The Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Oswego Palladium (Oswego, NY), Dec. 11, 1886

Full Text
Salad For Saturday


"I delight in telling what I think - and I shall go on just as before, seeing whatever I can, and telling what I see." -Emerson


"Thou little knowest
What he can brave, who, born and nurst
In Danger's paths, has dared her worst."

I am going to speak to-day of the heroes of the coast - of one of the grandest institutions ever organized and maintained by any government on earth - of the United States Life Saving Service, with particular attention to that portion of it that operates in Oswego. The daring deeds of life savers are often chronicled in the daily newspapers and especially during that part of the season just passed.

It is only once a year, however, that the official report of the entire Life Saving Service is published by the government. This volume in itself displays a huge collection of incidents of the gallant preservation of both life and property as not only to bring forth thousands of encomiums from the shipping world, but also to cause all to be thankful for the inception of so humane an institution.

The average landsman has no idea of the awful dangers encountered by the life savers or of the hardships they undergo while keeping their constant vigils along the coasts. To give a complete history of the Life Saving Service would require more space than we find at our command. Briefly, it was along the notoriously dangerous coast of New Jersey that the Government, in 1848, placed a few rude huts that became the beginning of what has since become the United States Life Saving Service.

These little dwellings were expected to afford a shelter to the distressed sailors cast upon the shore, and to contain the clumsy boats and such other appliances as were then in use. These were used on occasions of shipwreck by volunteers, generally from among the brave fishermen along the coast. Small and inadequate appropriations were occasionally made by Congress.

The huts were extended to other coats, but after all, it amounted to but little for lack of a head and coherent organization. The difficulty was finally overcome by the appointment of Samuel L. Kimball as general superintendent in 1871, under whose able management the present excellent system was developed and perfected.

The service now, according to the report under preparation to Congress, comprises 211 stations, 38 of these being on the Great Lakes. Pleasant and comfortable buildings have taken the place of the rude huts and here are kept ready for instant use the most improved appliances for the saving of life. After the stations were built and equipped it was several years before the crews were taken into regular service and those oat some important stations are still volunteers.

It was not until October 14, 1877 that the station at Oswego was put in charge of a picked crew under command of Captain John Blackburn. The lake and sea coats of the United States exceeds more than ten thousand miles and, as is well known, the dangers are no greater anywhere than along the lakes. Only those persons who live within sound of the breakers have any idea of the dangers attendant upon lake navigation and only those among whom the sailors go in and out, take an active interest in the work of the life crews.

Where possible, the crews of the stations along the lakes are made up of men chosen from the sturdy fishermen brought up on the shore, and to whom the lake in all its moods, are familiar. Whenever a wreck is signaled, they court death in a dozen different ways; for it is only in the most tempestuous weather that vessels are driven ashore. Those having little or no knowledge of the sea cannot understand how it is that the brave life savers follow a calling which compels them to trudge along miles of beach, or how it is they scorn the idea of resting in on warm beds in the station on nights when it is almost cold enough to freeze the very marrow in their bones and the wind is traveling with such velocity that progress is almost impossible, or why it is they toil unremittingly in water up to their waists, with numbed fingers in order to cast a life line to the helpless sailors on storm-tossed vessels. The philanthropic disposition of most of the men, alone incites them, to devote their whole existence to, and imperil their lives in the good cause. The question of compensation is secondary with them - the pay being barely necessary to meet the requirements of life.

When it was first decided to locate a station at Oswego a site was selected near the western limits of the new harbor. It was soon discovered that this was an impracticable point from which to work advantageously and the station was removed to the present location, close to the shore, east of the harbor and at the foot of the high embankment at Fort Ontario. Since the station was first organized it has saved property valued at many times more than the cost of maintaining the crew to say nothing of the half hundred or more lives that have been saved. There are but four stations on Lake Ontario, one at Oswego, one at Texas, one at Big Sandy Creek and one at Charlotte, the latter a volunteer station, the crew of which has been many times called upon to rescue imperiled seamen. Indeed all of the crews have been called upon to render assistance many times. But now for something more particularly about the Oswego crew and their work.

Captain John Blackburn, who has charge of the crew, is an old and experienced sailor and is recognized as one of the most competent men in the service. He was born in Londonderry, Ireland, in 1832, on the middle day of the month of June. he early began a sailor's life, shipping with an uncle when but ten years of age, in a vessel trading along the coast of Ireland. He continued with his uncle until fourteen years old when he came to the United States.

