America’s Storm Warriors: MB Chapter
Remembering the U.S. Life-Saving Service
In the mid-1800s the long U.S. coastline — between Cape Cod and Cape Hatteras — had the most terrible record of shipwrecks. Of this region, the New Jersey shore was notoriously the worst, known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.”
A growing American population and demand for goods increased the need for shipping vessels, both American and European back then. Between 1880 and 1900, the coast off Monmouth Beach alone had 10 recorded shipwrecks. During those times transatlantic shipping was at a record high and all sorts of vessels traversed the waters off New Jersey. Sailors then navigated by the sun, stars, moon, and horizon. Thousands of passenger and commercial ships moved up and down the coast and naturally an alarming number of shipwrecks occurred.
In March 1849, Henry Wardell, descendant of the first settler of Monmouth Beach, deeded a lot on the beach (across from today’s Park Road) to the U.S. government. An informal lifesaving society built a one-room beach structure, 16-by-28 feet.
According to U.S. Representative William A. Newell, who wrote the law creating a lifesaving service in August 1848, there were more than 120 shipwrecks just along the NJ coast from 1846 to 1848. Congressman Newell, who represented the shore area from Sandy Hook to Little Egg Harbor, had witnessed a deadly shipwreck himself, shortly after his graduation from the University of Pennsylvania Medical School in 1839. During a storm that summer he had watched helplessly from the beach as the Count Teresto was wrecked and all hands aboard were lost. Seeing the dead bodies washed ashore the next day had a profound impact him. A physician, NJ governor, and friend of President Abraham Lincoln, Newell later became the superintendent of the U.S. Life-Saving Association, NJ District.
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 crews, the men who patrolled the beaches day and night and in all weather, routinely risked their lives in grand maritime rescues.
In 1871, the service was reorganized and the first station was built on Sandy Hook and then one every five miles down the coast. By 1878, the U.S. Life Saving Service was officially formed. In 1880, a two-story Monmouth Beach station, known as #4 at Galilee (across from today’s Seacrest Road), was built. Six men worked the station and they were required to drill regularly, maintain the equipment, and patrol the beach at least three times a night. The surfmen, as they were called, would patrol until they met up with another surfman and exchanged brass tokens (called “checks”).
The life-saving service would be the first American governmental unit to adopt anything like “civil service” regulations. In 1882 a law was passed removing politics from hiring considerations and placing fitness for job as the main qualification.
A life-saving service pioneer in Monmouth Beach was Major Edward Wardell, who served as Keeper from 1849 to 1875. Captain James H. Mulligan was Keeper of the Monmouth Beach station for over 20 years, serving from 1884 to 1905. In the beginning, Keepers were paid $700 per year and surfmen earned $40 per month.
“You have to go out, but nothing says you have to come back.”
—U.S. Life-Saving Service motto
Charles H. Valentine, Keeper from 1875 to 1884, led a team that earned the illustrious Gold Life-Saving Medal (the service’s highest honor for valor), for his “display of indomitable courage” during the one-day wreck of two ships, the E.C. Babcock (a 288-ton schooner) and the Augustina (a 300-ton brig), off Monmouth Beach during a February 1880 blizzard.
Surfmen Garrett White, Nelson Lockwood, Benjamin Potter, William Ferguson, and John Van Brunt also received Gold Medals. In a hand-written note, U.S. Treasury Secretary John Sherman, the brother of famed Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman, recognized the acts and awarded the medals. The crew battled 85-mile-per-hour winds, furious surf, and freezing cold. From that one storm, surfmen from Sandy Hook to Takanassee Lake were called on to help 5 shipwrecks over a 12 -hour period.
After damage from a brutal Spring 1894 storm, service operations were moved to the west side of Ocean Avenue and a Duluth-style station designed by George Tolman was constructed. Wealthy industrialists George Fisher Baker and Edward Walton donated the land. The original structure still stands today, as the Monmouth Beach Cultural Center.
Revered as heroes of the Atlantic Coast, the surfmen motto was “you have to go out, but nothing says you have to come back.” Using things like a beach-apparatus cart, lifeboat, Lyle Gun and breeches buoy, life-saving crews unwaveringly risked their lives in epic maritime rescues.
Their work was remembered in story and song back then, but today’s society has largely forgotten about the great sacrifice and dedication of these men who risked all to save others. The true measure of heroic performance is amazing — from 1871 to 1914, the U.S. 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.”
In later years, after the invention of the Marconi wireless telegraph and reliable steamships, wrecks were less common. Still, for 60 years, shipwrecks and the U.S. Life Saving Station shaped the history of the state’s coastline.
US Life-Saving Service Heritage Association — MORE INFO