US Life-Saving Service at Takanassee Lake
Revered as heroes of the Atlantic Coast — members of the United States Life-Saving Service had a code: “you have to go out, but nothing says you have to come back.” Talk about hard work?
Their deeds of valor were remembered in story and song back then, but today’s society has forgotten about the amazing bravery and dedication of these men who risked all to save others. Today, we know them as the United States Coast Guard.
As with many things Long Branch historic, the service has a fascinating story — melding the best of people and place. The first life-saving station in Long Ranch — unofficial and all-volunteer back then — was a tiny cabin built on the beach. Probably in 1855 in the West End section near Takanassee Lake. Charles H. Green was appointed the first “Station Keeper” the next year; he’d be there until his death in 1871.
When the Green family gave permission for the service to operate on sturdier ground, a larger new station was constructed. This 1875-type station probably opened before 1880 — when Long Branch was at its peak draw as a summer resort. Officially it was #5 at Takanassee Lake. According to the May 1903 Asbury Journal, work on two new stations (one a Port Huron-type) and a boathouse were then underway. Built for $15,000, they replaced the “humble quarters build more than a quarter century ago.”
Captain Asher Wardell, who served as “Station Keeper” from 1894 to 1904, was reported to be “elated” with the project. A Long Branch native, Wardell had served in the Civil War — enlisting in the Union’s 1st New Jersey Cavalry as a teen and rising to sergeant. He died in June 1905 and Captain William Van Brunt became Keeper. The last Long Branch top surfman, until 1915, he died December 1954. A neat thing about the Takanassee rescue complex was the variety and number of its structures — at least five different homes over the years.
“Courage is its own reward.”
In January 1915, the service was incorporated into the United States Coast Guard, including the 5-acre+ Takanassee grounds. Despite a glowing June 1937 Long Branch Daily Record editorial — “cradled in our very midst, the USCG has matured under our very noses into a full-fledged unit of national service and we should be doubly proud of it,” the station went “inactive” the following year and used only for “look-out service.”
In 1924 the Peters family re-acquired the property and by June 1932 the Takanassee Beach Club was operating. During peak summer seasons club members enjoyed 600-feet of beachfront, spread over 5 acres of property, set among several historic buildings. For nearly 80 years, the family ran the beach club from beginning to end. Rhoda “Ginny” Peters was a Long Branch fixture there for countless summers. All descend to James Green, the original land owner, who started things in 1764 when he bought 360-acres in the area.
In 2008 developer Isaac Chera acquired the property for $17 million. In May 2012, the 1878 and 1904 structures were purchased privately and moved to a nearby location. The remaining boathouse, damaged by a 2011 fire, was completely destroyed by Hurricane Sandy a year later, according to the WhalePond Brook Watershed Association.
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Using equipment like the beach-apparatus cart, lifeboats, Lyle Gun and breeches buoy, 19th century life-saving crews risked their lives in epic maritime rescues. And they were busy! According to US Representative William A. Newell (R-NJ), who wrote the federal law creating a lifesaving service in August 1848, there were more than 120 shipwrecks just along the Jersey Shore from 1846 to 1848.
Congressman Newell, who represented the shore area from Sandy Hook to Little Egg Harbor, had witnessed a deadly shipwreck himself in 1939, shortly after his graduation from the University of Pennsylvania Medical School. During this summer storm he had watched helplessly from the beach (300 yards away) as the Count Teresto was wrecked and all hands aboard were lost. Seeing the dead bodies washed ashore had a profound impact him.
An accomplished man — physician, NJ governor, and friend of President Abraham Lincoln — Newell later became the superintendent of the US Life-Saving Association, NJ District (more on him — HERE).
An informal life-saving service was organized after the infamous wreck of the New Era off Asbury Park in November 1854; nearly 300 German immigrants drown in that nor’easter. In the ensuing years life-saving service included several small huts right on the beach and crews who patrolled the beaches day and night and in all weather.
In 1871, the service was reorganized and the first station was built on Sandy Hook and then one every five miles down the coast. In June 1878, the US Life Saving Service was officially formed. New Jersey had the most stations (41). In the beginning, Keepers were paid $700 per year and surfmen earned $40 per month. Seven-men crews lived and worked at the station. They were required to drill regularly, maintain the equipment, and patrol the beach at least three times a night. “Surfmen,” as they were known, would patrol until they met up with another surfman and exchanged brass tokens (called “checks”) as a verification. It wasn’t until late 1891 that the NJ stations could communicate with each other by wire.
The life-saving service would be the first American governmental unit to adopt anything near “civil service” regulations. In 1882 a law was passed removing politics from hiring considerations and placing fitness for the job as the main qualification. By 1886, the federal government was in charge and agreed to man all the stations and pay the crews. Their true measure of heroic performance is amazing — from 1871 to 1914, the US Life-Saving Service aided 28,121 vessels, rescued or aided 178,741 persons, and lost only 1,455 casualties. That’s some real “life-saving.”
After the Marconi wireless telegraph invention and more reliable steamships, shipwrecks were less common. Still, for 60 years, the US Life Saving Station shaped the history of the state’s coastline.