Growing up in Hull, Mass., Joshua James saw more than his share of shipwrecks. One in particular sent him on a lifelong mission of saving lives at sea.
He began saving lives at the age of 15, when he joined the Massachusetts Humane Society, until his death while on duty at the age of 75.
Joshua James was born on Nov. 22, 1826 in Hull, Mass., the ninth of 12 children born to Esther Dill and William James. His father owned a fleet of schooners that hauled paving stones to Boston.
During his lifetime, the Port of Boston, just north of Hull, became one of the busiest ports in the country. One hundred ships a day would pass Hull, which jutted into Massachusetts Bay at the southern boundary of Boston Harbor. Coastal storms frequently wrecked ships on Hull’s shores.
On April 3, 1837, his mother and baby sister returned from Boston on his brother’s schooner Hepzibah. Joshua, 10, stood on shore watching the vessel come into the harbor. But a half-mile out, a sudden squall rose up and knocked the Hepzibah on its side. The boy watched as the boat sank, his mother and sister aboard. He vowed to do everything he could to prevent others from the same fate.
Five years later he jumped into a surf boat manned by volunteers from the Massachusetts Humane Society. They rescued the crew of a ship battered by a storm. The Massachusetts Humane Society, formed in 1786 to rescue people shipwrecked at sea, provided the model for the U.S. Life-Saving Service established in 1848. By 1915, the U.S. Coast Guard took over operation of the Life-Saving Service.
For decades, Joshua James voluntarily saved people from shipwrecks. But he had to work to support his wife, Louisa, and three children. So he fished, coasted from Boston to Hull carrying paving stones, salvaged ships and lightering cargo from ship to shore.
He won his first life-saving medal at the age of 24 for rescuing the crew of the French brig L’Essai.
James performed his most astonishing life-saving feat, one that required seamanship and courage, at the age of 62. He had already spent decades rescuing hundreds of people when the Great Snow Hurricane of 1888 struck the New England Coast.
On Nov. 25, 1888, a category 2 hurricane struck New England, bringing with it driving snow, extremely high tides and a pounding surf. As the storm worsened, Joshua James climbed Telegraph Hill and saw five schooners and a coal barge anchored off Nantasket. Fearing the storm would wreck them, he ordered his volunteers to patrol the beach.
In the afternoon they discovered the Cox and Green wrecked on the beach. They dragged their equipment — breeches buoy, a gun to throw a line and surf boat — half a mile from the Stony Point Station. One by one, they rescued all nine men.
Sumner Kimball, who organized the U.S. Life-Saving Service, wrote a book about Joshua James. In it, he described the next, near-miraculous rescue of the Gertrude Abbott that night.
An eighth of a mile away, they could see through the dark another three-masted schooner, the Gertrude Abbott, wrecked on the rocks. James and his men carried their boat and gear through the storm to the schooner.
She was so far from shore they’d have to go get the crew in the lifeboat. James warned his men they’d likely perish trying to save the sailors, wrote Kimball. “Without a moment’s hesitation every man offered himself, and they ran the boat into the water and started for the wreck,” he wrote.
Spectators on the beach made a bonfire, which gave hope to the shipwrecked sailors. The lifeboat reached the Gertrude Abbott‘s bow and the crew threw a line aboard. The sailors made it fast, and when the lifeboat rose high on the crest of a wave they jumped into the lifeboat, one by one.
But the overloaded lifeboat had to get past the rocks and the roiling sea between to get to shore. Within 200 yards of the beach, the boat struck a boulder and filled it with water. But the men stuck to the boat even as it slammed against the rocks. The crew managed to keep it pointed toward shore until finally a humongous wave lifted it in the air and dashed it against the rocks. Though it tore into pieces, all the men got ashore, some pulled out of the water by spectators on shore.
More To Go
Even at 62, Joshua James wasn’t ready to call it a night. He and his crew patrolled the beaches until 3 a.m., when they found still another three-masted schooner, the Bertha F. Walker, wrecked and grounded about a half-mile away from the Gertrude Abbott. They couldn’t reach her with a line from the shore, so they walked to the Strawberry Hill station four miles away for another lifeboat. Then they hitched up horses and hauled the surfboat to the wreck, where they rescued seven sailors clinging to the rigging.
But even before they finished that rescue, a messenger rode up on horseback to tell them of two more wrecks on Atlantic Hill, five miles away.
Up all night with no breakfast and scanty supper, James’ crew soldiered on. They reached the H.C. Higginson, sunk between two ledges with five exhausted sailors clinging to the rigging. Two other lifesaving crews had arrived and managed to send a breeches-buoy to the vessel. But the lines had fouled and were useless. So Joshua James and his crew rowed out in the furious sea. After 45 minutes the waves washed the boat ashore with two holes in it. So they patched the holes and tried again. The lifeboat came up against the stern of the vessel, and as each sailor climbed down from the rigging the life-saving crew threw him a line, and he’d jump into the water to be fished out and into the lifeboat.
The other wreck had grounded on the beach and the sailors got off safely, so James and his life-savers headed home.
All told, they saved 29 lives during that one storm. Coast Guard historian William Thiesen called it ‘an unprecedented feat of skill, leadership, and sheer physical strength’ — especially for a 62-year-old.
In 1890, the Life-Saving Service appointed Joshua James keeper of the new Point Allerton Life-Saving Station, despite his age — 63 years old. He had saved 450 lives, and the Service waived the mandatory retirement age of 45 for him. He continued saving lives for another 13 years.
In fact, he saved 540 lives — no small feat for a man in his 60s and 70s.
He died on March 19, 1902. A northeast gale blew, and he decided to drill his crew with a new self-bailing surfboat. For an hour they managed the boat in the roiling sea. They grounded the boat and he jumped out, looked at the sea and said, “The tide is ebbing.” Then he fell on the wet sand, dead of a heart attack.
Every May 23, the Hull Life-Saving Museum and the Point Allerton Station (which houses the Hull Life-Saving Museum) honor Joshua James at his gravesite. And on Aug. 8, 2015, the Coast Guard commissioned the fifth national security cutter, Coast Guard Cutter James.
With thanks to Joshua James, life-saver by Sumner Kimball. Aerial view of Hull by By Doc Searls from Santa Barbara, USA – 2010_04_28_bos-rdu_018Uploaded by PDTillman, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10586927. This story was updated in 2022.