The 1906 postcard below bears the caption, ‘The start of the life-boat, Cape Cod.’
John Wilfred Dalton, in Life Savers of Cape Cod, reminds us of the perils faced by the lifesavers. They were also known as surfmen:
The life saver’s work is always arduous, often terrible. Quicksands, the blinding snow and cutting sand storms, the fearful blasts of winter gales, are more often than not to be encountered on their journeys; storm tides, flooding the beaches, drive them to the tops or back of the sand dunes, where they plod along their solitary patrol with great peril.
Lifesaving services started in 1786 by the Massachusetts Humane Society, one of the oldest in the world. The Society started by building huts along the coast for wrecked mariners to use as shelters in the storm. They built the first on Lovells Island in Boston Harbor.
By 1845, the Society had built 18 sheds along the Massachusetts coast, with life-boats and mortars to launch lifelines to stranded vessels. Congress appropriated some money for equipment and sheds in 1848. For decades, though, the life-savers had no standards, training or adequate equipment.
In 1871, Maine native Sumner Increase Kimball, chief of the U.S Treasury Department’s Revenue Marine Division, began to reform the lifesaving service.
On June 10, 1872, Congress authorized nine new lifesaving stations on Cape Cod: Race Point and Peaked Hill Bars in Provincetown, Highlands in North Truro, Pamet River in Truro, Cahoon’s Hollow in Wellfleet, Nauset in North Eastham, Orleans, Chatham and Monomoy on Monomoy Island. Full-time, six-man crews staffed them during the active season for shipwrecks – November through April.
When this postcard was published, the lifesaving stations were staffed year-round.