The Life Savers: A story of the United States life-saving service

The Life Savers: A story of the United States life-saving service

James Otis
James Otis

Author: Otis, James, 1848-1912
Lifesaving — Juvenile fiction
United States. Life-Saving Service — History — Juvenile fiction
The Life Savers: A story of the United States life-saving service
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Frontispiece. THE LIFE SAVERS. Page 185



31 West Twenty-third Street
Copyright, 1899

The Knickerbocker Press, New York


I. Introductory 1
II. A Boy and a Dog 9
III. Benny’s Story 23
IV. On Patrol 40
V. From the “Amazonia” 60
VI. Routine Duty 80
VII. Saving Life 98
VIII. Fluff a Hero 115
IX. Official Permission 134
X. The Uniform 155
XI. The Stranded Steamer 172
XII. In the Surf 187
XIII. Number Eight 204
XIV. The Wreckers 222
XV. Lively Work 239
XVI. Cast Ashore 259
XVII. A Letter 278
XVIII. A Consultation 298
XIX. The Decision 313



The development of the American Life-Saving Service covers nearly a century.

“… The initiatory movement was the organization by a few benevolent persons of the Massachusetts Humane Society in 1786. In attempting to alleviate the miseries of shipwreck on the Massachusetts coast, small huts were built; and in 1807 the first life-boat station was established at Cohasset. The Society depended upon voluntary crews, but so much was accomplished of value that some pecuniary aid was received, as time wore on, from both State and general governments.
“The magnificent work of the Coast Survey, begun in earnest in 1832, absorbed the resources of Congress for a decade and a half, during which period nothing was attempted in the way of life-saving except through voluntary societies. A few public vessels were, indeed, authorized in 1837 to cruise near the coast for the assistance of shipping in distress, but it was through the movement in aid of commerce, which extended to the lighthouse system.
“In 1847, five thousand dollars were appropriated by Congress toward furnishing lighthouses on the Atlantic with the facilities for aiding shipwrecked mariners. The money, after remaining in the Treasury two years unused, was permitted to be expended by the Massachusetts society upon Cape Cod.
“In the summer of 1848, the Hon. William A. Newell, then a member of the House of Representatives from New Jersey, incited by some terrible shipwrecks on the coast of that State, induced Congress, through his eloquence, to appropriate ten thousand dollars for providing surf-boats and other appliances ‘for the protection of life and property from shipwreck on the coast between Sandy Hook and Little Egg Harbor.’ During the next session a still larger appropriation was obtained. Twenty-two station-houses were erected on the coasts of New Jersey and Long Island, and although no persons were paid or authorized to take charge of them, and they were manned by extemporized crews, their value in several cases of shipwreck was so great that Congress made further appropriations from year to year, and stations and life-boats gradually multiplied.
“Through the pressure of a shocking event in 1854—the loss of three hundred lives off the New Jersey coast—a local superintendent was employed, a keeper assigned to each station, and bonded custodians placed in charge of the life-boats, which had been repeatedly stolen; but the absence of drilled and disciplined crews, of general regulations, and of energetic central administration rendered the record of the institution unsatisfactory, and its benefits checkered by the saddest failures.
“In the year 1871, Sumner I. Kimball succeeded to the head of the Revenue Marine Bureau of the Treasury Department, under the charge of which were the life-saving stations. He made it his first business to ascertain their condition. Captain John Faunce was detailed to make a tour of inspection, and was accompanied a portion of the way by Mr. Kimball himself. The buildings were found neglected and dilapidated, the apparatus rusty or broken, portable articles had been carried off, the salaried keepers were often living at a distance from their posts, some of them too old for service, and others incompetent, and the volunteer crews were in a quarrelsome temper with each other and with the coast population.
