Lighthouse History: Lifesaving Stations Around Lighthouses
Lifesaving Stations Were Built to Assist in Rescues with Their Trained Surfmen
As shipping, tourism, fishing and whaling traffic dramatically increased after the Civil War, their came the need for lifesaving stations to be built along the shores within a few miles of lighthouses. They could provide a broader area range in rescuing stranded survivors from the many shipwrecks that occurred throughout New England. This idea of having shore-based stations began with trained volunteer services set up by the Massachusetts Humane Society and spread to each state’s Humane Society. The early stations were originally sheds built for equipment. Congress established the US Life Saving Service in 1871, consisting of a keeper, or captain, and a trained crew of 6-8 men, with the necessary buildings to house these crews and their equipment. These lifesaving stations, also referred to as surf stations were built five to ten miles apart from a nearby lighthouse.
Where the lighthouse keepers and their assistants were only allowed to attempt rescues near the proximity of the lighthouse, lifesaving stations covered a much more vast area and could assist a larger number of distressed survivors on a wreck a distance from the shore. They were more mobile and their personnel were specifically trained in their ability to rescue survivors.
Their crew consisted of experienced local mariners and fishermen, mostly volunteers, to assist in training and rescue efforts when the New England weather was the most dangerous from Autumn through Spring. These men were called “surfmen” as they got their name from launching heavy lifeboats into the thunderous surf. Their daily routines consisted of drills in using the lifesaving equipment on the beach or rocks, and shooting a small cannon called a lyle gun at a practice pole as if it were a ship’s mast. They would go out on daily shore patrols covering over five miles from either side of the station to keep an eye out for stranded wrecks.
Surfmen used an extremely heavy lifeboat pulled on a cart either by horse, or by the men themselves, to a site near the wreck where it could be safely launched into the surf along the shore in any kind of weather. If a ship wrecked too close to shore to use the lifeboats safely, the surfmen would use a nearly 200-pound small cannon like gun, called a lyle gun, which when fired, would send a line out to the wreck up to 800 yards. The stranded sailors would secure the line to the wreck, and then the other end would be securely fastened by the surfmen to a sturdy high post, boat, or rock along the shore. The survivors would then hold onto the line to try to guide themselves to shore with the help of their rescuers.
In a perilous rescue attempt, if a lyle gun could not be used, the surfmen would have to resolve to wading into the dangerous surf and use a heaving stick to try to get a line aboard the ship. One of their other pieces of equipment was a breeches buoy, which looked like a life preserver with canvas pants attached to catch the survivor so he or she could be towed ashore.
The unofficial motto of the surfmen was that “you had to go out, but you did not have to come back.” Many surfmen risked their lives to save shipwrecked victims, and some received Lifesaving Medals from the Government for performing their duties under extreme conditions, or from the Humane Society itself. They were the most trained and experienced boaters and performed their duties at great risk to their own lives. Lifesaving stations were part of the US Lighthouse Service.
My 300-page book, Lighthouses and Coastal Attractions of Southern New England: Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, provides special human interest stories from each of the 92 lighthouses, along with plenty of indoor and outdoor coastal attractions you can explore. These include whale watching excursions, lighthouse tours, windjammer sailing tours and adventures, special parks and museums, and lighthouses you can stay overnight. You’ll also find plenty of stories of haunted lighthouses. Lighthouses and their nearby attractions are divided into regions for all you weekly and weekend explorers.
You’ll find this story and many others in my book New England Lighthouses: Famous Shipwrecks, Rescues, and Other Tales. The book also contains, along with my photographs, vintage images provided by the Coast Guard and various organizations, and paintings by six famous artists of the Coast Guard.
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