Home Massachusetts From Massachusetts Huts for Shipwreck Survivors Grew the U.S. Coast Guard

From Massachusetts Huts for Shipwreck Survivors Grew the U.S. Coast Guard

Thoreau made fun of them, though

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Sometime before the Civil War, Henry David Thoreau and his friend were hiking along the outer edge of Cape Cod when they got caught in a storm. The desolate beach offered no shelter from the biting wind and cold rain, but then they came across a wooden shack. The Massachusetts Humane Society had built nine such shacks, called humane huts, from Boston to Chatham to shelter shipwreck survivors until help arrived.

The hut Thoreau found in the downpour couldn’t shelter anyone. Someone had nailed the door shut. When Thoreau looked through a knothole he saw nothing but scraps of wool inside.

Thoreau wasn’t the only one to find maritime rescue in a pathetic state. Until the final quarter of the 19th century, shipwreck survivors along the U.S. coast were pretty much on their own. Hundreds of bodies washed up on isolated beaches every year, but few people outside of Massachusetts seemed to care. Congress certainly didn’t.

Travel by water carried terrifying possibilities, and some shipwrecks caused spectacular losses of life even within sight of shore. When major maritime disasters did happen, the public outcry caused Congress to act, but always within limits. In 1848, Congress created the U.S. Life-Saving Service and gave it a little money, but it wasn’t enough. Shipwrecks continued to kill people with alarming frequency along the U.S. coast.

Chatham Light and Coast Guard Station

Finally, in 1878, something finally happened to stem the tide of accidental deaths, smashed vessels and lost cargo. A talented young Treasury clerk named Sumner Kimball agreed to take on the U.S. Lifesaving Service. When he retired in 1915 at the age of 80, Kimball proudly turned the USLSS over to the U.S. Coast Guard. It included 2,200 lifesavers who merged with nearly 1,800 men of the Revenue-Cutter Service.

And it all started with the shanties built by the Massachusetts Humane Society.

Shipwreck Survivors

In 1626, the Sparrow-Hawk became the first recorded shipwreck in U.S. history when it foundered off Cape Cod’s elbow at Orleans. The Indians and Pilgrims who rescued the English tobacco planters aboard the vessel set a precedent for the next 250 years: volunteer first responders risking their lives for little reward to save shipwreck survivors.

The Sparrow-Hawk was the first of at least 3,000 shipwrecks off Cape Cod, one of the graveyards of the Atlantic. Over the centuries, watery cemeteries also grew around the New Jersey shore between Egg Harbor and Sandy Hook and off Cape Hatteras in North Carolina.

Deadly Atlantic gales sent every kind of vessel to the bottom of the sea. In 1717 the Whydah Gally, carrying Black Sam Bellamy and his pirate crew, sank off of Wellfleet. During the American Revolution, the British man-of-war Somerset ran aground off Provincetown, and the town’s tiny militia marched their 500 prisoners to Boston. After the deadly October Gale of 1841, a hundred bodies were found on the shore and another 57 Truro fishermen perished at sea.

The start of the lifeboat Cape Cod

For a century and a half, ships wrecked on the Outer Cape about every two weeks.

As the U.S. economy grew, the carnage increased. Vessels carrying commodities like coal and lumber crowded the shipping lanes along the Atlantic coast. Immigrant ships arrived from Europe with greater and greater frequency. But more ships meant more shipwrecks, hundreds of them.

From 1863 to the end of 1874, 7,249 shipwrecks were reported to the U.S. Treasury Department – an average of 1.6 a day.

How To Die in a Shipwreck

There were many ways to die in a shipwreck, most pretty horrible. In 1827, a small coasting schooner, the Almira, carrying firewood to Boston grounded off the shores of Dennis, Mass., in an icy gale, according to the National Archives. She had lost her sails when the winds threw her full length on a reef of rocks.

