We’ve got about a month before lifeguard tryouts. Spread the word to anyone interested and tell them to start swimming and check our website for details! We’re going to need a lot of new guards to address the increased beach use that’s been trending.
With just a few weeks left before the beach kicks into high gear and each week there is news for this column, it’s a great time to look backwards.
As you may know, the first lifeguards were really dealing with shipwrecks. But through the late 1800s, the problems of shipwrecks began to fade with the new steamboat technology, making ships stronger and more resilient. In the early twentieth century, the lifesaving stations eventually transitioned into part of the U.S. Coast Guard.
Just after the turn of the century, with the advent of the industrial revolution and development of a “leisure class”, recreational swimming began to emerge as a popular pastime, and the need to rescue distressed swimmers became apparent.
In 1913, the YMCA organized a crew of volunteer lifeguards for Galveston Island. The volunteers were unpaid but patrolled Galveston beaches from March to October each year. In 1919, this agency became a member of the Red Cross Life Saving Corps. They called for plans to build a two-story clubhouse structure, combining a storeroom and headquarters in one facility, built on pilings outside and above the seawall midway between Murdoch’s bathhouse and the Crystal Palace. This building would contain necessary equipment, such as stretchers, life buoys, and signs for marking sink holes on the beach. The lifeguards remained unpaid volunteers, but were given police authority to help maintain and control the beaches they guarded. Galveston’s legendary lifeguard, Leroy Colombo worked this beach.
With the number of the beachgoers growing, the city realized the demand was beyond the volunteer level. By 1935, Galveston had hired a handful of paid lifeguards, stationing them at 4 main points of the island, including the then-called “Negro Beach” on 28th street, which was guarded by a small number of African American lifeguarding pioneers. (More to come on that topic). Galveston also had what may have been the first all women “Surf and Toboggan Club” un the USA, which helped tremendously by stationing a rescue boat and rowing team on the beach during busy times. Guards worked eight-hour shifts from March through October.
By the 1940s, the island added a “Lifesaving Beach Patrol System,” and the first emergency response vehicle. With this vehicle, they were able to patrol more miles of beach at a faster pace, and provide lifesaving medical aid in the field, as opposed to taking victims to the hospital with no prior care. By August 1941, the Galveston Island Beach Patrol boasted 20 guards.
By the 1950s, lifeguards were again given police authority and were put in charge of keeping the beaches clean, along with providing aid to the increasing number of beachgoers. The area at the west end of the seawall became a second designated beach for African Americans.
Photos courtesy of the Rosenberg Library