The Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Detroit Free Press (Detroit, MI), 17 Sep 1889

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"I am in Detroit to exhibit an improved boat of my own invention, which I claim possesses all the requisites of a surf life-boat for the saving and preservation of human life from shipwreck," explained Capt. David Porter Dobbins, of Buffalo, Superintendent of the Ninth District United States Lifesaving Service, and a veteran mariner of wide renown, in the lobby of the Michigan Exchange last evening. "I have had fully twenty-five years experience afloat, on sail and steam vessels, fresh and salt waters, as a boy, man, master and owner, and a later thirteen years experience in the United States life saving service. I have participated in many expeditions of relief for the distressed or shipwrecked, and have personally been exposed to every character of disaster or mishap that a boat is liable to encounter in surf or sea. I have participated in the dangers of boat capsizing, swamping, pitchpoling, staving, springing a leak, and being ice-bound. I have been picked up for drowned in the surf, rescued and resuscitated, frost-bitten and disabled - yet spared with life, thank God! to see my efforts rewarded in the saving of many human lives and a vast amount of valuable property. Through all these exciting personal experiences I became convinced of the utter insecurity and inadequacy of the boats generally used for life saving purposes. I believed it possible to remedy some of the defects in the craft, and felt it to be my duty, as a life saver, to interest and try my hand at improvement and invention. I therefore took up and made an exhaustive study of the subject, consulting the various principles and methods of life and surf boat construction, from Lukin's first life boat in 1785 to the successive designs and inventions of Wouldhave, Greathead, Plenty, Palmer, Beeching, Peake and other English designers who strove to excel under the stimulus of a prize of 100 guineas offered by the Duke of Northumberland in 1850 for the best life-boat model. I then extended my researches to the present time and took into account the productions of Francis, Ingersoll, Smith, Raymond, Higgins, Gifford, Beebe, Richardson, Huffs, Hutson, Lewis, Hingston and other prominent American boat builders and designers. I expended much time, labor and money in experiments, building about thirty life and surf boats for the United States and Canadian life-saving services, and seeing them all put into successful operation. I honestly believe that I have overcome the obstacles which have heretofore beset the life-boat builder and have produced perfectly safe, reliable and effective boats for life-saving purposes, and now desire to offer them to the world as the result of my well-founded

convictions and practical efforts to remedy the defects in such boats. That is why I am here to give an exhibition with one of my boats and a crew at the Detroit Exposition. I call my boat the 'Improved Dobbins' Surf Lifeboat.' It is twenty-five feet in length, six and a half feet wide and

two and a half feet in depth. The boat is divided into no less than thirty-six compartments, each of which is packed solidly with prepared cork. This cork will keep my boat afloat, even after the hull is punctured by staving or leakage. It is positively non-sinkable, and will carry twenty-five to twenty-eight persons with ease. The ends are also provided with air-tight cuddies for accomodation of invalids. I expect my boat to attract considerable public attention in Detroit - in fact, I think I have a right to it, when the fact that my father's name is inter-woven with the early history of the city is considered."

"In what manner?" was inquired.

"I will tell you, " Capt. Dobbins replied, pushing his long, slender fingers meditatively through his sparse, gray hair. "My father, Daniel Dobbins, was one of the earliest of the lake navigators. In 1798 he settled in Erie, Pa. Two years later he owned and sailed the schooner Harlequin. Subsequently he sailed the Good Intent, Ranger, Lady Washington and Salina, running chiefly in the service of the Hudson Bay Fur Company. As he lay at Mackinac with the Salina loaded with furs, the British and Indians captured the fort and the vessel. This was one of the opening acts of the War of 1812. Father escaped to Detroit and was here when the village was surrendered by Hull to the British. He escaped by canoe to Sandusky, O., whence he worked his way by sail and horse to Erie. He was then promptly dispatched to Washington with the news of the loss of Detroit and Mackinac. He reached Washington just as General Cass arrived there from Detroit, on the same errand. Father then received a commission from the United States Navy and was ordered poste haste back to Erie to cut timber and build vessels. With his own hands he cut the first stick of timber for Perry's fleet, and having set all the carpenters available at work cutting and hewing, he went to Buffalo and Black Rock in search of skilled workmen. At the latter point he found an old ship carpenter named Crosby and engaged him to work on the fleet. I still have the contract which was drawn up at that time. The remuneration was to be $250 in cash and a pint of whiskey per day. When the work of building Perry's fleet was well under way, the government ship carpenters arrived from New York. Among them was John Richards, whose eldest daughter subsequently became my wife. Father was placed in command of the Ohio in Perry's fleet. After the famous battle of September 10, 1813, he continued an executive officer in the navy and went to the upper lakes in sailing command of the Niagara and other vessels. When peace was declared the fleet was sunk for preservation in shallow water in Presque Isle Bay. Father died in Erie in 1856, aged 85 years. I was born in that city in 1820."

Media Type:
Item Type:
Dobbins' improved surfboat became the standard design for the USLS and was widely used in Canada as well.
Date of Original:
17 Sep 1889
Local identifier:
Language of Item:
Dave Swayze
Copyright Statement:
Public domain: Copyright has expired according to the applicable Canadian or American laws. No restrictions on use.
Maritime History of the Great Lakes
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Detroit Free Press (Detroit, MI), 17 Sep 1889