Her captain and crew climbed into the rigging but froze to death in sight of spectators from the shore. They could only watch because of the dangerous surf. The captain’s son survived after fishermen launched a boat three times into the heavy seas. When they came on board the Almira, the boy’s hands had frozen to the ropes. He lost both hands and feet to frostbite.

People often drowned in sinking ships when they got caught between the rushing water and the decks. They drowned when they mistimed a leap into a lifeboat or got swamped by a wave once in it. Shipwreck survivors on remote beaches ended up eating their fellow survivors, as did the crew of the Nottingham Galley on Boon Island in Maine.

Even if your ship only ran aground in sand in a storm, the waves usually made short work of the hull.  And if you made it to shore on your own, you could die of exposure on a remote beach before anyone knew you were there.

Massachusetts Humane Society

Beaches back in the day were isolated, treacherous frontiers. They had no lifeguards, no lighthouses, no cell phone signal, no Marine Patrol along the coast.

In 1786, some Boston philanthropists formed the Massachusetts Humane Society to try to save the lives of shipwreck victims. (In the 1810s it also financed Massachusetts General Hospital and an “Asylum for the Insane,” now McLean Hospital.)

A minister at King’s Chapel in Boston, the Rev. James Freeman, helped found the Humane Society. He surveyed the Outer Cape to determine the best places to locate humane huts. By 1801, the Humane Society had built nine huts from Lovells Island in Boston Harbor to Monomoy Point south of Chatham, with two on Nantucket.  Each hut had a 15-foot pole on the roof, topped by a white ball that shipwreck survivors could see, presumably, at night.

The Society in 1802 published 2,000 copies of a pamphlet Freeman wrote, Description of the Eastern Coast of the County of Barnstable (from Race Point to Cape Malebarre, or the sandy point of Chatham. It gave explicit directions to the humane huts. Thoreau found that ridiculous.

“It is pathetic to read the minute and faithful directions which he gives to seamen who may be wrecked on this coast, to guide them to the nearest charity house,” he wrote in Cape Cod. “[I]n a snow storm, which rages here with excessive fury, it would be almost impossible to discover them either by night or by day.”

King’s Chapel, about 1900

Humane Huts

The Humane Society put firewood, matches and blankets inside the huts. Storms wrecked the structures and vandals stole the firewood. The Society put a notice in the newspaper (Columbian Centinel, Oct. 16, 1790), asking the local citizens to keep an eye on the humane huts, so frequently vandalized by the inhumane.

Freeman asked eight Cape Cod doctors, lawyers, ship captains and ministers to inspect the huts and report back to him. But the volunteer inspectors couldn’t prevent storms from destroying the crude huts. Vandals kept stealing the contents. Thoreau made fun of them: “They appeared but a stage to the grave. The gulls flew around and screamed over them; the roar of the ocean in storms, and the lapse of its waves in calms, alone resounded through them, all dark and empty within…”

The Massachusetts Humane Society kept building humane huts. By 1841 the Society had 81 huts and stations and 18 boats. Half a century after Thoreau mocked them, William Wallace Johnson  described them as inadequate. “Even these were so few and insignificant that, beyond the immediate vicinity in which they were located, they were unknown,” he wrote in 1890.


More useful to the shipwreck survivor were the volunteer lifesavers, also known as surfmen. When a storm approached, they patrolled the beaches of Cape Cod.

John Wilfred Dalton, in Life Savers of Cape Cod, described the dangers they faced – just on the beaches.

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.

Surfman Howard Daniel Browning of Station Narragansett Pier in winter uniform, c. 1909

In 1806 the Humane Society paid a Nantucket shipwright to design and build a small lifesaving boat, 30-feet long and lined with cork. Volunteer lifesaving crews, known as surfmen, launched the surfboats into the roiling waters and rowed to grounded vessels to rescue the shipwreck survivors.

Lifesavers eventually adopted the motto, “You have to go out but you don’t have to come back.” Or as one 19th-century surfman said, “When I see a man clinging to a wreck, I see nothing else in the world, and I never think of family and friends until I have saved him.”

