The mid eighteen hundreds saw the advent of regular ocean travel up and down the Jersey coast; much of it between the busy ports of New York and Philadelphia; and with it came frequent encounters with the shallow shoals and the windward shore, leading to dire consequences for precious passengers, crew and cargo. Ships would become trapped by winds, currents and sandbars…
“So there was a call to save these sailors that were on these ships and to protect the cargo. And that’s what created the Life Saving Service. And until 1872 it was a volunteer service. There was a building built and it was close to this location and a citizen of the community would have the key to the building. In this case it was Leaming Godfrey.
Leaming Godfrey, whose descendants are still a prominent part of the community and whose great, great, great grandsons joined the modern-day Coast Guard.
“If a shipwreck came on the beach he would rally people together and they would go do the rescue. But they realized early on that that was hard to control, it was hard to keep the equipment up, it was hard to keep the buildings up. And allot of it fell in disrepair; maybe not so much here in Ocean City but in other places there was allot of pilferage, boats fell into rack and ruin, and in 1872 they created a paid service.”
Along with Ocean City’s Station number 30, there were a total of 42 Life Saving Stations established in New Jersey
“7 surfmen worked in this station with the man in charge was a keeper. The Keeper is responsible for running the station, doing all the paperwork; because it was government, because it was the federal government, there were daily – weekly – monthly and annual reports. And all of that was to justify the money that you needed to get out of the federal government for the service”
Although there may have been many reasons for these brave aspiring men to become members of the Life Saving Service; there were some qualifications for getting the job…
“You had to pass a physical, you had to be able to read and write and to be fairly literate, you didn’t have to be a college graduate but you did have to be literate. You had to understand the alphabet and code flags / code signals. And men were all numbered 1 thru 7. 1 was high 7 was low. And it depended on your skill level. And you might come in at a 7 and work your way up and you might come in as a 5 and work your way up.”
Being a surfmen was surely a hard job… but that was apparently a lifestyle that these men were already accustomed to.
“In doing the research we found that where you find these men in the national census, when you go back before they were in the Life Saving Service you’ll find they were called “watermen”. A waterman is someone who made their living on the water… whether they were an oysterman, a clamer, a commercial fisherman or they worked a deckhand on a boat a schooner or something. I believe allot of the men that served in the service probably had some harrowing experience at some points in their life. They felt they had to pay back in a way. Plus it was a paycheck from the government. A dirt farmer in Tuckahoe in the national census might be worth 50 bucks. Whereas a guy in the Life Saving Service, especially a 1, 2 or 3 might be worth 500 bucks in the national census. So it was a job. It was a job that gave you a paycheck; but there were no benefits, no retirement, no old folks home… ”
On the other hand, working as a surfmen may have set the stage for high adventure in the late 1800’s
“Allot of times a kid in the neighborhood or on the island would aspire to be in the lifesaving service. A kid might come along as a bailer; in a boat. Now put that in perspective… Now here you are 20 degrees, 42 degrees’ water temperature, 10 foot seas… now what mother in her right mind is going to allow a kid to climb in a surf boat and go bail it; in his wool jacket, and his leather boots, and they don’t have a life jacket that fits him? Ha, and the lifejacket was minimal to start with. All it was was a canvas vest with cork sewn on to it.”
But, every minute of every day, these men were standing by… waiting for the next opportunity to go out and save lives and cargo
“As far as we can tell there were no major injuries in the time frame that this was a lifesaving station. There were common things like colds and so forth but no major injury that would have taken a man out of the service or might have killed somebody. If a keeper became ill, or had to be out of service for maybe a month, surfmen number one would take over. And allot of times the service would rotate surfmen in and out of stations. Like a man from Tuckerton would come here and a man from Tuckerton might fill in to make up a compliment of a full crew if they needed somebody that had capability.”
We are left only to speculate about a sufmen’s motivation and dedication to duty…
“But I think allot of these guys they felt they had to pay back somehow. And allot of guys filtered in and out of the system too. They’d come work at a station for a couple years and then go work on a boat or something and come back and work in the service. Started out at a lower level and then worked your way up. And ultimately when you became 1 or 2 you were in next step to becoming keeper. There was a bunk room upstairs where everybody it was like a big dormitory with lockers. That’s where the surfmen stayed. The other room upstairs was a private room for the keeper. He had his own bedroom. Allot of times the keeper would give up his room upstairs to surfmen number one as a perk, and he would sleep in his office, the keeper. But the reality of the keepers office is on this level – one door away from the cook stove in the kitchen so it had to be a warmer scenario in the winter…. And surfmen number one were pretty well revered by the keepers because they were the guy they could rely on in they were out of commission or they had to go off to do something, surfmen number 1 was responsible for the operation of the station.”
The era from the end of the Civil War in the 1860’s and around the start of the Life Saving Service was also the dawn on photography – the precious visual history that lets us look back and see the station as it was then…
“Photographs of this station? I think if we’re lucky we have 10.
We recently came across a photograph and it’s Mackie Corson and the crew standing in front of the boathouse doors… 1897 I think. And it was done with a large format camera. One of the professional big box cameras? It’s an incredibly accurate photograph. I mean it looks like it was done digitally today – I mean it almost looks fake it’s so good. It’s an amazing piece of 1897 documentation of Ocean City. Shows the back bay and the boats and all the stuff, There’s this one picture of Mackie Corson and the crew standing in front of the station and it had to be either in the fall or in the early spring because the men are wearing sweaters and Mackie Corson is wearing his keepers coat but he has the summer white hat on. So he doesn’t have his full summer uniform on, but he doesn’t have his full winter uniform on either. He’s mixed it.
“John Mackie Corson, he worked here for 14 years. He was around during the wreck of the Sindia. He was one of the principals of the wreck of the Sindia. Before him there was a guy named Willits. Before that there were a couple Godfrey’s. And one of our last keepers here was a fellow by the name of Blackman. And Blackman went on to become a superior court judge in the State of New Jersey. But allot of these men ya know it was a career. And allot of these men, 30 days, 60 days after they stopped work here were in their graves. They worked right up until the end. Didn’t have a lot afterward. It was a pretty rigorous life to be able to do this. And I’ve always said I could go to the gym today and find 7 of the biggest animals in the gym and they couldn’t do what these guys did on a regular base. You look at the photographs of these guys and they were pretty lean –They were wiry.”