Soon after his arrival here he shipped as lamp boy on the propeller "Hibernia," one of the earliest propellers on the lakes, running between Hamilton, Ont., and Montreal. A year or so afterwards he shipped as a common sailor in the schooner "Royalist," Captain Edward Zealand, who went down with the propeller "Zealand" a few years ago off Presque Isle. In December, 1854, he came to Oswego and has lived here ever since.

He continued to follow the lakes, and his aptitude secured for him in 1856 a captain's berth on the schooner "Mary" sailing out of Coburg, Ont. After he had laid up the "Mary" for the winter, he was engaged to take command of the schooner "Caroline," which was kept running late into the Fall. While on the vessel he was caught out in a terrible storm and his vessel was dismasted off Whitby.

His next sailing was as mate and pilot of the schooner Jessie Drummond, still a frequent visitor to the port of Oswego. The Drummond was then sailed by Captain Jackman, an uncle of the Captain Jackman who now sails the well known Canadian schooner "Gold Hunter." When the war broke out, or just before, Captain Blackburn joined the Navy, enlisting at New York. He was assigned to the supply steamer Vanderbilt and was afterwards transferred to the gunboat "Albatross," stationed at Galveston, Texas. He served in various capacities until the close of the war and then returned to Oswego.

He was appointed master of the schooner "Traveller" owned by D. C. Whitney & Co., of Detroit, and remained in her three years. He then brought out the schooner "Glad Tidings," owned by the same firm, and in the Fall of the first season had an adventure that demonstrated that he was made of good metal. While loading on the shore of Lake Huron the vessel was caught in a sudden storm and went ashore. The small boat was carried away and as the schooner was in a dangerous position Captain Blackburn decided that in order to save her help must be telegraphed for at once. After giving proper instructions to his mate, he threw off his outer clothing, sprang over the vessel's side and struck out for the shore. He was a good swimmer and gained the beach in safety. he made his way to the nearest telegraph office, sent a message to Detroit, and soon the steamer "Magnet" came up and released his vessel.

He was the first commander of the schooner "West Side" of Oswego, now sailed by Captain Quigley. He also brought out the schooner "Daniel Lyons." During his career as a sailor he saw much rough weather and went through many fierce storms, but never lost a sailor, certainly a remarkable record. He was on Lake Michigan in the schooner Lyons that terrible night when the schooner "Gilbert Mollison," Captain "Joe" Turner, was sent to the bottom with all hands. Capt. Blackburn was appointed Harbor Master of the port of Oswego in 1877 and in the Fall of the same year first received the keys of the life saving station. He has proved his efficiency on more than one occasion in that position.

Probably no crew on the lakes has been called upon more times to render assistance than the one stationed here, and certainly none perform their duties more faithfully. The station did not open until December, '77, and there was but one disaster that fall which required the services of the crew. In 1878 they were called out four times, and one less during the following year. In the year 1880 there were seven disasters and accidents at which their services were requited, and two or three crews were taken off in safety from stranded vessels.

During this year it fell to the lot of Captain Blackburn and his men to save the lives of several yachtsmen who had been capsized in the yacht "Silver Cloud," now owned at Syracuse. The Rev. William Smith, then pastor of the Congregational church and now located near Chicago, was on board the yacht. He was a heavy man and had a pretty close call. Captain Blackburn pulled him into the life boat and as he did so remarked that if he had the minister at the station he would give him "a drop of good brandy."

"Well," said the clergyman, "a drop of brandy wouldn't go bad for I have had a mouthful or two of very bad water."

Mr. Smith was a Scotchman and talked rather "Scotchy." Despite the rather serious situation, everybody in the boat burst out laughing at the remark.

During the year 1881, the life saving crew rendered assistance four times. The year 1882 was a bad one for sailors and the crew was called out ten times to render assistance in various ways. During this season Captain Blackburn and Mate Smith jumped off the pier and saved the lives of two little girls who had fallen into the lake. During the year 1883 there were eleven mishaps at which the crew rendered assistance, They made two exciting rescues that season. One was of the crew of the schooner "Geo. C. Finney," which went ashore five miles west of Oswego. On this occasion they launched their boat in a heavy surf and after getting part way to the schooner were capsized.

