The concept of assistance to shipwrecked mariners from shore based stations began with volunteer lifesaving services, spearheaded by the Massachusetts Humane Society. It was recognized that only small boats stood a chance in assisting those close to the beach. A sailing ship trying to help near to the shore stood a good chance of also running aground, especially if there were heavy onshore winds. The Massachusetts Humane Society founded the first lifeboat station at Cohassett, Massachusetts. The stations were small shed-like structures, holding rescue equipment that was to be used by volunteers in case of a wreck. The stations, however, were only near the approaches to busy ports and, thus, large gaps of coastline remained without lifesaving equipment.
In 1848 the federal government entered the shore based lifesaving business. William A. Newell, a Congress-man from New Jersey, made a "vigorous and victorious" appeal to Congress for $10,000 to provide "surf boats, rockets, carronades and other necessary apparatus for the better preservation of life and property from ship - wrecks on the coasts of New Jersey ....." The Massachusetts Humane Society also requested, and received, funds for stations on the coastline. The stations were to be administered by the U.S. Revenue Marine (later called the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service), within the Treasury Department. Actually, once the stations were built, they were run like a volunteer fire department, but without anyone in charge, nor any inspection system to insure that men and equipment were up to standards.
The lifesaving system managed to continue under this type of organization for the next six years. Then a strong storm swept the East Coast in 1854. Many sailors died because there were not enough lifesaving stations and equipment had not been properly cared for. One town, in fact, used its lifeboat "alternately as a trough for mixing mortar and a tub for scalding hogs."
Again, Congress appropriated funds for more stations. This time, however, some of the money was used to employ a full-time keeper at each station. Also included was money to hire two superintendents to supervise the stations along the New Jersey and Long Island coasts. The problems, however, continued. As one old salt recalled, the ‘only person on duty was a keeper who received $200 a year, and if he discovered a vessel in distress he had to collect a volunteer crew.