The United States Life Saving Service (USLSS)
Despite the numerous accomplishments and sometimes daring exploits of the U.S. Life Saving Service, little is known about this colorful group of men who started out as volunteers and then professionalized lifesaving on the oceans and on the Great Lakes.
It was in the centennial year of 1876 that life saving operations actually began on the Great Lakes with the U.S. Lifeboat Station Two Rivers opening on May 1, 1877. The station consisted of a Keeper who was in charge of all operations of the station and was required to reside at the station. The number of surfmen composing the crew was determined by the number of oars needed to pull the largest boat used at the station. Each man had a specific duty, with which he was required to be thoroughly familiar, for every type of drill the Service performed. The normal life of a surfman during the active season usually centered around drilling and becoming skilled in the use of his equipment and the regular upkeep required to keep the station and its equipment in good operating order. Each day except Sunday, the surfmen could be found drilling or cleaning. Some drills, especially the beach apparatus drill with its firing of the Lyle gun, drew large crowds of spectators.
The beach apparatus was regarded as one of the most important pieces of equipment the Service used. It was designed to rescue those shipwrecked within 600 yards of shore when rough seas precluded the launching of a boat. The main components of this apparatus were a small, bronze, cannon like gun (the Lyle gun), projectiles, small messenger line, large hawser ropes, a breeches buoy and other miscellaneous bits of equipment. The apparatus was mounted aboard a wagon or cart known as the beach cart, which was pulled by horses or by the surfmen themselves. During these drills, the keeper's target was a pole shaped like a ship's mast. After the messenger line was affixed to the mast by crewmen posing as shipwrecked mariners, they then drew out a hawser bent around a block (pulley) and lashed the block to the mast. The keeper and crew now had control of both ends of the hawser and could attach a breeches buoy, a ring-shaped float with a seat in it, to the hawser and send it out to the "ship" by pulling on one end of the hawser.
Crew could be taken from the ship by getting into the breeches buoy and letting the surfmen pull them to shore, repeating the process for each mariner to be rescued. So important was this drill that it was required for crews to practice twice each week. A crew was expected to perform the entire drill in five minutes or less. Another drill was to launch the surfboat, capsize it and right the boat in seconds. This was done to simulate the conditions that would likely face a crew rowing out in angry surf to rescue stranded mariners.
Two Rivers had a number of surfmen come from the ranks of commercial fishermen or commercial fishing families. A couple of LaFond boys, a Cayo and a Sanville boy joined the Service for a time. The best known example of a local lad becoming a surfman is Edward LeMere. He worked as a youth alongside his father Edward Sr. fishing from mackinaws.
In 1915, the Life Saving Service and Revenue Cutters became the "United States Coast Guard". In 1939, the Lighthouse Service became a part of the Coast Guard as well. Throughout her proud history, the Coast Guard has played vital roles in commerce, safety, war efforts, law enforcement and rescue. Today, under Homeland Security, the Guard has its most challenging and demanding role yet; as it protects and guards the security of the nation. Learn about the roles of the USCGC MACKINAW, USCGC ESCANABA and USCGC MESQUITE in war and peace.