The water was very cold and it was with great difficulty that the crew regained the shore. The boat was secured and again launched, the crew going out in her in their cold and frozen clothing. The vessel's crew was brought safely to the shore at this attempt. During the same storm the little schooner "Vision" was driven ashore at 2 o'clock in the morning under a bluff near the Midland railroad shops. A fearful sea was running, but the surf boat was promptly launched and after a tempestuous trip the crew reached the vessel, half a mile away. The sea was breaking over the little schooner and the boat could not come near her.

As soon as she came within hailing distance Captain Blackburn shouted to the vessel's crew to jump into the boat as he passed under the stern. The sailors did not need a second invitation, and as the life boat swept past the vessel's stern they all tumbled into her. It was impossible to pull the life boat back to the station in the storm and the next wave carried her high up on the beach, where all landed in safety. The vessel, I believe, was dashed to pieces. During the years 1884 and 1885 the crew rendered assistance 22 times, and some of the rescues were as thrilling as those I have described. During the season that came to a close yesterday the crew rendered assistance four times.

During these years the personnel of the crew has changed many times. The men are distinguished by numbers and those discharged yesterday, besides Captain Blackburn,
Palmer Knight, No. 1
Robert Wright, (recently killed) No. 2
James Price, No. 3
William Hardie, No. 4
Joseph Goodroe, No. 5
George Gray, No. 6
Henry Murray, No. 7

During the past six years the writer has seen the life savers rescue four crews from wrecked vessels and during a terribly stormy night recently he spent several hours at the station and knows something of the hardship the men undergo. It will be understood that these men are living apart from their families, friends and associations and as they are constantly at the station, their life seems monotonous, though a very busy one.

Their hours of drill and practice are as regular as those of the soldier on duty. They have their beats along the shore that must be regularly and constantly patrolled. This duty is particularly severe and tedious during stormy nights. But no matter what the storm may be it must be faced. There is no such thing as turning back. This is the very time when the duty is most imperative. Many lives may be depending on the watchful care of these men.

The patrolmen carry a time clock, or "detective." There are but two keys to it. One is fastened at the station - the other in a post at the further end of the beat on the shore. When the patrolman starts on his beat, he inserts the station key at that registers the time he was there. The captain carries the only key that will unlock the clock and he inspects it each morning and inserts a new dial. Every Sunday the dials used during the week are shipped to Washington. The patrolman discovering a vessel being driven ashore or in distress, takes the initial step in the operation of the rescue.

He carries in addition to his lantern a signal, which, when ignited, throws out a brilliant red light. This is to warn those on watch at the station that something is wrong. While the rest of the crew are getting the boat and apparatus ready, the patrolman hurries back to the station with his information and ready to take his place in the boat. They never flinch in the face of danger and the warmest sympathy exists between them and sailors.

A daily record of the state of weather and a complete journal is kept by the captain. The stations are kept in the neatest possible manner. At the Oswego station there is an English patent boat, that was exhibited at the Centennial in 1876 and is named in honor of that occasion. There is also one of the Dobbins self-righting and bailing boats called the "Dreadnaught." Besides these, there is a life car, breeches buoy, lines, a Lysle gun for throwing a line over a vessel, shot lines, mortars, rockets and a hundred other articles that are all used in life saving operations.

A small cart is kept loaded in the station, ready to drag down the beach, with all the appliances necessary for rescuing a crew, where a line can be shot over the vessel. A quantity of extra clothing, furnished by the Ladies Aid Society, is kept constantly on hand. There is much more that might be told about the operations of the service but there is not space here to devote to it.

During the season just closed, in the field of all stations, there were 322 disasters to vessels. There were on board these vessels 2,726 persons of whom 2,699 were saved. The number of shipwrecked persons who received succor at the stations was 897, to whom 2,000 days' relief in the aggregate was afforded. The estimated value of vessels involved in the disasters was $4,428,330, and that of their cargoes $2,073,805, making the total value of property imperiled $7,502,135. Of this amount, $5,073,078 was saved and $1,429,057 was lost. The number of vessels totally lost was 88.

In addition to persons saved from vessels there were 36 others rescued who had fallen from wharves, piers, etc. There were besides 224 instances where vessels running into danger and stranding were warned off by the signals of the patrol; most of them thus being probably saved from partial or total destruction. During one day the past season there were 23 wrecks within the scope of the service. By the present system, since 1871, 28,317 have been saved from wrecks by life crews.

Is not the United States Life Saving Service not a noble institution?

En Passant.

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Date of Original:
Dec. 11, 1886
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Richard Palmer
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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Oswego Palladium (Oswego, NY), Dec. 11, 1886