In 1807, the Humane Society founded the first lifeboat station – a shed that held rescue gear — at Cohasset.

Lighthouses also began to proliferate along the coast. But, like the huts, they didn’t always withstand the elements. . Chatham Light was built on Cape Cod in 1808 and replaced by two wood towers in 1841. By the 1870s, erosion had eaten away 226 feet of cliff, causing one of the towers to teeter 27 inches from the edge. The other toppled over into the drink in 1881.

Finally Congress Does Something

William A. Newell, a doctor from Stafford Township, N.J., was one of those people who patrolled the beaches during storms. In the summer of 1839, Newell saw 13 mariners drown when their Austrian brig wrecked on the shore of Long Beach, N.J. The sailors died while trying to swim ashore from the sandbar. Their bodies scattered along the beach for more than a mile.

Newell then won election to Congress, vowing to establish a federal life-saving service. Newell persuaded Congress to spend $10,000 on lifesaving equipment — “surfboats, [signaling] rockets, and carronades [line-throwing mortars], and other necessary apparatus for the better preservation of life and property from shipwreck on the Coast of New Jersey between Sandy Hook and Little Egg Harbor.”

The agent charged with building eight huts on the Jersey shore looked to the Massachusetts Humane Society for advice on how to build the lifeboat stations. When the seas were too rough for a boat, and the vessel lay within 600 feet of shore, the surfmen could shoot a line with a carronade to the stranded vessel high up in the rigging. A life ring with a cut off pair of pants attached to a second, heavier line. The victims climbed into the pants, or breeches, for the perilous journey in the “breeches buoy” to shore.

The Lifeline by Winslow Homer shows a breeches buoy used to rescue shipwreck survivors.

Newell’s legislation created the federal life-saving service. On Jan. 11, 1850, the British bark Ayrshire ran aground on Squan Beach near one of the new lifeboat stations. Rescuers saved the captain, crew and 200 passengers but one. Another 400 people that winter were saved with federal lifesaving equipment.

Congress responded by appropriating another $70,000 for 48 more lifeboat stations, mostly along the approach to New York Harbor. One was built on Watch Hill in Rhode Island. Massachusetts already had its humane huts and lifeboat stations.

Still, it wasn’t enough. Congress didn’t pay to staff the lifesaving stations, and no one repaired them or the boats when they sustained storm damage. Vandals still stole the stations’ contents:  surfboats, life cars, India rubber floats, rockets, mortars, ropes, powder, lanterns and shovels. People “borrowed” the lifeboats for recreational boating.

Fits and Starts

In April 1854, 200 immigrants died from the wreck of the Powhattan below Beach Haven, N. J. The press reported the ship sank six miles from a lifeboat station, and thieves robbed some of the bodies. “The Government have [sic] no provision here to prevent such depredations,” wrote The New-York Daily Times, on April 20–22, 1854.

Then in November, 230 more lives were lost in the wreck of the New Era off Asbury Park, N.J. According to a report, the tremendous loss of life, “was evidently chargeable to the ill-condition of the boats and apparatus and to the remissness or incompetency of the employees.”

Congress then passed a law stating life-saving station keepers should get paid. But it didn’t appropriate any money to pay them.


Thomas Nast 1877 political cartoon: Death on economy. U.S. “I suppose I must spend a little on life-saving service, life-boat stations, life-boats, surf-boats, etc.; but it is too bad to be obliged to waste so much money”.

When the Civil War erupted, interest waned in lifesaving. The life-saving service fell into disrepute. An investigation found surfboats were used as personal yachts and the huts ignore. Customs officials, who appointed the station keepers, gave the jobs to their friends, who were often old, unfit and a long way from the lifeboat stations. There were no drills, no regulations, and no one in government to administer the life-saving program.

