Many of these ships were cast ashore along the coast of Long Island, The fate of these ships and
their cargo was often sad. The fate of the passengers and crew was all too frequently tragic.
Within the coastal towns, the populace received these horrible wrecks with mixed emotions. At
times, a useful or exotic cargo floated to shore from these ships. However, with these cargos came
the sorrowful task of dealing with bodies washed ashore and the sight of humanity suffering a cruel
and harrowing death on the seas. A life saving service was truly needed and eventually came into
In 1790, the Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton dealt with the vast resources of
salvageable cargo from shipwrecks by establishing the Revenue Cutter Service. However, this
service provided for the shipping trade and their problems without special regard for the victims of
these wrecks. The public was increasingly aware of the tragedies of lost lives. After too many lives
were claimed by freezing water and pounding waves, Congress responded to public outcry in 1837 by
directing patrols along the coast and assuring more awareness of the plight of victims of ships in
distress. In 1848, the first life saving station was established in the perilous area of Sandy Hook,
New Jersey. By 1849, the need for these stations was evident on Long Island and the Life Saving
Benevolent Association of New York was influential in establishing 10 stations here.
These 10 stations were located at Amagansett, Quogue, Moriches, Fisher’s Island, Eaton’s
Neck, Bridgehampton, Long Beach, Mastic, Barren Island and Fire Island. The stations immediately
improved conditions associated with traveling along the coast; however, their total effectiveness was
increased with time.
In 1854, Congress again approached the life saving situation and designated a $200 per year
salary for keepers at the life saving stations. There were more stations added at Fire Island in the
areas of Blue Point, Point 0’ Woods, Smith Point and Lone Hill.
By 1871, the lifesaving stations served a full and orderly function. The Revenue Marine
Bureau controlled the stations which consisted of a keeper with boatswains rank and six surfmen
who were ranked according to experience. The life Saving Service existed formally until 1915 when
the Coast Guard became the official coastal patrol.
The men who manned the life saving stations were called surf men. They were employed by
the civil service process and enough politics and salary entered into the picture to make the job
desirable. The crew consisted of six men at each station with local volunteers available. The
maximum age of service for the men was 45 years.
Neal Bullington, Assistant Chief Ranger for the Fire Island National Seashore, has an interest
in the Life Saving Stations. He has become a local expert on the subject. Bullington states that “it
was a government civil service job... and off season, most of the surfmen spent all of their life
working on the water. “Most of them, during the off season, were out clamming or oystering or
fishing or maybe guiding shooting parties to the wild water fowl.” Many of the surfmen were
experienced whalers, especially those from the South Fork. These surfmen were well acquainted
with the coastal peculiarities, the sand bars, the currents, the inlets and tides, and they used this
knowledge to aid ships in distress.
The stations themselves were small and many times in need of repairs. There was no plumbing
and inadequate heating. The station house was a two story structure with a lookout tower on the
roof. One section of the building was used as a boat room while other sections were utilized as a
mess area, storage space and office. On the second floor, there were sleeping quarters for the men
not on a patrol shift. A ramp led from the boat room to the beach and the station house was
painted red for easy visibility. The doors were all placed facing toward the leeward side of the shore
in order to facilitate their opening quickly and without difficulty in case of a strong wind.
There were other buildings located on the government site such as storage sheds and a barn to
shelter the horses that pulled the boat wagon. A pole was set up to simulate a mast or other rigging.
The surfmen practiced their life saving skills constantly.
Most of the time, the surfmen would occupy themselves by drilling, cleaning equipment or
patrolling. Much like a modern military operation or fire department, they practiced preventative
measures and drilling for actual emergency conditions. “They would live out there in the station all
through the wreck season which was from fall through spring, and they’d patrol the beach every
night and also during the day if the weather was bad and visibility was poor,” states Bullington.
”Many times, they were able to warn ships off before they actually hit the beach. In other cases,
they had to go to the rescue of ships that were already stranded.”
Throughout the years, the surf men acquired useful equipment for their lifesaving purposes.
This equipment was constantly being tested and improved. Basically, the men used small boats for
pushing through the waves to reach a ship in distress. When the surf was too rough, the men would
shoot a projectile to the ship for the stranded sailors to attach to the mast or other sound rigging.
Then some form of life car would use the line attached to the ship and shore to transport the
passengers and crew.
First of all, the small craft that cut through the surf was not a standard skiff or rowboat. The
boats were made of metal since the limited use of the boat and constant storage out of water caused
the wood to rot. The boats could accommodate a crew of 10 to 12 people. At one time, an experiment
was made using a boat that could not swamp and could right itself. However, the surfmen found this
craft to be too difficult to maneuver and too bulky to handle. No matter what modifications were
made throughout the years to improve these boats, more often than not, many of the shipwrecks
occurred in heavy surf where not even the best of craft could clear the waves. Once the use of
power boats became widespread, the hazards and near impossibility of crossing the surf line were
Projectiles were an important part of the lifesaving service. The most widespread projectile
used was the Lyle gun. David Lyle was a young Army officer in 1877 when he was assigned the task
of producing a rocket cannon that would safely and efficiently carry a line from the shore to a
stranded vessel Most cannons were bulky and stationary or not powerful enough when modified to
reach the vessels.
