The United States Life-Saving Service

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In 1871, the Federal Government formed the United States Life-Saving Service (USLSS) to operate primarily along the Atlantic coast. In 1874 when commercial shipping was booming in the Great Lakes, federal legislation expanded the USLSS to this region. In 1915, the USLSS merged with the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service to form the United States Coast Guard.

Life-Saving Stations Near Arcadia

In the Arcadia area, the nearest U. S. Life-Saving Service stations were in Manistee and Frankfort. The Manistee station was built in 1879. Construction began on the Frankfort station in 1886. When ships were in trouble in the Arcadia area, if there was time, life-saving crews were dispatched from one or both of these stations. These brave men saved lives by battling cold Lake Michigan surf in light boats to remove stranded crew from sinking ships.



What Crews Did in Emergencies

When a ship was in trouble, life-saving crews had several ways to help.

  • USLSS surfmen could ride out through the surf to the side of the ship in distress. They practiced this using lifeboats, lighter surfboats, or later motor-powered boats.
  • Depending on the size of the ship and conditions, USLSS surfmen might tow the ship back to shore or just remove the ship's crew.
  • When the water was just too rough to launch a boat, the USLSS used beach apparatus to set up lines used to rescue people. A Manby mortar or, after 1878, a Lyle gun could be used to fire a projectile with a line from shore. Using that line, they could set up a breeches buoy and remove a ship's crew one at a time. Later, instead of a breeches buoy, they used a rescue car, which was a partially covered boat that could haul several people at a time back to shore.
  • Surfmen were trained to resuscitate the "apparently drowned" using a simple but fairly effective form of artificial respiration.

U. S. Life-Saving Station, FRANKFORT, Mich.
This is a colorized postcard showing the station in Frankfort designed by Albert Bibb and constructed in 1886. This photo was probably taken prior to 1915, when the service was renamed U.S. Coast Guard. Note the crewman keeping watch on the roof walkway. 


Practice, Practice, Practice

A life-saving station crew was constantly practicing, learning each other's skills, and watching for trouble around the clock. For example, USLSS regulations required beach apparatus drills on Mondays and Thursdays, and lifeboat and surfboat practice were required on Tuesdays, weather and circumstances permitting. For all this practice and danger, the most senior member, the keeper, earned $800 per year in 1880 and $1,000 per year in 1912 not including uniforms.

Life-Saving Crew Practicing
This is a colorized postcard photo showing the keeper at the stern and six crewmen manning oars. A seventh crewman is keeping watch on the roof walkway. In 1911, the Frankfort station got a motorized lifeboat.


Practicing in the Surf
This is a photo showing a USLSS crew bringing a lifeboat to shore. Note the keeper on the left straining hard to control the ship and the crewman in the bow getting ready to reach the shore. Teamwork was key to saving lives.


Instructions to Mariners These are excerpts "Instructions to Mariners in Case of Shipwreck," published in the 1901 Annual Report of the USLSS.

"...All services are performed by the life-saving crews without other compensation than their wages from the Government, and they are strictly forbidden to solicit or receive rewards.

"Destitute seafarers are provided with food and lodgings at the nearest station by the Government as long as necessarily detained by the circumstance of shipwreck.

"The station crews patrol the beach from two to four miles each side of their stations four times between sunset and sunrise, and if the weather is foggy the patrol is continued through the day.

"Each patrolman carries Coston signals. Upon discovering a vessel standing into danger he ignites one of them, which emits a brilliant red flame of about two minutes' duration, to warn her off, or, should the vessel be ashore, to let the crew know that they are discovered and assistance is at hand.

"If the vessel is not discovered by the patrol immediately after striking, rockets or flare-up lights should be burned on board, or, if the weather be foggy, guns should be fired to attract attention, as the patrolman may be some distance away on the other part of his beat.

"Masters are particularly cautioned, if they should be driven ashore anywhere in the neighborhood of the stations, especially on any of the sandy coasts, where there is not much danger of vessels breaking up, to remain on board until assistance arrives, and under no circumstances should they attempt to land through the surf in their own boats until the last hope of assistance from the shore has vanished. Often when comparatively smooth at sea a dangerous surf is running, which is not perceptible three or four hundred yards offshore, and the surf, when viewed from a vessel, never appears so dangerous as it is. Many lives have unnecessarily been lost by the crews of stranded vessels being thus deceived and attempting to land in the ships' boats.

"The difficulties of rescue by operations from the shore are greatly increased when the anchors are let go after entering the breakers, as is frequently done, and the chances of saving life are correspondingly lessened."

Practicing on the Beach
A Lyle gun could fire an eighteen pound bullet-shaped projectile about 300 yards on a full charge of 8 ounces of black powder. The projectile had an eye at the back end to which a shot line was tied. Note the box on the left and the spindles just to its right (normally kept within the box). This is a faking box used to help the shot line play out without tangling. The intent was to send the line across a ship so that someone on the ship could grab the line and pull in a much heavier line. The heavier line could then be used to set up a breeches buoy or a life car used to bring people from the ship to the beach.

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