The United States Life Saving Service
The United States Life Saving Service (USLSS) was a very active government agency here on Fire Island in the late 1800's and early part of the 1900's. Although the United States Lighthouse Service and the United States Life Saving Service had similar missions - to protect ships along the coast - they were completely separate organizations.
The first Life Saving Station on Fire Island was built in 1848, at the western most end of the island, adjacent to the site of the first Fire Island Lighthouse. The second USLSS Station was built out at Moriches Inlet, 28 miles to the east. These early stations were manned entirely by volunteers. Local Baymen and farmers volunteered to live at these stations from October until May to patrol the coastline for stranded ships and perform rescues when needed. By 1854 there were seven stations located along the south shore of Fire Island at the following locations: Fire Island, Point O' Woods, Lone Hill, Blue Point, Bellport, Smith's Point and Forge River.
These brave volunteers, known as Surfmen, had an unofficial motto, "You must go out, but you don't have to come back." They patrolled the beach on foot every night, from sunset until sunrise, looking for shipwrecks. When a stranded ship was sighted, the USLSS crew would perform a rescue using Beach Apparatus, which consisted of a Breeches Buoy in conjunction with a system of lines and pulleys. A Lyle Gun or small cannon was used to shoot a projectile, or weight, carrying a light line out to the ship. Although very simple, this method was used to rescue over 7000 people from 721 ships right here on Fire Island between 1871 and 1915.
In 1871 Congress appropriated money for paid Keepers and crews at all stations. This resulted in more consistent training for Surfmen. In 1874 the Life Saving Stations Act was made law, requiring all US Boat captains to report all wrecks. In 1875, the Life Saving Service and the Revenue Cutter Service merged into the Revenue Marine Bureau. The degree of professionalism and proficiency in US Life Saving efforts rose greatly at this point. Logs were kept, inspections were made, reports were submitted, Surfmen were tested and a ranking system was introduced. In 1878 the USLSS separated from the Revenue Cutter Service and continued to improve right up until its merger with the newly created US Coast Guard in 1915.
Historic Re-enactments of the Beach Apparatus Drills are conducted at the Lighthouse on Thursday evenings during July and August. For more information on dates and times for the drills please call the Lighthouse at 631-661-4876.