In 1870, two other Congressmen, Rep. Charles Haight and Sen. John Stockton, managed to shepherd through Congress a measure to hire six experienced surfmen at every other lifeboat station along the New Jersey coast. Their pay: $10 a week.

Sumner Kimball, Friend of Shipwreck Survivors

Finally, shipwreck survivors could find a gleam of hope in someone described as “that little black-eyed man at the head of the Revenue-Marine.”

In 1871, Sumner Kimball was named head of the Revenue Marine. It included the Revenue Cutter Service, the Steamboat Inspection Service, the Marine Hospital Service and the Life-Saving Service.

Sumner Kimball

He was born Sept. 2, 1834, in Lebanon, Maine, outside of Portland on the New Hampshire border. A bright student from a good family, he graduated from Bowdoin. During college, he taught school in Lebanon and in Orleans, Mass. Given the frequency of shipwrecks on the Outer Cape, Kimball likely witnessed a shipwreck or two.

After graduation Kimball got his law license and began to practice law. In 1862 he relocated to Washington, D.C. to work as a clerk in the U.S. Treasury. Kimball’s administrative skills won him the post at the Revenue Marine.

Capt. John Faunce of the Revenue Marine inspected the lifesaving stations and reported back. Faunce found remote, dilapidated buildings, incompetent staff and the apparatus that wasn’t missing had rusted.

Kimball used Faunce’s report to wheedle $200,000 out of Congress to beef up the lifesaving service. Then he began to reform it.

I organized crews for those mean little buildings, and instituted a thorough drill for the men. Then I traveled the whole length of the Atlantic coast (subsequently of the Pacific), selecting the most dangerous sites at which to erect new stations.

He hired full-time surfmen and station keepers, repaired stations, bought equipment and established beach patrols. Kimball organized the stations into districts, each with a superintendent. He established the Revenue Marine School of Instruction in 1876 in New Bedford, which became the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn.

In 1872, not a single life was lost where lifesaving facilities existed.

More Help for Shipwreck Survivors

The Massachusetts Humane Society’s life-saving operations continued to grow alongside the federal government’s Life-Saving Service. At one time it had as many as 78 lifeboat and 13 mortar stations.

On June 10, 1872, 250 years after volunteer first responders rescued the Sparrow-Hawk survivors, Massachusetts officially joined the federal lifesaving network. 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 Island.

In 1886, a lifesaver on patrol from the Peaked Hill Bars station in Provincetown found the Hannah E. Shubert aground on the outer bar. He summoned help and the shipwreck survivors were rescued.

By 1874, full-time, six-man crews staffed the Massachusetts stations during the active season for shipwrecks – November through April.

The Humane Society discontinued some of its stations at points covered by the Government work, and transferred others to points needing protection, wrote Kimball in 1909.

“It still maintains, however, several in proximity to Government stations in especially dangerous localities. At these places the crews of the two services have always harmoniously and effectively co-operated on occasions of shipwreck.”

Huron and Metropolis

As always, more needed to be done.

Capt. D. A. Lyle, recounted Kimball’s struggles in 1884.  “From 1871 to 1878, with insufficient appropriations and little encouragement from Congress, the officers of the department struggled to organize the infant service and render it equal to the tasks imposed upon it,” he wrote. “Their success was unexpectedly great, considering the almost insurmountable difficulties under which they labored.”

Then in 1877-78 came two maritime disasters hard on the heels of each other.

On the foggy night of Nov. 24, 1877, rough seas forced the USS Huron to run aground off Nags Head in North Carolina, just two miles from a lifesaving station. But budget constraints kept the lifesaving station closed. Ninety-eight men died in the shipwreck.

Two months later, the steamship Metropolis ran aground 100 yards off Currituck Beach. It carried railroad workers to Brazil, and 85 of them died in the wreck. The disaster took place midway between two lifesaving stations.

