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History of The U.S. Life-Saving Service - Part V
Nothing Lasts Forever
by Tom Wimbrow
January 2015

Joshua James, legendary lifesaver, died on active duty at age seventy-four.
Collection of U.S. Coast Guard
With the arrival of the Twentieth Century, considerable change was evident throughout the United States. The Transcontinental Railroad had been a reality long enough to greatly alter the manner in which goods and people were transported; indeed, the government had become concerned that rail transportation was in danger of becoming a monopoly causing economic harm to the farmers and small businessmen of the nation. The Western frontier no longer existed; the nation was inhabited from sea to sea.

Other changes that more directly affected the U.S. Life-Saving Service were also in evidence. Ships were increasingly powered by steam and small vessels were experimenting with the new technology of internal combustion. This meant that vessels propelled by wind and sail were on the decline. It should also be noted that aides to navigation had improved. In 1852 the United States had 333 lighthouses on its coasts. By 1913 the number had increased to 1462. Within those lighthouses the technology for providing the light had vastly improved. Kerosene had replaced whale oil and soon electricity would replace kerosene.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Life-Saving Service was still employing the technology of the 1870’s. No longer was it necessary for ships to hug the coast, navigating by visual landmarks. It was now possible to safely cruise out of the sight of land. This meant tower watches during daylight and beach patrols during darkness had a lessened impact on saving lives. Equally, it was becoming obvious that the Lyle Gun with a range of 300 to 400 yards and oar-powered surfboats were no longer an effective means for saving lives during periods of maritime distress.

There was another less obvious concern. Despite his best efforts, Sumner Kimball had been unable to convince Congress of the need for a pension system for the lifesavers. The pay had never been good and the lack of a pension system in old age was becoming a deterrent to the future of the Service. Those still willing to serve hung on with the fading hope that Congress would finally come to its senses and establish a pension system. Someone once noted that by 1915 stations were overseen by Keepers in their seventies with the backbreaking work of rescues carried out by Surfmen in their sixties. It was increasingly evident that change was forthcoming.

Concurrent with the realities of change, brought forth by national growth, there were vast changes in the manufacturing capabilities of American industry. It was the age of the “Robber Barons”, a time when the government assumed a laissez faire attitude toward regulation of commerce and avoided dealing with issues that developed as a result. Monopolies, especially in the rail system, were increasingly an issue and this was to indirectly affect the future of the U.S. Life-Saving Service. President Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) was the first to struggle with the need to bring more regulation to American commerce and his successor, William Howard Taft (1909-1913), continued to grapple with a reluctant Congress on the issue of regulating the excesses of free enterprise. Out of this turmoil came a reform movement referred as the “Progressive Movement”. The Progressives not only wished to see reform in industry, but also wanted a more democratic government that was more efficient and more responsive to the needs of all the people. Legislation enacted by congress in 1910 and 1911 resulted in President Taft appointing a commission to find ways to improve the economy and efficiency of the federal government. Soon to be known as the “Taft Commission”, this group was empowered to begin the process of streamlining government. This was to eventually lead to the demise of the U.S. Life-Saving Service.

The work of the Taft Commission was to directly affect the Treasury Department by calling to scrutiny four entities that were of great interest to Treasury. These were the U.S. Life-Saving Service, the Steamboat Inspection Service, the U.S. Lighthouse Service, and, most complex of all, the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service. All had originally been a part of the Treasury Department; however, the U.S. Lighthouse Service and the Steamboat Inspection Service had been transferred to the Commerce Department a number of years earlier. Ironically, the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service had a pension system. After much debate, in an effort to eliminate duplication of effort and streamline operations, the Commission recommended the duties of the U.S. Life-Saving Service and the U.S. Lighthouse Service be combined and placed in the Commerce Department, with a savings of $150,000.

This recommendation did not sit well with Kimball and his associates. They issued a minority report in which they pointed out the duties of the two establishments were, in fact, quite different. While both services were often located near each other and both organizations helped mariners, that was where the similarities ended. They noted lighthouses were “fixed agencies requiring the constant, undivided, and vigilant attention of their keepers and crews on the spot”. Life-Saving Stations, on the other hand, were “merely the headquarters of the crews, whose duties require them to go wherever their services may be needed at wrecks and also to patrol the beaches and maintain watches for the early discovery of wrecks and the hastening of relief.” It was also noted that Lighthouse Keepers did not need small boat-handling skills in order to do their job.The Commission also noted that the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service no longer performed any duty that could not be performed equally well by some existing service.

Space does not permit a detailed examination of all the political wrangling that ensued following the release of the Taft Commission report. Numerous alternatives were put forth with a number of Departments lobbying for outcomes that would protect their turf. Before the issue was finally settled, Taft was no longer in office and Woodrow Wilson was president. Eventually, it was agreed that a plan be developed and implemented to recommend Congress combine the Revenue Cutter Service and the Life-Saving Service into one unit, under the Treasury Department, to be named the U.S. Coast Guard. Most likely Kimball agreed to this resolution, at least in part, because of the existence of a Pension System in the Revenue Cutter Service that would automatically accrue to his men.

A bill to create the U.S. Coast Guard was finally introduced in the House of Representatives and was steered through the House by Representative William C. Adamson of Georgia. The Act to Create the Coast Guard was approved on January 20, 1915 with 212 yeas and 79 nays. It should be noted some of the nays were entered by Congressmen still expressing a reluctance to extending retirement benefits to U.S. Life-Saving personnel!

In 1915 Sumner Kimball was 81 years old and had served as Superintendent of the Life-Saving Service for 44 years. At this point, with pension secure, he submitted his retirement request but he was not yet finished with his connection to the Life-Saving Service. In May, 1915 he was appointed president of the Board on Life Saving Apparatus, a position he held until his death in 1923.

While many of the traditions of the U.S. Life-Saving Service remain evident in the present day Coast Guard, the men who helped establish these proud traditions have all faded into history along with their leader Sumner Increase Kimball. The majority of the American public know little of Kimball or the thousands of men who risked life and limb to save the lives and property of others. For the most part they did not seek notoriety; rather they looked upon their life at the station as a means to use the skills they possessed to provide for their needs and the needs of their families. Nonetheless, it seems fitting as we close this brief history of the U.S. Life-Saving Service, and celebrate the one-hundredth anniversary of the founding of the U.S. Coast Guard, that we pay tribute to these stoic, often heroic, men with the words of the great English poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson. We can have confidence these words best expressed their feelings as they looked back through the eyes of old age on the life they had lived:

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark.
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.

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