Lyle invented a gun that eventually became a bronze 185 pound cannon. The shot was 17
pounds and could be used with relative accuracy. A long, metal projectile was attached to a line that
was coiled perfectly within a wooden box placed next to the cannon. This shot line was projected to
the stranded vessel and would unravel without tangles. Also attached to the line were instructions
written in many languages. Basically, the instructions called for sailors aboard the vessel to attach
the line to the mast or any other firm rigging. Once the line was secured, a series of other lines and
pulleys were transported from shore to the ship. Finally, a life car would be sent for the passengers.
The proximity to shore often fooled people into believing that they did not need a life car. The
passengers or crew would be lulled by the closeness of the Fire Island beach, for instance, into
attempting to swim to shore. “The most dangerous thing that they could do would be to try to get
ashore by themselves,” explains Bullington. “From out on the shipwreck, they would be looking in
toward the beach over the tops of the waves and it would often appear deceptively calm and smooth
when in fact the surf would be quite rough.” Unfortunately, most of these people drowned before a
life saving vessel could reach them.
The final element in lifesaving was the life cars. A metal life car was invented in 1849 in which
the passenger or crew member would lie down inside the car for transportation to shore. However,
this car was often too slow and bulky. The breeches buoy was used more efficiently. This was a
modified round life saver attached to a line. The passenger would dangle somewhat appreciatively
above the sea. Of course, ‘women and children first’ applied to the use of any of this equipment.
Practicing with the surf boats, projectiles, breeches buoy and keeping the various lines clean and in
top working order was the weekly task of the surfmen. The men had to maintain the station house,
keeping it clean and orderly. They had to oversee the food items that provided a basic sustenance
for the shipwreck victims after rescue.
They took turns at the watch tower, on shore patrol and in the mess. If a vessel was sighted
off shore, the surf men would fire a red flare called a Coston flare to warn the ship away from
shore. The men would walk the patrol halfway from their own station to the next station. At the
halfway point, a small warming hut was provided for the two men who reached it during the patrol.
“Every week, they did the same thing on that day as they had clone on the previous week,” states
Bullington. “On Thursday, for example, they practiced beach rescue drill. On another day, they
practiced with the signal flags. On another day, they practiced first aid and lifesaving techniques for
rescued swimmers. It was like a military organization.”
The work was often exciting, frequently routine and constantly hazardous. The surf- men were
rewarded with good pay and the respect of their neighbors as well as the relentless gratitude of the
rescued shipwreck victims. Surfmen lived in relative isolation, especially in the seven Fire Island
stations which were cut off during the winter from the mainland. There were rumors that the
families of these surfmen frequently lived near the stations, perhaps even on the government
grounds. On Fire Island, a basic education was provided for the surfmen’s children. Worship and
other basic social amenities were also available.
The men hunted, grew vegetables, fished and lived very quiet lives with their families.
Supplies were limited to good weather runs and the elements made life rigorous too often and
isolated even in the best of times.
Tales of the surfmen’s bravery are recorded on public records and in history books such as the
respected source book of the Long Island shipwrecks, Jeannette Rattray’s Ship Ashore!. However,
there are times that the lifesavers distinguished themselves and reached beyond the call of duty.
In February of 1895, the three masted schooner, 163 foot Louis V. Place ran off course. She was
carrying 1,100 tons of coal and a crew of eight men. She was covered with ice and floundering
heavily in poor visibility. “There were eight men on board and before they could be rescued, six of
them died from exposure to the cold, froze to death in the riggings,” stated Bullington. “The other
two were brought ashore and one of them died in a couple of days. So, out of the eight, only one
man survived the wreck.”
The crew from the Lone Hill station was occupied on the frigid day with rescue operations for
the stranded John B. Manning. They managed to save the entire crew of the John B. Manning, but
were exhausted and frostbitten. Hours after returning to the station, the Louis V. Place was
sighted. She was over 300 yards from shore with extremely heavy seas and ice cakes coating the
beach, six to eight feet deep in spots There were two sailors hanging on the frozen rigging and the
surfmen battled to save these men.
Attempts were made to launch a life boat, but the heavy surf prevented them from leaving the
shore. Aboard the Louis Place, the sailors were too exhausted too scramble for the line shot to
them from the Lyle gun. For two nights, fires burned on the shore as rescue attempts were
unsuccessful. Finally, the crew managed to push a lifeboat through the ice to the vessel and the two
sailors were rescued, one surviving.
Today, the US Coast Guard performs the duties of the surfmen. Ships do not become stranded
quite as easily due to sonar, radar and excellent communication systems. However, the lone figure
patrolling the beach with gale wind, beating rain and isolation as companions is one who should be
revered as a hero in the pages of Long Island history books. He was needed for a special task at a
certain time and did not hesitate to answer the call.
First Published in Long Island Heritage