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History Of The U.S. Life-Saving Service - II
The Volunteer Years Lead To The Kimball Years
by Tom Wimbrow
April 2014

Sumner Increase Kimball
Superintendent of the U.S. Life-Saving Service
When Congress finally agreed that the concept of a government sponsored service to aid mariners in distress was a valid one there were still many obstacles to be overcome before an efficient and effective organization was in place. The first funds authorized were primarily for the provision of boats and crude stations at a few critical areas along the coast. No provision was made to fund employment of manpower. There was still considerable trepidation at the federal level as to just how much involvement was appropriate. The times prior to the Civil War were filled with issues involving states rights and Congress was very cautious that they did not infringe upon those rights.

Some basic life-saving equipment was purchased with federal funds and placed in shelters at the most critical places along the coast. Volunteers were sought at the local level to use this equipment when the need arose and an individual was designated to be in charge. However, those appointed to this task, especially the individuals to be in charge, were often selected according to their politics rather than their knowledge and skill. Since there were no provisions for drill or practice or even instruction in the proper maintenance of the equipment, the incompetence and inefficiency of the system was immediately evident when an emergency arose. Not unexpectedly, equipment was allowed to rust and it was often misused or stolen. One town, for example, used the steel lifeboat provided them alternately as a trough for mixing mortar and as a tub for scalding hogs during hog butchering time.

Unfortunately, the Civil War intervened in the further development of any competent Life-Saving Service and no advancement of importance was attempted between 1861 and 1865. It was not until 1866 that Congressman Newell was able to convince Congress that something had to be done. Once reconstruction of the South began it was more obvious than ever that coastal shipping needed assistance. By 1870 the Secretary of the Treasury realized that he needed a reform-minded man to head the department’s Revenue Marine Bureau to commence the process to bring about changes that would better serve the interests of the maritime industry. Ultimately this would include the formation of the
U.S. Life-Saving Service.

As George S. Boutwell, the Secretary of the Treasury, looked about for someone equal to this task a thirty-six year old clerk in the treasury was brought to his attention. This gentleman, with the somewhat unusual name of Sumner Increase Kimball, had been appointed to the clerkship by President Abraham Lincoln in 1861. He was a native of Maine, a lawyer by profession, and had served briefly in the Maine Legislature. Kimball had quickly established himself as a loyal, competent, hardworking government servant who was obviously equal to the demanding task that lay ahead. When approached, Kimball agreed to accept the position of head of the Revenue Marine Bureau upon one condition: the secretary would stand by his new appointees decisions on reform since Kimball was fully aware that politicians would quickly wish to interfere in what he knew was necessary if a reputable operation was to be established. He was forthright in noting that both Boutwell and he would require an “uncommon display of backbone.” Only with unfailing backing could he put the bureau where it ought to be. Fortunately, Boutwell agreed to Kimball’s terms for acceptance of the job.

Capt. John Faunce, USRM
Two months after assuming his new responsibilities Kimball ordered Capt. John Faunce, USRM to do a complete inspection of all lifesaving facilities then in operation and report on the conditions he observed. The Captain's report in August, 1871 was dismal indeed. He found the number of so called stations inadequate, their conditions poor and filthy, and much evidence of lack of care and maintenance, some equipment missing or stolen. Those in charge were too old for the work, many simply incompetent, with politics having more influence that their ability to handle a boat.

As he was to do throughout his career, Kimball used his obvious competence, his administrative abilities, and in this case, Captain Faunce’s report to obtain a two-hundred thousand-dollar appropriation from Congress so he could begin his plan for a Life-Saving Service.

Armed with the appropriation, Kimball set out to show that the nation badly needed a federally controlled professional Life-Saving Service and that he was entirely capable of establishing such an organization. To aid him in his quest he selected an assistant, William D. O’Connor, who was a journalist by profession and whose skills could be used to convince Congress and the public that his cause was a worthy one. Over time Kimball shrewdly used O’Connor’s writing ability to attract public interest in the heroic services provided by the lifesavers and then to use such interest to persuade legislators to provide continuing funding.

It is not surprising once Kimball and O’Connor had attracted the interest of Congress and the general public, that legislation would finally be passed to aid their cause. On June 18,1878, President Rutherford B. Hayes signed a bill creating the U.S. Life-Saving Service as a separate agency within the Treasury Department. Soon thereafter Kimball was nominated to be the General Superintendent of the service and rapidly confirmed by the Senate. History was to prove Kimball to be the only General Superintendent in the history of the Service, serving from 1878 to 1915 when Congress did away with the Life-Saving Service by combining it with the U.S. Revenue Service to become what is today’s U.S. Coast Guard.

At this point it should be mentioned that one can be confused by noting the dates of construction of some of the early Life-Saving Stations. The period 1871 to 1878 was a time of flux for the service and there were stations constructed and manned before the act of 1878. One can only surmise that local pressure by politicians and citizens along with Kimball’s first efforts as head of the Revenue Marine caused these stations to appear prior to the enactment of official legislation. Two local examples are Green Run Inlet Station on Assateague Island, Md., built in 1875, and Indian River Station, Delaware, built in 1876.

Superintendent Kimball quickly began the process of weeding out any personnel, volunteer or otherwise, who were incompetent and imprinting the new system with his own ideas of system and order. He looked to the English for initial guidance since they had, for many years, been acknowledged for an efficient volunteer lifesaving service. However, not all they did was applicable for use in America due to the differences in coastal geography.

Once having been able to document the failures of the volunteer years, Kimball published a small 45 page manual entitled "Regulations for the Government of the Life-Saving Service of the United States". Every aspect of the organization and operational procedures were to be found in the little book. A tribute to Kimball's organizational ability is to note that only three revisions were made to the Regulations during the history of the U.S. Life-Saving Service and some of his basics are still to be found in the protocol of the present U. S. Coast Guard.

It is easy to comprehend the massive responsibility Kimball had accepted when one considers life in the 1870’s. It was a time before modern communication devices save for the recent invention of the telegraph, paved roads were non-existent, motorized vehicles did not exist, all vessels were powered manually or by sail or steam, electricity for the masses did not exist, the railroad system in America was still in its infancy, and horses, mules and oxen were the main means of power for moving loads over land. In addition most of the immediate coastline in America was uninhabited.

Kimball’s need to provide a continuous lifesaving network from Maine to Florida on the East Coast was a daunting task. (This was soon to be expanded to the Great Lakes and the West Coast of the U.S.) The system undertaken was ingenious although labor intensive. He proposed to construct Life-Saving Stations every 6 to 8 miles along the coast, place proven lifesaving apparatus at each station, and provide crews at each station who were proficient in using the equipment in maritime emergencies. These crews were to have the necessary intelligence, strength, training, and drill to perform their duties in a competent manner regardless of weather conditions. It would be a requirement that the crews maintain a constant lookout during the daylight hours and to walk patrols along the surfline during the hours of darkness in order that mariners in distress might be rendered assistance in a timely manner and lives and goods could be saved. If proper discipline and training were maintained the result would be an interlocking system of lifesaving that would stretch from Maine to Florida.

Next Time – Part III: Life at The Station

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