“No branch of service has been in the business of saving lives longer than the Coast Guard … In the end, this remarkable institution is so special not because of its storied history – but because it is also so clearly indispensable to America’s future.” – President George H.W. Bush
Today’s U.S. Coast Guard did not come into existence under this name until January 1915, with the merger of the Revenue Cutter Service (1790) and the U.S. Life-Saving Service (1878). It then absorbed the Lighthouse Service (1789) in 1939 and, in 1946, the Maritime Service (which traced its origins back to the Steamboat Inspection Service, founded in 1838). Most of the components that eventually became the U.S. Coast Guard handled some aspect of lifesaving at sea, either peripherally through navigation aids or safety inspections or directly through (initially volunteer) services using equipment paid for by Congress to rescue shipwrecked mariners and passengers.
The unofficial motto of the Coast Guard of the era – “You have to go out, but you don’t have to come back!” – arose in 1899, stemming from a Life-Saving Service regulation that states, in part: “In attempting a rescue, [the Life-Saving Station keeper] will not desist from his efforts until by actual trial, the impossibility of effecting a rescue is demonstrated. The statement of the keeper that he did not try to use the boat because the sea or surf was too heavy will not be accepted, unless attempts to launch it were actually made and failed.”
In the past 224 years, the Coast Guard and its predecessor components have rescued more than 1.25 million people – although the official tally does not include 33,544 lives saved during Hurricane Katrina nor 138 during Hurricane Rita.
The first of the federally funded efforts began in 1848 with a series of unmanned lifesaving stations along the New Jersey coast, south of New York harbor, equipped with “surfboats, rockets, carronades, and other necessary apparatus for the better preservation of life and property from shipwrecks.” The Massachusetts Humane Society also received funds from Congress that year for similar facilities along the Massachusetts coastline.
The stations were managed by the U.S. Revenue Marine Service (which later became the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service), using volunteer crews, in a manner similar to volunteer fire departments ashore. The inadequacy of the equipment, crew training, and number of stations became apparent when the Category 3 Great Carolina Hurricane hit the Georgia coast in September 1854, sinking or severely damaging an untold number of boats and ships and leading to the deaths of a large number of sailors.
As a result, Congress appropriated funds to increase the number of lifesaving stations, update and improve their equipment, and hire full-time keepers for each station, plus two superintendents to manage the facilities. Despite their good intentions, by 1871, the stations again were inadequate and their equipment, according to an inspection report by Capt. John Faunce of the Revenue Marine Service, was rusted, some to the point of ruin. Newly appointed Revenue Marine Service Chief Sumner Kimball, who had ordered the inspection, convinced Congress to appropriate $200,000 (nearly $4 million in current dollars) to institute full-time six-man boatcrews at all stations and set out standards of performance regulations for them to meet.
In 1874, new stations were added along the East Coast, from Maine to North Carolina and at Port Aransas, Texas. The following year, additional stations were created to serve the Great Lakes and the House of Refuge in Florida. By 1878, that expanded network of lifesaving stations was formally organized into the Life-Saving Service, under the Treasury Department.
Three types of stations were created, according to the location and needs of the area.
Lifesaving stations initially were manned by full-time crews during those times of the year when wrecks were most likely due to weather – typically November to April along the East Coast. By 1900, however, the “active season” was expanded to cover the entire year. Because most of those stations were located in isolated areas without docks, the crewmen had to launch their boats from an open beach into the surf.