“Then commenced that vigorous prosecution of reform which has crowned the humane work with unprecedented success. Making the most of slender appropriations, and in the face of perpetual discouragements, this one man, the chief of a bureau, pushed on by philanthropic impulses and guided by unerring judgment, brought a complete and orderly system into effect. It was not the work of a day, nor of a year. It required patience, sagacity, and rare powers of organization and government. He knew no office hours, working day and night at what many were pleased to consider a hopeless task. In his brain originated the idea of guarding the entire coasts of the nation through the planting of a chain of fortresses to be garrisoned by disciplined conquerors of the sea. It is a matter of public record, and generally known to the country, that through his practical devotion to the cause this has been so nearly accomplished.
“In reorganizing what there was of the Service, he prepared a code of regulations for its absolute control. The duties of every man employed were minutely defined. The lazy, the careless, and the unworthy were dismissed, and men chosen to fill their places with sole reference to integrity and professional fitness. Politics was abolished. That is, experts in the surf were regarded as of more consequence to drowning victims than voters of any particular political ticket. The station-houses were repaired, and increased in numbers as fast as the means afforded by Congress would allow; the appliances for life-saving were restored, and improved from year to year through the best inventions and discoveries in this or any other country, and a rigid system of inspection and of patrol was inaugurated….
“The record of the first season on the New York and New Jersey coasts, where the new system first went into actual operation, showed that every person imperiled by shipwreck was saved. Consequently a commission, consisting of Mr. Kimball, Captain Faunce, and Captain J. H. Merryman, of the Revenue Marine, surveyed in 1873, by order of Congress, the vast and varied coasts of the oceans and lakes, investigating personally the characteristics of the dangerous localities, and holding consultations with underwriters, shipowners, captains of vessels, and veteran surfmen. The report of this commission placed before Congress a minute account of the disasters to vessels on every mile of coast for the previous ten years; a bill based upon it, prepared by Mr. Kimball, became a law June 20, 1874. It provided for the extension of the field of this great national work of humanity; for the bestowal of medals of honor upon persons risking their lives to save others; and empowered the collection and tabulation of statistics of disaster to shipping, which, by reference to the periodicity of marine casualties, aided in determining the points most needing protection, and in various other ways benefited both government and maritime interests….
“The life-saving stations on the Atlantic seaboard are now within an average distance of five miles of each other, each crew consisting of a keeper and six surfmen. At sunset two men start from each station, one going to the right and the other to the left. They are equipped with lanterns and Coston signals, and each pursues his solitary and perilous way through the soft sand, in spite of flooding tides, bewildering snowfalls, overwhelming winds, and bitter cold….
“The night is divided into four watches. The keeper is required to register in his log-book the name of each patrolman, his hours on patrol, … the direction and force of the wind at sunrise, noon, sunset, and midnight, together with the events of each day. This record is sent to the chief of the Service at Washington at the end of every week….
“The stations consist of three classes, severally denominated life-saving stations, life-boat stations, and houses of refuge. Each of the twelve districts is provided with a local superintendent, who must be a resident of the district and familiarly acquainted with its inhabitants….
“The stations are visited frequently, and the men examined in the exercises of the apparatus drill, and obliged to give verbal reasons for every step in their operations. They are trained with their life-boats in the surf, in the use of the life-dress, in saving drowning persons by swimming to their relief, in the methods of restoring the partially drowned, and in signalling. When a wreck is attended with loss of life, a rigid examination follows to see if any of the men have been guilty of misconduct or neglect of duty. The keepers are empowered to protect the interests of the government from smuggling, and they guard all property that comes ashore from a wreck until its rightful owners appear. They are charged with the care and order of the stations, and the boats and apparatus; and they must keep accurate accounts of all receipts and expenditures, journalize all transactions, and maintain all necessary correspondence with superior officers. Thus it appears they must possess a certain amount of education and high integrity, as well as surfmanship, intrepidity, and commanding qualities….”—Harper’s Magazine, February, 1882.

