United States Life Saving Services within Michigan

United States Life Saving Services

Emily Koons


The United States Life Saving Services, also known as the USLSS formed in 1878, though some stations were built along the Great Lakes in 1854, before dissolving to become the Coast Guard we know and hear of today. The organization was a very hazardous and dangerous job, as they never knew what to expect when they got on the waters. They battled crashing waves, that could demolish their own ships while trying to save others. Their least complicated manner of rescue was by small boat, though it was the most dangerous type of rescue. The waves could easily overpower their smaller boats, and then they had to wrestle with the larger ships, vessels, and debris in the area they were rescuing. Pictured to the left, a crew is battling the waves in Lake Superior (Images of America: United States Life-Saving Service in Michigan, pg. 122). The Great Lakes are oceanic in character, meaning that waves, though they cannot grow nearly as large as oceanic waves, can be closer together, and steeper (The U.S. Life Saving Service, pg. 163).

The members of the USLSS were expected to do activities every day of the week except Sundays, practicing with rescue equipment (That Others Might Live, pg. 121). Their Mondays and Thursdays were for working within the beach apparatus (That Others Might Life, pg. 122). They used a drill pole to imitate a ship’s mast as their target. Crewmembers were expected to be down the drill pole within five minutes, those who could not complete the task within five minutes were dismissed. Their Tuesdays were devoted to boat practice (That Others Might Live, pg. 124). Crewmembers were required to launch their small boats and row oars for at least thirty minutes at a time. Part of their drill on Tuesdays was to purposely capsize their boat and find a way to right the boat so it was setting in the water properly again. Their drills were not always the safest, some crewmembers drowned in their preparations. Wednesdays were meant for practicing flag hoisting, or wig-wag (That Others Might Live, pg. 126). Wig wag is essentially Morse code but with flags. Fridays brought first aid training, which also included CPR for those who had drowned. Saturdays were left for cleaning the station (That Others Might Live, pg. 126).

Not everyone in the communities around these stations supported the USLSS. Some viewed them with suspicion at their tight knitted-ness that comes with most service branches. There were a few reports of arguments going on around parts of Michigan where the USLSS may have trespassed on private property to do their jobs.

Most servicemembers brought oils, a lantern, metal chits or a watchman’s clock, and Coston signals for their rounds to keep an eye out for possible sea wrecks (That Others Might Live, pg. 130). Crewmembers were warned ahead of time of the possibility of gruesome sights, such as washed up bodies. Alongside their duties to patrol and rescue, they were also required to do miscellaneous jobs around the station and cook for themselves. Among some of their “odd jobs around the station” were cutting wood.

          Their family life was difficult, as the crewmembers were constantly on-duty and required to be away from home, which left spouses to worry about the dangerous conditions they could potentially be getting into. Pictured to above, is an home in Point Betsie, Michigan (Images of America: United States Life-Saving Service in Michigan, pg. 61). It was common practice for crewmembers to name their homes, and while their jobs were dangerous, it didn’t keep from them a sense of humor. Not only was it hard on the servicemembers, it was tough for family members, as the stations were in remote places, which offered little contact with others, and made it hard to receive medical care and schooling (That Others Might Live, 143). The stations along Lake Superior were some of the isolated in the country at the time of the USLSS. There have been mentions of ghosts along the Lake Superior corridor due to the amounts of deaths in the area. (The U.S. Life Saving Service, pg. 163).

Primary Sources

Images of America: United States Life-Saving Service in Michigan, pg. 122

This source brought insight of how rough the waves truly were in Lake Superior and how the crew was still determined to go out on the dangerous waters and do their jobs.

Images of America: United States Life-Saving Service in Michigan, pg. 61

This source shined a light on the sense of humor of the crewmembers. They were allowed to name their homes, and this was one of the buildings that were named a little darkly, as a lot of crewmembers’ families could be left without a father.



Secondary Sources:

That Others Might Live by Dennis Noble, Chapter 7, Life at the U.S. Life-Saving Service, pgs. 121-146

This source was supple with information about the day to day schedule of the servicemembers of the USLSS, and what was expected of them, as well as a small portion of information about their spouses and children.

The U.S. Life-Saving Service: Heroes, Rescues and Architecture of the Early Coast Guard by Ralph Shanks and Wick York, Chapter 15, Great Lakes, pgs. 163-186

This source added to the knowledge of “That Others Might Live” about the Great Lakes in general, as to how rough the waters were and how isolated the area was.

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