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, there 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 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 original 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 called 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. They could assist a more significant 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 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 surfmen would securely fasten the other end 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 wade 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.
The Rise and Demise of the Largest Sailing Ships: Stories of the Six and Seven-Masted Coal Schooners of New England. In the early 1900s, New England shipbuilders constructed the world’s largest sailing ships amid social and political reforms. These giants were the ten original six-masted coal schooners and one colossal seven-masted vessel, built to carry massive quantities of coal and building supplies and measured longer than a football field! This book, balanced with plenty of color and vintage images, showcases the historical accounts that followed these mighty ships. Stories involve competitions, accidents, battling destructive storms, acts of heroism, and their final voyages.
My 300-page book, Lighthouses and Coastal Attractions of Southern New England: Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, provides memorable human interest stories from each of the 92 lighthouses, along with plenty of indoor and outdoor coastal attractions you can explore. There is also a Lighthouse History section in the beginning, to provide helpful information, as mentioned above, about lifesaving stations. These include whale-watching excursions, lighthouse tours, windjammer sailing tours, adventures, unique parks and museums, and even lighthouses you can stay overnight. You’ll also find plenty of stories of shipwrecks and rescues. Lighthouses and their nearby attractions are divided into regions for weekly and weekend explorers. You’ll also find plenty of stories of hauntings around lighthouses.
My 300-page book, Lighthouses and Coastal Attractions of Northern New England: New Hampshire, Maine, and Vermont provides unique human interest stories from each of the 76 lighthouses, with some lighthouse history in the beginning for historical info, like about lifesaving stations as mentioned above, along with plenty of indoor and outdoor coastal attractions you can explore, and tours. Lighthouses and their nearby attractions are divided into regions for weekly and weekend explorers. Attractions and tours also include whale watching tours, lighthouse tours, windjammer sailing tours and adventures, unique parks and museums, and lighthouses you can stay overnight. There are also stories of haunted lighthouses in these regions.
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