Rescue Services That Evolved Into the Coast Guard:
This piece involves a little historic education in understanding the importance of the three rescue services that started at the beginning of our Nation’s history and eventually evolved into our current Coast Guard. These three early services were the Lighthouse, Revenue Cutter, and Life Saving Services. After all, if it wasn’t for these services in place, many of our ancestors might not have not been able to immigrate to this country safely, and shipping and trade would have been difficult to navigate through the many storms along the coast. These same types of services, although under different organizations, became prevalent in many other countries as well as expansion through trade and shipping continued from the late 18th century into the twentieth century.
The Lighthouse Service
New England has arguably the most dangerous coastline in the world. The first lighthouse, Boston Harbor lighthouse, in Massachusetts, was built in 1716. By the time the Constitution had become the law of the land in 1789, twelve lighthouses were already built in the United States. It was at this time that lighthouse control passed from the states to the federal government’s Treasury Department as the US Lighthouse Service.
As more lighthouses were established along the eastern coast, they were strategically placed to provide guidance and warn mariners of dangerous reefs, ledges, and shoals, and were used in guiding mariners into harbor and ports. Keepers and their assistants’ main duties were to maintain the lights at all costs. Their daily tasks involved, tending the wicks, fueling the tanks, polishing the brass, cleaning the soot of the lenses and prisms, and maintaining the rest of the tower and surrounding buildings. They would also become involved in many rescues that occurred at or very near the lighthouse. Their rescue equipment consisted of a rowboat or some type of lifeboat depending on the number of assistants the keeper had, and various lines and preservers for hauling survivors into the boat. There always had to be someone to keep an eye out at the lighthouse, especially during a storm to make sure the light did not go out, to guide mariners to safety.
Lightships were also used in the late 1800s as mobile floating lighthouses at dangerous locations, or in busy shipping channels where it was not possible to build a lighthouse.
The Revenue Cutter Service
New England is known as the birthplace of our current Coast Guard. Shortly after the Revolution, President Washington established the beginning of the Revenue Marine Service of ships in Newburyport, Massachusetts where the first revenue cutter was built. Today Newburyport is recognized as the birthplace of the Coast Guard. The Revenue Marine Service used its revenue cutters in times of war and for law enforcement in protecting our shores. It wasn’t until the 1830s that these fast vessels would be used for rescue purposes, mainly out in open waters off shore where lighthouse keepers were unable to help in reaching those wrecks. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, New England became a major commerce region for the shipping, fishing and whaling trades. More lighthouses were built along the east coast to accommodate the needs of these industries in providing guidance to warn mariners of dangerous reefs, ledges, and shoals. However, with New England’s surprising and often fierce storms, many shipwrecks still occurred.
During the Civil War, the Revenue Marine Service received its official designation as the Revenue Cutter Service. After the Civil War, smaller cutters were also built to patrol more closely to the coastline and were responsible for saving many lives from wrecks within harbors, or later as part of rescue coordination efforts with personnel from lighthouses and lifesaving stations. As traffic dramatically increased, which also included tourism after the Civil War, there came the need for lifesaving stations to be built along the shores within a few miles of lighthouses, and from one another.
The Life Saving Service
Where the lighthouse keepers and their assistants made rescues near the lighthouse where they were stationed, lifesaving stations covered a much more vast area and could assist a larger number of distressed survivors on a wreck near the shore. They were more mobile and were specifically trained in their ability to rescue survivors. 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.
Combining Lighthouse, Life Saving, and Revenue Cutter Services Into Our Current Coast Guard
The Revenue Cutter Service was initially involved in rescue efforts on those wrecks out in open waters, and then as part of coordinated rescue efforts with the Lighthouse and Life Saving Services. After the Civil War, there were three branches of marine rescue service that were established to aid those in distress. They were the Lighthouse Service, the Life Saving Service, and the Revenue Cutter Service. Both personnel of lighthouses and lifesaving stations were funded by and reported to the US Lighthouse Service. Many events involving maritime rescues occurred near our lighthouses, and it is how most of us remember. What is important is to understand is that the three branches were all involved in saving lives along the coast. By the late 1800s they began coordinated rescue efforts together in helping to increase chances of saving more lives. As they continued to aid stranded survivors individually and at times alongside one another, Congress finally combined the services into what we now know as the Coast Guard in 1915.
To those who serve or have served to protect our country, thank you!
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.