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The First Federal Lifesaving Station

Twin Lights in 100 Artifacts: #2

New Jersey’s shore, today enjoyed by millions for its boardwalks and long sandy beaches had quite a different character over 170 years ago. The barrier islands, then sparely settled were considered undesirable – fit only for grazing cattle and fishing. The waters just off shore were also considered so dangerous they were sometimes labeled the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” for the many shoals lurking beneath the waves could easily cause shipwrecks.

The salvage of shipwrecks was a lucrative, but unpredictable, business done under the employ of the Insurance Agents who wished to pay out as little as possible on the shipwreck. The saving of life from those wrecks was equally spotty due to the desolate nature of the beaches and over-all lack of training and equipment for this purpose.

William Newell, 1864 – 1866, Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives

It was not until Monmouth County physician, William A. Newell, advocated for a $10,000 congressional appropriation in 1848 that the emphasis began to shift from salvaging cargo to saving passengers. Newell’s passionate pleas to aid shipwrecked victims began after he witnessed the wreck of the Terasto on Long Beach Island nearly a decade earlier. All its passengers and crew drowned within sight of onlookers on the beach who had no means to save them.

The new stations were organized under the supervision of Captain Douglas Ottinger of the United States Revenue Marine. He selected the best rescue equipment then available, which was already in use by the Massachusetts Humane Society, Great Britain’s Royal National Lifeboat Institution, and the Revenue Marine.

Earliest known photo of the 1849 station, circa 1900. National Archives, Record Group 26

Each completed boathouse was left in the care of a local volunteer “keeper,” who was expected to rally other locally available volunteers to respond to a shipwreck using the equipment supplied in the boathouse. Additional stations were added in the mid-1850s to include boathouses and equipment placed at beachfront locations in New England, North Carolina, and on the Great Lakes. From 1849 to 1870, volunteers using this equipment saved over 4,100 persons from shipwrecks.

Twin Lights is home today to the first and only remaining boathouse from the initial series of stations constructed on the Jersey Shore in 1849.

Staff Photo, October 19, 2019.