookout on deck could see little beyond the bow of the vessel when suddenly she was brought hard and fast aground. All hands immediately came on deck and attempted to launch the yawl hanging at the stern, but seas were so severe it was quickly swept away. The crew soon took to the rigging, the latches were soon swept away, and the vessel filled with water. Everything happened so fast that there was no time to lower sails, a circumstance that only made the situation worse. The ship was fast being pounded to pieces on a bar 250 yards from shore. The crew soon ended up on the bowspirit and jib-boon, wrapping themselves in the sail as best they could. Unfortunately, all of this was occurring five and one-half miles north of the Ocean City Station, well beyond the normal reaches of the Surfman’s patrol from that station. In more normal conditions it might have been visible from the station watch tower and certainly would have been noticed by the patrolman but the fury of the storm precluded any immediate recognition of their dilemma.

On the beach near the site of the wreck, there was a solitary dwelling occupied by a fisherman and his family. In a lull in the storm the fisherman’s dwelling became visible to the crew of the Kay and simultaneously the fisherman’s young son also saw the vessel and informed his father. When the tide ebbed the fisherman sent his son down the beach to alert the crew at the Ocean City Station of the need for assistance, a trip dangerous in itself, especially for a small boy.

Conditions on the beach were so poor the north patrolman from the Ocean City Station had found it impossible to complete his assignment. The blinding snow had accumulated up to 20 inches and in places had drifted even higher. There were places where the ocean covered the beach hip-deep as it ran across to the bay. The 4:00 a.m. patrol was only able to walk a mile and one-half in two hours and eventually returned to the station.

In the meantime one of the crew on the vessel, a sturdy German named Anton, announced he was a strong enough swimmer to make it ashore and go for help. Against the wishes of the captain he stripped his boots and part of his clothing and went overboard. After struggling to reach the shore he was ultimately swept away by the surf and slowly receded from view.

To conclude the story it will be best to share the O’Connor narrative in the 1884 Report:

“As the forenoon wore on there was a temporary lull in the snowstorm and the horizons opened, so that by 11 o’clock one of the station crew caught sight of the distant schooner. The station was at once aroused to activity and Keeper West ordered out the apparatus. Realizing, however, the impossibility of hauling it by hand over such a beach, he dispatched a man for a pair of oxen, no horses being available. Owing to distance and the encumbered road there was some delay in bringing up the cattle, so that the start for the wreck with the load of apparatus could not be made until noon.

The journey…was terrible. The men buckled to with the oxen, tugging the landed mortar-cart, with it’s thousand pounds’ weight of apparatus, over the snow-clogged, torn, and flooded beach, and against the onset of the gale. Midway between the station and the wreck they met the little messenger toiling toward them and their anxiety to get to the scene of disaster rose to fever heat….Every muscle and sinew was now strained to renewed exertion, and, at length, at a quarter past 2, the party arrived in front of the vessel.

The men were dreadfully exhausted and paused a few moments to recover breath and strength…and it was but a little space before the mortar-cart was unloaded and the gun trained. At first shot the line flew over the foretopmast stay, and the bight slipped down within reach of the sailors….They were so numb and cramped with their long confinement upon the spar…with only the shelter of a drenched and frozen sail, that it was with some difficulty they could gather in the whipline….Before long the line was set up and the breeches buoy rigged on, and in half an hour…the six men were safely landed. Ten residents of Ocean City, including the local signal service operator, having heard the rumor of the disaster, had followed the life-saving crew to the scene of the action and rendered good service in hauling the sailors ashore.

The rescued men were in an almost dying condition, and no time was lost in setting out…to the station. The keeper and citizens took them in charge, while the crew loaded up the apparatus in the mortar-cart and followed after. It was with difficulty that the poor seamen could walk….Fortunately, the signal service operator, Mr. James Crawford, had come to the scene in his wagon, in which three men at a time were conveyed alternately, while those who walked in their turn were supported and helped forward by the keeper and citizens….Under the circumstances, the march with these cripples through the slush of sand and the snow drifts, was painful and slow, but it was indomitably maintained and ended at nearly 6 o’clock in the evening by arrival at the shelter of the station. The frozen garments of the sailors were stripped from them and exchanged for such dry clothes as the slender stores of the surfmen afforded, and by the aid of plentiful hot coffee and food, the poor men were before long restored and put to bed. They were kept under succor at the station for two days.

The first man from the wreck told the life-saving crew of the loss of the sailor Anton. Two days afterward his body was found tossing in the surf upon the beach sixteen miles below the scene of disaster….”

Indeed, this was one time when the men of the Ocean City Life-Saving Station earned their $1.33 daily wage and proved beyond the shadow of doubt their fortitude, courage, and bravery!

Next Time – The Conclusion: Part V “Nothing Lasts Forever”

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