Early lifesaving service on Sullivan’s Island

  • Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Suzannah Smith Miles PHOTO BY MARNIE HUGER


Beach season is upon us and the waters are becoming a “sea” of swimmers, surfers, boogie-boarders, kayakers, parasailers, paddle boarders and folks on sailboats and power boats of every size, shape and description. A day spent at the beach or on the water can be glorious, but all it takes is a sudden storm, an unseen ocean current and an over-confident swimmer to create a sea witch's brew of trouble.

From the very beginning of Sullivan's Island's popularity as a summer resort, drownings occurred with alarming frequency. At least one drowning occurred a year and, like today, the victims were more often than not, younger people.

In 1894, there had been so many incidents that the News and Courier wrote in an editorial, “If a half or a tenth as many bathers as have been drowned in the surf at Sullivan's Island had been killed by sharks, the resort would either have been abandoned for bathing purposes, or measures would have been taken long ago to prevent such ‘accidents.'”

The two places where most drownings occurred in the 1890s are still the danger spots today — Breach Inlet and the waters at the Grillage in front of Fort Moultrie. Both look deceptively calm and inviting to the unwary, especially at low tide. It seems impossible that below that glassy smooth “lake” are deep holes and treacherous currents with undertows that can sweep you under in seconds.

Even the beach sand is unstable. One can be standing at the water's edge at Breach Inlet in only two inches of water and the sand will suddenly drop out beneath you and, in a flash, you're swimming for shore. At both Breach Inlet and the Grillage, there are places where the drop-off is so abrupt it only takes two or three steps to be in water over your head.

Today, both Isle of Palms and Sullivan's Island have volunteer rescue squads to assist people when they get in trouble. Their predecessor in earlier times were the surfmen of the U.S. Lifesaving Service, the forerunner of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Although the U.S. Lifesaving Service originated in 1848, it originally only served coastal New England. It wasn't until 1884 that the first station was built on Morris Island, chosen because of its proximity to the main shipping channel which then ran parallel to that island. With the building of the jetties (which changed the shipping channel to its present position) and Sullivan's Island's growing popularity, the station was reassigned to Sullivan's Island in 1894, manned between August and March when the worst storms were likely to affect the coast.

The first commander or “keeper” was Capt. John Adams who oversaw a crew of six surfmen. These men provided services that went far beyond merely saving swimmers in trouble at the beach. They were the first responders when a vessel ran into trouble at sea, in a nearby inlet or creek or in the harbor. Their tools were their strength as strong swimmers and the surfboat, which they often had to launch through pounding breakers, for rarely did a ship wreck in good weather. Once they reached a distressed vessel, they then had to deal with saving lives amidst the wreckage of downed masts, spars and lines, then row back through the surf with survivors, some of whom were badly injured.

Because of the nature of their job – living on the beach and having (luckily) long spells between rescues – one writer for the News and Courier in 1897 could not refrain from giving them a bit of a friendly dig.

“The duties of the service are of course hazardous at times, but as a general rule, the life savers have an easy and comfortable berth. They lounge about the station and the beach, smoke their pipes ... view the pretty girls in bathing or on the promenade, eat three square meals a day, have no trouble to speak of and take life as easy as in this mortal span can possibly be endured. For several months, only Uncle Sam maintains this station. During the latter part of the summer and the fall of the year, the life savers will be stationed at the Island, ready to give their assistance to save the humblest citizen from drowning ... Capt. Adams is making an effort to get together the finest looking set of men he has yet had under him, probably on the principle that if they are to adorn the beach they should be handsome ornaments.”

These “handsome ornaments” proved their merit over and over again as the years progressed and they saved lives.

In August 1912, the lifesaving station took on another important duty with the formation of the island's first fire brigade. Officially known as the First Company of the Fire Brigade of Moultrieville, it was headed by the lifesaving service's keeper, Capt. J. H. Fromberger, who was elected as fire chief.

An article in the August 3, 1912, News and Courier describing the formation of the brigade also listed the volunteers, names familiar to long-time islanders:

“Three young men have volunteered in the corps as scouts, and each of these three owns a horse. Their duties will start with the turning in of every alarm, and they will be counted on to race from one point on the island to the next and rouse the members of the fire department, and get residents and helpers to the blaze ... The following members have joined the company, M. Meyer, J. Bomere, George D. Truesdale, Don Devereux, W. T. Damwoode, Moultrie McKevlin, W. B. Coste, George J. L. Metz, H. W. Hopke, R. McKevlin, Norbet Delaney, Eugene Blanchard, B. Tapio, D. McGurlicke, Theodore Blanchard, C. Cook and every member of the life saving corps. Each of the members lives at either Station 19 or Station 20.”

Also joining were the African-Americans who lived on the island, their names listed in the newspaper as, “William Gourdin, T. Senate, B. Pleasants, A. McNeil, C. Stent, B. Parsons, H. Coleman, P. Mackelwale, H. Venning, William Parker, Eugene Potter, W. Kenale and E. Johnson.”

In January 1915, the Lifesaving Service merged with the U.S. Revenue Cutter service to form the United States Coast Guard. The Sullivan's Island Coast Guard station remained an active installation until 1973, when it was decommissioned. Today, the boathouse and other buildings are designated as the Sullivan's Island Historic Coast Guard District and on the National Register of Historic Places, under the purview of the United States Park Service.

Lowcountry historian Suzannah Smith Miles is the author of “The Islands: Sullivan's Island and Isle of Palms, an Illustrated History.”

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