A visit to life-saving stations in Maryland and Delaware
When we visited the boardwalk at Ocean City, Md., we happened upon a life-saving station there. We visited that one and another in Lewes, Del.Life-saving stations were the predecessor to the U.S. Coast Guard, and from 1871 to 1915, there were seven on the Eastern shore of Delaware and others in Maryland.
The surfmen, as they were called, would go out at night and walk the beaches, their eyes peeled for shipwrecks.
The stations were kind of like our modern-day volunteer fire departments. They were staffed by farmers in the fall and winter, who worked after they got in their crops for the season.
All of the stations were slightly different from one another, but they all had the same equipment.
Each had sleeping quarters and each had a boat called a surf-boat, that was towed by the men using a wheeled trailer anywhere from 5 to 10 miles to the scene of the shipwreck.
The surfmen also used a device called a breeches buoy. They’d send the buoy out to the shipwreck, using a harpoon-like device called a lyle.
Then each sailor would be rescued, one at a time, by the surfmen, who pulled the buoy back to shore by a rope.
The process was exhausting for rescuer and victim alike, often in horrible weather conditions.
Another device the surfmen used was a smaller boat which resembled a miniature submarine and could hold probably three to four men.
These were crude methods, but they worked.
Over 44 years, the surfmen saved 175,000 lives.
At one time, the U.S. had 300 such life-saving stations, the majority of which were on the East Coast. A lot of the stations are long gone, but some have been turned into museums, themselves rescued by historical societies.