The U.S. Life-Saving Service

Throwback Thursday: OBX Style

The U.S. Life-Saving Service

The Coastal Cottage Company announces a new feature on our blog: Throwback Thursdays! Each month, we hope you’ll enjoy stepping back into 400 years of Outer Banks’ history.  


Since the 16th century, over 3,000 ships have sunk off the coast of North Carolina, including early colonial ships and German U-boats from World War II.  This treacherous coastline, known as “The Graveyard of the Atlantic,” has certainly kept search and rescue teams busy.  At one time, 24 life-saving stations dotted the North Carolina coast and the surfmen of the U.S. Life-Saving Service (USLSS) were the region’s first responders.

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, the Outer Banks were sparsely populated, so ship crews in need of assistance were unlikely to receive any.  But, according to Dr. Dennis Noble, an increase in maritime trade made it necessary to establish search and rescue services along the eastern seaboard.  So in 1848, the U.S. federal government appropriated funds for rescue stations which were originally run like volunteer fire departments.

U.S. Life-Saving Service
Pea Island Life-Saving Station, 1917. Image courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard.

According to the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station Historic Site, the first USLSS crewmen were actually Postal Service employees with no real training in life-saving!  Consequently, early on, numerous lives were lost during rescues that might have been saved otherwise.  But by 1874, funds were provided to begin building Life-Saving Stations in North Carolina and train a larger crew of surfmen.

U.S. Life-Saving Service
Life Boat and First African American Crew. Image courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard.

The first stations were designed for practicality rather than aesthetics:

“They were made built of wood without much reference to architectural effect, but designed to withstand the tempest.”¹

The stations were constructed using a method called timber framing which was developed in the Northeast to endure the worst weather conditions.  In addition to sleeping quarters and a “day room,” these stations featured an open platform lookout tower and a flagstaff for signaling. 

U.S. Life-Saving Service
Kitty Hawk Life-Saving Station. Image courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard

After many daring rescues, the surfmen gained notoriety and were called “soldiers of the surf” and “storm warriors” by admiring journalists.²  So who were these courageous men?  Before entering the U.S. Life-Saving Service, most were fishermen or mariners.  They could be no older than forty-five and had to be physically fit and adept at rowing.  The number of men composing a crew was determined by the number of oars needed to pull the largest boat at the station, which typically ranged from six to eight.  During daylight, surfmen scanned the water from the lookout tower; while at night, or when the weather was poor, the surfmen performed beach patrols.

U.S. Life-Saving Service
Jesse Ward, Captain of the Kill Devil Hills Station, 1899. Image Courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard

But changes in maritime technology at the turn of the century meant life for the surfmen would change.  According to Dr. Dennis Noble, the development of steam-power and more reliable navigation technology meant ships were less likely to run ashore.  The U.S. Life-Saving Service was designed to bring in sailboats and was not equipped to rescue boats powered by steam and gasoline engines.  Thus, Congress decided in 1915 that it was time to combine the Life-Saving Service and Revenue Cutter Service and the U.S. Coast Guard was born.

During the 44 years the U.S. Life-Saving Service was in operation, 28,121 vessels and 178,741 persons used their services and only 1,455 individuals lost their lives.³  The U.S. Coast Guard is built upon the strong foundation established by the Life-Saving Service allowing current servicemen and women to “always be ready.”

An exhibit about the Coast Guard in North Carolina opened in March at the Outer Banks History Center in Manteo.  The exhibit, titled “A Heritage of Heroes,” tells the story of the Coast Guard through the decades and ways that North Carolinians have served.  The exhibit continues through December 31, 2015.

We hope you’ll stay tuned for the next installment of The Coastal Cottage Company’s “Throwback Thursday” to learn more about the Outer Banks’ rich heritage.


 Blog by Jessica T. Smith

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