The History of the Cleveland Life-Saving Service: Part 2 of 3

Keeper Charles Motley and the Motley Crew

If you came here to read a blog post about a heavy-metal rock band donning leather-studded vests and the entire line of M.A.C. cosmetics, I’m sorry to disappoint you. I tried, in vain, to pull a single similarity between Mötley Crüe and the real Motley Crew, but the two subjects could not be further removed in time, action, or fashion. The Motley Crew of the Cleveland Life-Saving Station contributed much more than a flashy glam-rock show with suggestive (although catchy!) lyrics. Under the leadership of Captain Charles E. Motley, the Cleveland Life-Saving crew did just that- they rescued lives. They provided a service to the community of Cleveland not for fame, recognition, or wealth, but because it was the right thing to do. It is for that very reason that I decided to go beyond my inventory of Ohio shipwrecks (which you can read about here if you haven’t already: ) and explore their significant contribution to the history of Ohio.

Charles Edward Motley was born in Norwalk, Ohio on May 4, 1855 to William and Rebecca Motley, immigrants from England. At the age of twelve, Charles and his family moved to Alpena, Michigan, where commerce and industry was rapidly driving the post-Civil War community. A year later, while attending school in Alpena , Charles took a job as a cabin boy on the steamer Huron. He stayed with the Huron for several seasons as steward before entering the fishing industry at Sugar Island. In 1883, records show that Motley began managing three tugs for S. H. Davis & Company, known for their innovations in creating early American glass gill net floats (See picture).  While out on Lake Huron with one of the three tugs (Fisherman, Angler, or Sea Wing) on August 19, 1883, Motley encountered a heavy gale that began to batter his tug, as well as several schooners also traveling along the lake.  Recognizing distress signals from the schooner Sunnyside, Motley neared the vessel, discovering that Sunnyside had received severe damage during a collision with another schooner, the S. H. Foster.  It isn’t exactly clear how much assistance Captain Motley provided to the Sunnyside, however an account in History of the Great Lakes : Volume II by J. B. Mansfield suggests that this rescue may have heavily influenced Motley’s interests in pursuing a life-saving career.

In June 1891, Charles Motley was selected to begin his career as a surfman for the United States Life-Saving Service on Middle Island, Michigan. Here, he served only one season before moving to Cleveland and taking on a positon as manager of three fishing tugs; Helene, Ideal, and Jesse Enos. Interestingly, in the reports for the history of the Middle Island Life-Saving Station, Charles Motley’s younger brother, Eugene, is recorded as becoming the station Keeper in 1898, a fact that leads me to believe that life-saving was a family trait. After his move to Cleveland, Charles must have built his reputation with the community of local waterman quite rapidly, because by 1894 he was selected to begin his career as Keeper of the Cleveland Life-Saving Service.  Since Motley had only served as a surfman for one season, his experience on the water as a fisherman must have significantly impressed Edwin Chapman, the District 9 Superintendent of the Life-Saving Service. Chapman was also new to his position, having served as a Keeper at the Oswego Life-Saving Station in New York from 1889 until 1892, when he was appointed Superintendent. Whether Chapman knew Motley personally, or through the maritime community may never be known for sure, but given the nature of the Keeper selection process, what can be assumed is that Charles Motley was a highly respected man of the Cleveland area.

The appointment of Captain Motley as Keeper couldn’t have come at a more fitting time for Cleveland. The year prior had seen a surge in unemployment, followed by the May Day riots, which spread throughout the city during May of 1894. Cleveland was experiencing a rise in activity on the water as well.  Increased logging and mining, including the booming Kelleys Island lime industry, had resulted in heavy lake traffic.  This, combined with the already established fishing industry, as well as the inconsistent Lake Erie weather, resulted in the dire need for a strong Life-Saving Service Keeper to maintain safety on the Cleveland waters. As Keeper, Motley was responsible for selecting surfmen to serve under him. The selection of surfmen was similar to that of selecting a Keeper, in that crewmen had to be experienced watermen, and respected in their community. The bond between Keeper and crew had to be a strong one, since these men were willing to risk their lives for each other in order to perform their duties to the Cleveland community. During his thirteen seasons as Keeper, Charles Motley must have chosen the, “right men for the job,” helping him assist and rescue over 823 individuals from 180 distressed vessels.  Accounts from the Annual Report of the United States Life-Saving Service  record each of these events, ranging from capsized skiffs to sinking schooners battling the raging waves of Lake Erie.

