The United States Coast Guard is noted for many accomplishments, but foremost in the public's mind is the Service's efforts in helping those "in peril upon the seas." Indeed, all of the various federal agencies that were brought together to form the modern day United States Coast Guard dealt in some manner with assisting those that were in distress or in helping the prevention of loss of life at sea.
The U.S. Lighthouse Service, for example, maintained lighthouses and sea markers to warn ships from danger. Lighthouse keepers also helped people who were in danger close to their stations. Each year the annual reports of the Service were filled with the accounts of keepers saving lives. The cutters of the U. S. Revenue Cutter Service assisted mariners in distress offshore. The Service began winter cruising, in 1831, to provide rescue craft when sailing ships were most likely to run afoul of bad weather. The Steamboat Inspection Service was established in 1838 in an effort to prevent disasters before they occurred. Despite the many accomplishments of these agencies, the organization that contributed the most to the U.S. Coast Guard's image as a lifesaver was the U.S. Life-Saving Service. It is important that the story of this Service be detailed, for many of the U.S. Coast Guard's procedures in search and rescue can be traced to this small service.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries large sections of the United States' eastern seaboard were sparsely populated. The crew of any ship running aground could expect very little, if any, help. As maritime trade increased, so did the demand for assistance for those wrecked near the shore. The chances of ships running aground is illustrated by examining the approaches to the nineteenth century port of New York, at the time the fastest growing city on the eastern seaboard. A sailing ship had to make a long funnel-like approach to the busy port, with the coast of New Jersey on the one side and the coast of Long Island, New York, on the other. During a strong noreaster, a sailing craft could be driven upon New Jersey's lee shore. Both coasts contained sandbars located between 300 to 800 yards offshore. In a storm, any ship stranded on the sandbars usually went to pieces within a few hours. Few people could survive a 300 yard swim in 40 degree storm-tossed surf. Even if a few sailors managed somehow to reach the beach in winter, they stood a good chance of perishing from exposure on the largely uninhabited shore. On January 2, 1837 for example, the American bark Mexico wrecked on the New Jersey coast and all 112 emigrant passengers on board were lost.