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Setting the Stage


The sea has played an important role in transportation and commerce throughout our nation's history. An unfortunate consequence of the nation's dependence on water transportation in the 18th and 19th centuries was the death of sailors and passengers due to shipwrecks. In the late 18th century, the new Federal Government established agencies which had some influence on the safety of ocean travel, ships, and their cargoes. The U.S. Lighthouse Service, established in 1789, provided beacons to warn sailors about nearby dangers such as shallow seacoast waters filled with sandbars and rocky seabeds. The U.S. Revenue Marine, later called the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, was established in 1790 to help prevent smuggling and enforce the collection of customs duties. This organization eventually became responsible for sea rescues.¹

The seamen of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, lighthouse keepers, and local volunteers did their best to alert ships to danger, but an untold number of lives were lost in shipwrecks before 1844, when Congress set aside funds for lifesaving efforts. In 1848, Congress appropriated $10,000 to buy surfboats and other equipment to help ships in trouble along the New Jersey coast, an area that witnessed many wrecks as ships approached New York City harbor. At this time eight small lifesaving stations were ordered built on the New Jersey coast.

Public interest grew, and by 1854 there were 137 lifesaving stations along American coasts. However, all were manned only by community volunteers due to limited funding. During the winter of 1870-71, several severe storms in the Great Lakes region and on the East Coast caused great loss of life. These deaths once again called attention to the inadequacies of the lifesaving system.² In 1871 Congress created the United States Lifesaving Service (U.S.L.S.S.) which finally employed full-time professional lifesaving crews.

¹Dennis Noble, That Others Might Live: The U.S. Life-Saving Service, 1878-1915 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1994), 150.
²Ibid., 24.

 

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