The wreck of the Sarah E. Sheldon is one such event where the Motley Crew were called to action without a moment to spare.  On October 20, 1905, after passing Avon Point on its way to deliver coal from Cleveland to Sarnia, Ontario, the Sheldon encountered a strong gale out of the southwest. As she began to leak, water gradually rose past the boilers on the Sheldon, stifling the fires and causing her to lose power. She grounded offshore, beginning to break apart as the waves persistently crashed onto her hull. The crewmen were forced to climb the masts, clinging for their lives as they anxiously awaited assistance from the tugs Kunkle Brothers and Frank W., which towed the Cleveland Life-Saving Service in a lifeboat. The Kunkle Brothers was able to rescue 5 of the stranded crewmen before having to retreat for fear of also being lost in the storm.  Anchored to Frank W., Captain Motley and crew threw a rescue line to those still on board of the sinking Sarah Sheldon, one by one using the breeches-buoy system to rescue 7 crewman (See image of breeches-buoy system painted by Winslow Homer). Two more crewmen, John Fox and Henry Johnson, were lost as the waves tossed them upon the stormy lake. Reports of the wreck from local papers detail how perilous the ordeal was to both the crew of the Sarah E. Sheldon, and those of the Life-Saving Service, Frank W and Kunkle Brothers. When interviewed by the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Captain Motley described the incident, “I tell you, it looked for a time as if someone would have to come out and rescue the lifesavers … When a big wave would strike up, we would be fifteen feet above the steamer, looking down upon her decks”  (10/22/1905). The Carnegie Medal was awarded three years later to the crew of Frank W for their heroism.  The Motley Crew, however, just did what was their duty, receiving no other recognition.


When he wasn’t risking life and limb on duty at the Life-Saving Station, Charles Motley risked life and limb for fun…ice-boat racing. Several articles within the Cleveland Plain Dealer list Motley as Commodore of the Cleveland Ice Yacht Club, a club established out of the prominent Cleveland Yacht Club in 1905. For several winter seasons, Motley captained the ice-boat Icicle, winning first place in repeated Lake Erie races. It seems that if Motley wasn’t popular before his time as Keeper of the Cleveland Life-Saving Service, he steadily gained a local reputation. In Cleveland Plain Dealer articles alone, Charles Motley is mentioned by name 28 times from the years 1895 to 1907. I’m not sure about blog readers, but I am quite sure that I have never been featured by name in a paper even close to 28 times!

On May 31st, 1907, Keeper Motley resigned from the Cleveland Life-Saving Service. There is no information as of yet which details why he resigned, but after thirteen seasons with the Life-Saving Service, longer than any other Keepers at Cleveland, I would venture a guess that he was exhausted.  A career as a Life-Saver involved physical exertion, quick wit, and witnessing the good and bad of the human experience. The Motley Crew rescued hundreds from Lake Erie, but they also recovered the bodies of those who drowned. At least 163 bodies were pulled from the waters of the Cleveland shoreline during Motley’s service. As is true with our modern first responders and serviceman, Keeper Motley and the U.S. Life-Saving surfmen encountered heartbreaking tragedies as well as successes, events that surely stayed with them long after their careers had ended.

By 1920, Charles E. Motley, his wife Olivine, and their three children (Celia, Charles Jr., and Arthur) had moved to Erie, Pennsylvania. The U. S. Census Report for that year lists Motley’s occupation as Captain, suggesting that although he had put his career with the U.S. Life-Saving Service behind him, he had not yet given up his love of being on the lake. On January 9th, 1929, after a life of service on the lake, Captain Motley passed away from conditions described as, “cerebral hemorrhage” and “chronic nephritis.”  Under “occupation of deceased” on the official certificate of death, it simply states “Retired Lake Captain.” In researching the life of Captain Motley, however, I can’t help but feel that his occupation was so much more than that. Captain Motley exemplified what it is to serve without want of praise or recognition. He, and the Motley Crew, were some of the best that Cleveland had to offer, leaving behind a legacy of unparalleled heroism.

No, the Motley Crew were not rock stars. They were fishermen, tug captains, ice-boat racers, and most importantly, they were life savers.  Unlike Keepers Goodwin and Distel, and the crew of Kunkle Brothers, Charles Motley and the others serving under him, were never formerly recognized with medals for their bravery. Perhaps Captain Motley did not want to be recognized, or, perhaps he was simply overlooked as the Life-Saving Service began the transition into the United States Coast Guard.  Regardless, the notion of an unsung community of heroes, with Motley at the helm, is what drew me in to such a diligent study of this part of Cleveland’s history.  If heroes such as these exist, shouldn’t they be recognized?  In Part 3 of this blog series I will highlight the process of establishing an Ohio Historical Marker to honor Captain Motley and the Life-Saving Service crew.

If you are interested in contributing to, or sponsoring this Historical Marker, please feel free to contact me by email, at [email protected] or phone, (614) 298-2068.

For More Information on Captain Motley:
Mansfield, J. B. History of the Great Lakes: Volume II J.H. Beers & Company, 1899. Pp. 234
Wachter, Georgann and Michael, Erie Wrecks West. Corporate Impact, Avon Lake, Ohio: 2001, pp. 170-211.

Posted April 7, 2016
Topics: TransportationArchaeology

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