The History of the Cleveland Life-Saving Service: Part 1 of 3

Looking out off of the Cleveland Harbor, onto the waves of Lake Erie, it may be difficult to imagine a time before the advent of motorized boats, VHF radios, or the U. S. Coast Guard, but much has changed over the last 140 years of marine transportation and rescue.   On the west pier of the entrance to the Cuyahoga River, the memories of the “golden era” of the Cleveland Life-Saving Service can be recalled. Between the years 1875 and 1914, the Cleveland Life-Saving Service represented one of the first rescue services established along the coast of Lake Erie. The nineteenth century had spurred great interest in the creation of a federal -funded Life-Saving Service.  Disasters during and after the Civil War left hundreds of mariners frozen and drowning in the oceans and lakes along the United States coastline. Harbor traffic began to increase around Cleveland during the mid-1800’s due to the rapid growth of copper and lime quarries, and the transportation of passengers to and from ports along the Great Lakes.  The need for permanent, readily available rescue crews to respond to distressed vessels became evident as more vessels entered the often stormy, and icy conditions of the lakes. Along the Ohio coastline, from the years 1845 to 1875, 12 shipwrecks claimed the lives of over 340 passengers and crew within the waters of Lake Erie, many due to the lack of rescue response.

In 1875, Cleveland became part of District 9 of the Life-Saving Service, operating as a Life-boat Station with an active season from November to April. A total of 8 crewmen, and a Keeper conducted weekly drills and services while housed at the Cleveland Life-Saving Station. Selection of Keeper and crew relied heavily on experience and personality. Sumner I. Kimball, the superintendent, and main proponent of the Life-Saving Service, detailed specific guidelines for selecting Keepers and crew. Common religious, political, or family affiliation was strictly prohibited as motivation for the selection of individuals, while physical strength, health, and abilities to work as a team were given top priority. Crewmen understood the severity of their rescue missions, and lived by the motto, “We’ve got to go out, but we don’t have to come back;” a testament to their dedication to saving the lives of others.

From 1876 to 1914, the Cleveland Life-Saving Station housed five Keepers; Samuel Law, Charles C. Goodwin, Lawrence Distel, Charles E. Motley, and Hans J. Hanson. Although not much is given regarding the lives of the Keepers of Cleveland, the U.S. Census reports occupations and other details which shed light on the lifestyle of each leader of the Life-Saving crew. Samuel Law, who served from 1876-1878, was a ship carpenter from England.  His service as Keeper in Cleveland was brief for reasons that can only be speculated, however, by the 1880 U. S. Census, he had returned to building boats around Cleveland. During his service as Keeper, Charles C. Goodwin (1878-1883) and surfman Lawrence Distel (1883-1894) were both awarded gold medals for their heroic rescue of 29 stranded sailors from the Sophia Minch and the John B. Merrill during the heavy gales of fall 1883 (some accounts record it as 1884).  Charles C. Goodwin began his career on the lake at the age of 14, eventually becoming the tug engineer for the tugs L. P. Smith, Peter Smith, S. S. Stone, Louisa, Enterprise, and Maikwell,. After serving as surfman under Keeper Goodwin, Lawrence Distel was selected to replace him, and served for 11 years.  Charles E. Motley became keeper in 1894, after managing tugs on Lake Huron, and serving as a surfman for the U.L.S.S. on Middle Island.  Despite the rescue of over 800 individuals by Motley and the U.L.S.S. crew, he was never formally recognized for his bravery. The last Keeper of the U.L.S.S. was Hans J. Hanson (in some places Hausin/Hausen). Keeper Hanson saw the transition of the Life-Saving Service to the United States Coast Guard, and remained on watch until his death in 1922.

The history of the Cleveland Life-Saving Service isn’t a unique one, when placed alongside the reports of other United States Life-Saving Stations across the country; however, it is a heroic one, illuminating the actions of some of Cleveland’s earliest maritime heroes.  Many of these heroes are all but forgotten, while some were never recognized as heroes at all. In Part 2, I highlight the achievements of one of these unsung heroes, Keeper Charles E. Motley, and the Motley Crew (pun completely intended).

For Further Reading on the U.S. L.S.S.:

Posted April 1, 2016
Topics: TransportationArchaeology

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