Delmarva’s Coastal Lifesaving Service

by Dana Kester-McCabe

During winter months Delmarva's coastline has seen many stories of storms, shipwrecks, and the surfmen who manned local lifesaving stations and the daring rescues they performed.

During the 18th and 19th centuries shipping was a major part of the American economy. Independence and the industrial revolution made people here more self sufficient, but shipbuilding, trade, and sea transportation remained of critical importance.

By the 1820's hostilities with the British had ended and most of the pirates moved to the Caribbean. Shipping in our region would have become much safer - if it were not for the dangers presented by the ocean herself and fowl weather. Storms often would quickly push ships approaching the coastline into the shoals or beaches to be wrecked.

Many lives were lost as a result and public dismay led to the formation of the United States Life-Saving Service. Initially Congress only authorized funds for some basic equipment for coastal communities in what they thought were key places. This only paid for dories to be used as rescue boats and occasionally buildings to store them. These were to be used by local volunteers. It was not until after the Civil War that the government began paying for staff, developing better rescue equipment, and creating official lifesaving stations.

The first stations on Delmarva were built in 1875. Green Run and Assateague Beach Life-Saving Stations were constructed on what is now the Maryland end of Assateague Island. That year also saw the installation of a station on Smith Island in the lower Chesapeake Bay. The next year the Hog and Cobb's Island stations were built in Virginia. In Delaware the Cape Henlopen station was the first to be commissioned in 1876 followed that same year by the Indian River station.

Since its primary concern was protecting commerce the U.S. Life-Saving Service was made an agency within the Treasury Department in 1878. By the turn of the twentieth century, nineteen stations were installed on Delmarva's coast. And, more than a dozen lighthouses were built there and along the Chesapeake and Delaware Bays to help prevent shipwrecks. The managers of these were called keepers and their crew were called surfmen. Though things were made a little safer storms were still mostly unpredictable at that point. Rescues were high risk affairs.

Early in the morning of January 10th 1883 a schooner called the Sallie W. Kaye foundered off the coast of Ocean City during a blizzard. The ship had a crew of seven and was carrying a cargo of coal from Baltimore to Boston when they faced white out conditions causing them to run aground. The desperate crew climbed into the rigging. One man a German sailor named Anton said he could see the shore line and decided to swim ashore to go for help.

By 11am the storm began to abate long enough for a surfman on look out duty to see the Sallie Kaye and raise the alarm. They used a cannon to shoot a rescue line to the ship. The grateful sailors tied the rope to the mast and a breeches buoy was sent along it to convey the almost exhausted crew back to shore. Once there they had to be carried by the surfmen and Ocean City volunteers through the snow to the lifesaving station where they were given dry clothes and warm food and drink. Sixteen miles south, poor Anton washed ashore having perished.

This is just one of many dramatic rescue stories. Sometimes the crews of ships in trouble were their own worst enemies. In December of 1882, the Maddalena Secondo was stranded at Cedar Island, Virginia. The boat's drunken crew had to be forced ashore by the local lifesaving station keeper and his crew.

During the forty years that the U.S. Life-Saving Service existed, Delmarva's stations responded to almost two hundred major shipwrecks along our coast. Often more than one station would respond much the way our fire departments help each other. Cape Henlopen saw the most action with 28 major wrecks. By far more ships got in trouble on the southern end of the peninsula. Hogg and Cobb Islands on Virginia's Atlantic side and Smith Island on the Chesapeake each handled 24. This may have been because the many islands clustered around the tip of Delmarva are merely shifting sands. Navigation charts tend to become useless almost as soon as they are printed making the waters there very difficult to negotiate.

Twentieth century technology began to change everything. Charts, ships, communication, and weather forecasting all began to steadily improve. Sadly the U.S. Life-Saving Service quickly became obsolete and underfunded. Its position in the Treasury Department became a political hot potato. Station keepers and their crews were not provided pensions, so recruiting their replacements as they aged simply was not possible. New equipment and maintenance were not provided. Because many of the stations were in vulnerable locales they fell into disrepair and were prey to damaging storms.

Finally in 1915 Congress created a new branch of the military called the U.S. Coast Guard to not only defend our coastline but provide naval rescue services. Eventually human attendants were replaced with automated electrical lighting at lighthouses. Lifesaving stations were abandoned and replaced with the newer Coast Guard Stations.

Here on Delmarva two of those original lifesaving stations are now museums. The Indian River station is now part of the Delaware State park system. The Ocean City Lifesaving Station was first built on Caroline Street. Decades after it was decommissioned a group of local history lovers raised the money to save it. In 1977 it was moved to it present location overlooking the inlet. It has an amazing collection of historical artifacts and original source material about the surfmen and the Life-Saving Service compiled by Suzanne and George Hurley.

If you would like to learn more about Delmarva's maritime history visit the museum in person or check out their website:


Ocean City Lifesaing Station Museum
Ocean City, Maryland

Indian River Life-Saving Station
Delaware Seashore State Park

United States Life-Saving Service

U.S. Lifesaving Service - U.S. Coast Guard

That Others Might Live: The U.S. Life-Saving Service, 1878-1915
By Dennis L. Noble
Naval Institute Press, 1994

Shipwrecks and Rescues
Along the Barrier Islands of Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia
By George and Suzanne Hurley - Donning Publications - Norfolk, Virginia - 1984