Fierce winter storms and shifting shoals gave birth to the "Graveyard of the Atlantic," where thousands of ships have foundered since record-keeping began in the 16th century.
Driven aground by hurricane-force winds and towering seas, the passengers and crews on these ships often had no recourse but to hope for someone to come to their aid. And come they did. Beginning late in the 18th century rescuers began patrolling the East Coast in search of such wrecks.
A measure of organization came to the live-saving crews in 1785 when a British doctor who had moved to Boston, Massachusetts, was able to form the Massachusetts Humane Society. Not to be confused with an animal rights group, the society was modeled after the British Royal Humane Society, a life-saving service.
Those who joined the society gave little thought to their own safety. Plunging into the pounding surf at all times of day and night and in all weather conditions, these live-savers instead were intent on lending aid to those in need. As many of the worst storms were spawned in fall and winter, these hardy souls often found themselves battling pelting rains and even snow in their life-saving efforts.
Whether they needed to respond by rowing their surfboats through towering breakers or deploying the "breeches buoy," a contraption used to remove passengers and crew from wrecks, these forerunners of today's U.S. Coast Guard followed one mantra: "They had to go out, but they did not have to come back."
And many did not come back, succumbing to the cold waters or accidents, as the following excerpt from The U.S. Life-Saving Service, Heroes, Rescues and Architecture of the Early Coast Guard attests:
The Monomoy Life-Saving Station crew on Cape Cod suffered "by far the worst calamity to the Life-Saving Service during many years, one unequaled by more than two or three in its history." On March 17, 1902, Monomoy Keeper Marshall N. Eldridge and six of his surfmen drowned while attempting the rescue of five seamen from the coal barge Wadena. A northeast gale was blowing and after a difficult pull the barge was reached and her crew were taken into the surfboat. Then as the barge's captain was coming aboard he fell from a rope and into the surfboat, breaking a thwart. The loss of a thwart, where surfmen sat and rowed, left the surfmen at a disadvantage in handling the boat. A second later, a big sea came up and swept into the surfboat. Even worse, at that moment the men from the barge "went into a considerable panic, which neither injunction or command could quell. They stood up, clung to the surfmen, crowded them out of their places at the thwarts ... (and made) the situation impossible."
Despite this madness, the Monomoy crew remained the professionals they were. They stayed calm and manfully rowed toward the station. But too many things were going wrong and when a huge wave hit, the surfboat capsized again. The surfmen right it yet again and again it capsized. "The water was bitter cold, and the foam of the breakers nearly suffocating." The merciless grey sea rolled the surfboat over and over. One by one, the surfmen and sailors "lost their hold and disappeared." Finally only one person remained alive, Seth L. Ellis, number one surfman at Monomoy station.
That the society was born on the East Coast should not be surprising. In this region stretching from New England to North Carolina storms spawned by hurricanes or winter gales drove ship after ship aground. One particularly brutal storm in 1850 grounded the Ayrshire just off the New Jersey coast and crews, relying on a "life car" -- essentially a cigar-shaped metal craft that was pulled through the waves by attached ropes and in which passengers would lie down -- managed to save more than 200 passengers.
In the early years the Massachusetts Humane Society erected small huts along the Massachusetts coastline to provide shelter for passengers and crew who managed to reach shore. Later these huts, which were stocked with food, kindling, and fuel, served as checkpoints for beach patrols. It was in 1807 when the first lifeboat was built for the society for use in rowing out to wrecks.
As the years went on more and more efforts were organized to provide life-saving responses, and in the 1878 the U.S. Life-Saving Service was formally created by Congress. Stations popped up all along the coast and eventually there were outposts on the Great Lakes, along the Gulf Coast, and along the Pacific Coast. By the time the USLSS gave way to the U.S. Coast Guard in 1915, there were 279 stations in operation and more than 177,000 lives had been saved.
During its height there were USLSS stations located where many national seashores and lakeshores now stand. There were stations at present-day Cape Cod National Seashore, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, Gateway National Recreation Area, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Gulf Islands National Seashore, and Point Reyes National Seashore.
Following the end of the USLSS, many of its stations were either torn down or turned over to private ownership. Indeed, the station built at Cahoon Hollow on today's Cape Cod National Seashore serves as a restaurant and club.
For a list of the remaining live-saving stations and their current use, check out this site.
If you ever find yourself on Cape Cod, squeeze in a trip to Provincetown where, on Race Point Beach, you can visit the Old Harbor Life-Saving Station. This facility originally stood at Nauset Beach at the Chatham Harbor entrance. It was moved to its present location in 1977 when it was threatened by shoreline erosion.
During the summer season Cape Cod rangers give weekly re-enactments of the breeches buoy drill. The drills usually are on Thursday evenings, but check the park newspaper for exact times.
Two great sources for more information on the U.S. Life-Saving Service are The U.S. Life-Saving Service, Heroes, Rescues and Architecture of the Early Coast Guard, by Ralph Shanks and Wick York, and They Had to Go Out...True Stories of America's Coastal Life-Savers, which is a collection of rescues chronicled in the Wreck and Rescue Journal.