Before Now – The U.S. Lifesaving Service
Jagged rocks, sandbars, frigid water and frequent thick fogs have always made the Northern California coastline a dangerous proposition for maritime travel. Almost 100 ships have wrecked around Lands End and Ocean Beach in the past 150 years.
In the mid-1800s, along most coastlines, no service or agency had a duty to come to the rescue of a foundering ship with hundreds of passengers. Tens of thousands of lives were lost each year to shipwrecks in the United States.
After some volunteer lifeboat societies had well-publicized successes, and areas without lifeboat services had notable tragedies, the federal government created the United States Lifesaving Service in 1871. Manned by “surfmen,” lifesaving stations were established all along the Atlantic seaboard and around the Great Lakes. In 1878, California received its first station at the northwest corner of Golden Gate Park facing Ocean Beach. A second lifesaving station, the Southside Station, was built at the northern edge of Fort Funston in 1893.
It’s hard to imagine a more heroic job, or one that commanded more respect from the general public that that of the 19th-century surfman at a lifesaving station. Charged with saving lives, the crews frequently risked their own.
In fierce storms, with monster waves, often in the dark of night, members of the service would run out of a life-saving station with a 36-foot-long wooden boat, launch it into the surf, and row a mile or more out to a ship foundering on a sandbar or sinking from a rock-ripped hull. Battling swells, flying wreckage and strong currents to pull survivors out of the water, the men would sometimes dive from the boat into the roiling seas to save people.
Rescues made from shore could be almost as dramatic. Using a brass cannon, the surfmen would shoot cable lines out to foundering ships to start a rope system to pull people in on “Breeches Buoys”— floats attached to canvas trousers.
The weekly training exercises by the Golden Gate Park Life Saving Station crew would draw large crowds to Ocean Beach. The captain would give the call to drill. The crew would run to a small room at the back of the station to change into white duck-cloth uniforms with rubber-soled cloth slippers. The men would rip the canvas cover off the longboat, roll it out in front of the building on its wagon, and begin pulling the 2-ton rig over the beach sands to the surf. Once the boat was in water deep enough to launch, the soaked surfmen would climb in and begin rowing to get the craft past the breakers.
Offshore, the life-saving crew practiced pulling people out of the water, as well as righting and bailing out the boat in the event it capsized. A further testament to the danger inherent in the life-saving service, many men lost their lives to fierce breakers just in these strenuous training drills.
In the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake and fire, employees of the life-saving service were enlisted to help fight the great fires and aid in the rescue of people trapped in rubble. The stations themselves acted as shelter for the dispossessed and hungry. Up to 150 people were given refuge at the Golden Gate Park station in the first nights after the disaster.
The U.S. Life Saving Service merged with the Revenue Cutter Service to create the United States Coast Guard in 1915. With the introduction of motorboats the station complex at the end of Golden Gate Park had already become less practical to operate, and the beginning stages of the Great Highway Esplanade and seawall blocked easy access to the surf.
The station complex was dismantled in the early 1920s, and today nothing of it remains on the Golden Gate Park site. A tangible reminder of the service created to come to the aid of “those in peril on the sea” does still stand nearby:
Woody LaBounty is the founder of the Western Neighborhoods Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the history of western San Francisco, and the author of “Carville-by-the-Sea: San Francisco’s Streetcar Suburb.”
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