There were few shipwreck survivors in the Metropolis disaster

Those two shipwrecks caught peoples’ attention, and the public outcry forced Congress to do something. This time it created the U.S. Life Saving Service as a separate agency. Treasury Secretary George Boutwell asked Kimball to run it.

I shall accept your offer upon one condition. If you will stand by me, after I have convinced you that I am right, I shall attempt to bring about the reforms you desire. But I want to warn you that the pressure will be tremendous. Congressmen will come to you in long processions and will attempt to convince you that I am wrong and that the service is being ruined. It will require an uncommon display of backbone on your part, but if you will stand firm and refer all complaints to me I promise you that I shall put the service where you want it and where it ought to be.

Boutwell promised to stand by him.

New Methods

Kimball then went into high gear. He had uniforms issued for surfmen, instruction manuals printed and incentives established. He also set up a board to look for improved lifesaving devices. Surfmen patrolled the beaches between stations at night or in fog or storms. They carried lanterns and red flares, called Coston lights, to warn ships edging too near to shore. He made the surfmen patrol the beach and exchange tokens with surfmen from neighboring stations to prove they’d completed their walk.

Kimball also enlisted Captain Lyle to invent a better gun for throwing the life-saving line to a shipwreck, known as the Lyle gun.

A Lyle gun used to send a line out to shipwreck survivors

Kimball also launched a PR campaign, sending reports to Congress with adventure tales of derring-do by the surfmen. He hired William D. O’Connor, a professional writer, to include vivid tales of heroism in rescuing shipwreck victims.   In 1878, U.S. Rep.  Mark H. Dunnell wrote, “to read what the lifesaving service has achieved makes one feel as though he were reading a romance.”

Kimball himself wrote a biography of Joshua James in 1909. In his introduction he described his surfmen as”a practically continuous line of keen-eyed and sleepless sentinels [who] march and countermarch along the surf-beaten beaches or stand guard with warning signals in hand upon the jutting cliffs and headlands reaching far out into the sea for unwary victims.”

Kimball Does a Solid for the Surfmen

He persuaded Congress to spend more money to support the USLSS. He wrung political patronage out of the service. During the course of his 37-year career at the head of the Life-Saving Service, Kimball located 300 lifesaving stations and hired more than 2,000 surfmen. “I have talked with the crews of them all — every one,” he said on his retirement. He also convinced Congress to win pensions for his employees.

For 10 years, the surfmen worked for a pittance and the possibility they would leave their widows and children in poverty. They patrolled stormy beaches night after night, facing death, and chilled to the bone in the rain, sleet, snow and beating surf. Kimball badgered Congress to give them decent pay and a pension.

“I have never lost an opportunity, these twenty years, pleading, urging, that the surfmen be provided for in old age or when they become disabled,” he said in his exit interview. “Those splendid brave fellows of iron-nerve and iron-muscle go out sometimes in the face of certain death to rescue people from drowning–and if they die or are injured their families are left destitute.”

One Percenters

From 1871, when he organized the Life-Saving Service, until 1909, Kimball estimated that shipwrecks had imperiled 100,000 lives. Only one percent had been lost.

Dennis R. Means, writing for the National Archives notes that

Between 1871 and 1915, when the Life-Saving Service rejoined the Revenue Cutter Service to form the U.S. Coast Guard, the service assisted 28,121 disasters and shipwrecks and preserved the lives of 174,682 persons and $288,871,237 worth of vessels and cargo.

It had all started with the decrepit shanties on the Outer Cape that Thoreau had mocked. Upon his retirement, Kimball said,

There were only a few miserable shanties along the shore, equipped with rusty apparatus and manned by volunteers, at odd times, but I saw in them the embryo of a grand possibility.

With thanks to The Enduring Shore by Paul Schneider, Shipwrecked: Coastal Disasters and the Making of the American Beach by Jamin Wells and Cape Cod by Henry David Thoreau.

Images: Chatham Station By T.S. Custadio ToddC4176 23:20, 27 February 2007 (UTC) – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9452910

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