At the close of the year 1894 the total number of stations in the Life-Saving Establishment was 247. Of this number, 182 were situated on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, 51 on the coasts of the Great Lakes, 13 on the Pacific Coast, and 1 at the Falls of the Ohio, Louisville, Kentucky. Their distribution by life-saving districts was as follows:

First District (coasts of Maine and New Hampshire) 12
Second District (coast of Massachusetts) 24
Third District (coasts of Rhode Island and Long Island) 39
Fourth District (coast of New Jersey) 41
Fifth District (coast from Cape Henlopen to Cape Charles) 17
Sixth District (coast from Cape Henry to Cape Fear River) 29
Seventh District (coasts of South Carolina, Georgia, and Eastern Florida) 12
Eighth District (Gulf Coast) 8
Ninth District (Lakes Erie and Ontario, including Louisville Station) 12
Tenth District (Lakes Huron and Superior) 15
Eleventh District (Lake Michigan) 25
Twelfth District (Pacific Coast) 13
Total 247

—Report of the United States Life-Saving Service.

Page 8


It was on the afternoon of December 23d, in the year 1893, that one of the life-saving crews in the First District was completely prepared for work, although neither vessel nor wreck was to be seen.
The wind was from the northeast and the driving sleet and snow shut out from view all that portion of the rocky coast save in the immediate vicinity of the station. During the afternoon the gale had increased in force until it was what a mariner would call “stiff”; the sea had risen with equal pace, and every indication confirmed the prediction made among the surfmen, that an ugly winter storm was at hand.
At such a time the gallant life-saving crews along the coast are ever ready for, and expecting, the signal which calls them to their perilous work; but not ordinarily do they stand by their apparatus as on this afternoon, for, fortunately, many a winter tempest fails in its harvest of death.
At noon on this day information was sent to the station that the patrol several miles down the coast had sighted a large ship so nearly inshore that, under the adverse condition of wind and sea, she could not tack, and there was not sufficient room to wear. Unless her course was speedily changed, so ran the information received,—and in the teeth of the fierce northeast tempest and the shoreward heaving of the tremendous sea that seemed impossible,—it was certain she must strike somewhere nearabout this particular station.
From the moment such information was received the patrol on the beach had been doubled, and, knowing full well how difficult it would be, under all the circumstances, for any craft to escape the perils to which it was said this ship was exposed, the crew were keenly on the alert for the first token of wreck.
At seven o’clock in the evening no further news of the vessel had been obtained; therefore the men whose mission it is to save life understood that the ship was still fighting against the gale, and knew full well every moment gained by her increased the chances of escape, even though it had seemed impossible she could weather the point.
Half an hour later Surfman Samuel Hardy, breathless and panting, literally burst his way into the station, as he cried:
“Joe Cushing has just lighted his signal!”
All members of life-saving crews carry, while patrolling the shore on the lookout for signs of danger to others, what is known as a “Coston signal,” an ingenious contrivance which can be lighted by concussion, and, therefore, may be displayed regardless of the weather.
No further information was necessary; the crew knew full well that the ship previously reported as being in peril, and which had made such a gallant fight against the elements, had at last been conquered.
Before Sam Hardy could take his station at the beach-wagon, in which is transported all the apparatus necessary for the work of the crew when a wreck is close inshore, Joseph Cushing arrived:
“She has struck just off the west spit!”
“Then it is the ship?” Keeper Thomas Downey asked; and before the question could be answered he gave in rapid succession the orders necessary for beginning the work of rescue.
“Open boat-room doors!”
“Man the beach-wagon!”
These commands were superfluous, for the crew, after long experience at such work, both during tempests when human life was to be saved, and at drill in fair weather, moved as if by instinct.
The last word had no more than been spoken before the heavy wagon rolled down the platform to the sand, every man fully aware of the fact that now had come the time when the span of many lives might be measured by seconds if they faltered or delayed.
From the official report is taken the following account of the disaster:

“It appears that the ship had been laboring heavily, the wind constantly heading her off after nightfall, and the master, although he kept up a stout heart, must have been well aware that he was constantly losing more and more of the narrow margin that lay between possible safety and inevitable destruction. Whatever misgivings the crew may have experienced, the survivor states that the first intimation they had of their immediate proximity to the shore was when they saw the breakers, and the captain, who was below at the moment, rushed on deck with the ominous outcry, ‘She has struck!’
“The boats were still on the bridge where they had been originally stowed for the voyage, their covers and lashings intact and the tackles unhooked, but Captain Clark instantly gave the order to clear them away, and, together with the men, set about the work. The ship lay with her starboard side to the waves, which the next instant lifted her farther shoreward and then fell crashing on board.
“The most of the sailors fled to the mizzen shrouds, but a few, more daring or desperate than the rest, still struggled to clear the boats.
“Another run of towering breakers was now about to leap on board, and the brave men were compelled to give over and quickly join their shipmates in the rigging. At this moment the red glare of the patrolman’s signal gleamed through the darkness, and a cheer broke forth from the shipwrecked men.
“Up to this time the master had found no difficulty in controlling the movements of the crew, who appear to have been able and obedient sailors; but now there was no longer any occasion for the exercise of authority, and in the dreadful situation it behooved every man to look out for himself.
“Within ten minutes from the flash of the signal the great iron hull parted amidships, and the mainmast toppled over, carrying with it the mizzen-topmast. The entire ship’s company, except the captain, were at this time in the mizzen-rigging, where they were able to hold on only a few minutes, when all were washed overboard together. The captain, when last seen was standing on the ladder at the quarter-deck, supporting himself with a hand on each rail.
“The beach-apparatus was on the ground and ready for service; but the ship was only now and then faintly visible, and there was little reason to believe the crew’s efforts would be of any avail.
“However, the gun was aimed as well as possible in the direct

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