It was a moonless bitter cold night as the hooded figure walked along the beachfront. His long coat swirled around him as the icy rain and wind whipped through his clothes despite his efforts to keep them wrapped around his thin body. He held his lantern to the side so as not to hamper his ability to scan the ocean for lights. He still had a few miles to walk before he reached the turnaround point, where he would meet another man in a small warming hut. They would spend some time chatting and exchange tokens, so each could show their station master proof that they’d made the grueling trek.
Suddenly he noticed the thing that every Lifesaver Man dreads and at the same time hopes for. He spotted a light offshore that moved back and forth. To the untrained eye it would look innocuous, but he recognized what it was immediately. A ship was grounded and getting pounded by waves. He ran to the area and saw the size of the ship, which gave him an idea of how many passengers there were. He signaled with his light, and then ran the whole way back to the station. The station master sounded the alarm and the crew scrambled a response. It was too rough and windy to think about launching the rescue boat, but the ship was close enough to shore to bring the “Lyle Gun”, which was essentially a small cannon. They hooked a team of donkeys to the cannon and went as fast as possible.
When the crew arrived, they went through a practiced procedure that involved firing the cannon at the ship with a weighted object tied to a light line. This line was used to connect a heavier line to a sand anchor. Using a simple but ingenious pulley system they were able to send a “Bosun’s” chair back and forth on the heavier line. Pulling one person at a time across the gap between the ship that was being battered to a pulp to the shore took hours for the team. Once they had everyone on shore, most of the survivors and a few of the rescuers could hardly function and had to be carried to the station by the team of donkeys on a cart. From there the families of the Lifesaver Men, who lived in a tiny settlement adjacent to the station cared for them until they recovered.
The first lifeguards in Galveston were men like these. The US Lifesaving Service had a station at the San Luis Pass that was established in 1875. Eventually, with the advent of the industrial revolution, a leisure class, and recreational swimming, it split into the Red Cross and the US Coast Guard.
I can’t imagine how hard a life these brave men led. They worked under the most extreme conditions and displayed incredible bravery. But the same spirit exists in the men and women that protect Galveston and our nation’s beaches today.