Wednesday, July 29, 2009
United States Life-Saving Service
In 1766 the Scow "Nancy" was lost along the Cape May coastline in a violent gale. Witnesses watched in horror as twenty-three souls lost their lives. The Jersey Shore was littered with shipwrecks; some caused by storms and accidents and many caused intentionally by wreckers. An old trick was to hang a lantern from a mule's neck and to walk the beast back and forth along the shoreline on a dark, stormy night. An unfortunate captain who lost his bearings would think the light was from another vessel, a safe distance from shore, and would suddenly find his vessel snagged on a deadly shoal. " Pickens " filled many a seaside homestead or inn, and there were even reports of locals refusing to provide assistance, and rifling through bodies as they came to rest on the beach.
In one nasty two month period- Dec 1826 to January 1827 - two hundred wrecks took place along Absecon Island ( now Atlantic City. ) Lighthouses helped but more was needed. In 1848 New Jersey had the honor of being the first state to appropriate funds for surf boats, rockets, and other lifesaving apparatus to save life and property.
William Newell, a congressman and later governor of New Jersey, is credited with these appropriations and other lifesaving initiatives. He was responsible for improvements on the breeches buoy, which came to national attention during an event in 1850. A brig, Ayrshire, out of Scotland was wrecked off the wild shores of Absecon Island. More than two hundred Irish and British immigrants were aboard the ship in search of the American Dream, and had it not been for Newell's contraption they would have all gone to the bottom of the frigid Atlantic. A group of dedicated local fisherman carried a cannon-like device that fired a ball tethered to line that was then attached to the sinking vessel. A closed car was attached by a set of sturdy rings to the line, and over two days all but one of the passengers were saved.
The United States Life-Saving Service was formed in New Jersey from a group of battered huts along the windswept, desolate shores. An article in Harper's Weekly in 1884 mentioned Long Branch and how the summer visitors were unaware of the small, standardized stations and their fearless crews who faced hardship and danger from September to May. By the time the article was published, the coast of the United States was dotted with the stations, and loss of life in wrecks had been reduced by 75 percent. New Jersey had forty stations along its coast. The United States Life-Saving Service, forgotten now by most Americans, was absorbed into the United States Coast Guard at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Pictured here are two images. One shows a fearless crews launching their surf boat at the scene of a wreck. The other is the station at Deal, NJ. While the stations were supposed to be standardized, the wealthier communities wanted their Life-Saving Stations to reflect their affluence.
Emil R. Salvini