Sheboygan County, Wisconsin Genealogy & History

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Lifesaving Service on the Great Lakes

By Bill Wangemann,City of Sheboygan Historian, 1995

The Lifesaving service can trace its ancestry back to the year l789 when Congress authorized the formation of a Revenue Cutter Service and a Lighthouse service. The Revenue Cutter Service did become involved in lifesaving although this was not their primary function. In 1878, the Lifesaving Service became a separate organization solely for the purpose of rescuing mariners in distress. In 1915, the Revenue Cutter Service and the Lifesaving Service were combined to form the United States Coast Guard as we know it today. Under President Franklin Roosevelt's reorganization plan, the Lighthouse Service was absorbed by the Coast Guard in 1939.

The Revenue Cutter Service, over the years, was involved in many daring exploits, but it was the Lifesaving Service that became involved, on a day-to-day basis, in uncommon heroics. The lifesaving Service did not arrive on the Great Lakes as a government-sponsored organization until 1878. Prior to that time, many cities along the lakes organized local lifesavers to aid mariners in distress.

Congress did appropriate $12,500 as early as 1854 for the purchase of lifeboats and equipment to be placed at 25 locations along Lake Michigan and other points on the Great lakes. The entire program was poorly organized. The crews that manned the boats had little or no training. Equipment was frequently abused or lost. The lifesaving stations that were set up were often in remote areas. Equipment was stolen, and buildings vandalized. When called upon to perform actual rescue work, the lifesavers were often ineffectual.

Appalling disasters on the Great Lakes and the seacoast created a storm of protest for better management of the lifesavers. It was decided to appoint supervisors to oversee the operations of lifesavers. These supervisors or keepers were paid $200 per year and, more often than not, were political appointments and had little or no knowledge of rescue work and seafaring. Many experienced surfmen to refused to work with them.

Congress took little interest in the problem until a series of maritime disasters again forced them to act. An investigation in 1874 concluded that permanent lifesaving stations manned by skilled surfmen and equipped with all the necessary equipment to effect a successful rescue were the answer to the problem. It was determined that it would cost an estimated $5,302 to equip and build a proper first-class lifesaving station. Other stations not quite so completely equipped, as most of the stations on the Great Lakes were, would cost about $4,790.

The Great Lakes were divided into areas. Area supervisors were to be paid $1000 per year. Station keepers would be paid $200 per year. Crews at the Class-One stations were to be paid no more than $40 per month. The second-class stations paid their mostly volunteer crews $10 per rescue only if lives were saved. The station keeper was required to live at the station at all times. The crewmen were required to do so only during the shipping season.

The Sheboygan lifesaving station was founded in 1877 and was located in the area of the present Reiss Coal docks just south of today's Coast Guard Station.

The new system worked so well that the Lifesaving service was created as a separate organization and placed under the jurisdiction of the Department of Treasury by President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1878. Many a Great Lakes seaman owed his life to a heroic rescue by these brave surfmen.

During one rescue, as the lifesavers headed out into a howling gale to aid a foundering vessel, a bystander on the dock yelled, "You will never make it back!" The station keeper at the tiller of his small surfboat replied, "The book only says we have to go out. It don't say nothing about coming back!" This statement more than anything typifies the attitude of these brave and determined men who were the forerunners of the United States Coast Guard. That tradition and dedication to duty remain to this day. The last chapter of this thrilling saga has yet to be written.

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