The Coast Guard Comes to Lake Superior: 1874-1875 – Spring 1965

The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.

By Julius F. Wolff, Jr.

* The United States Coast Guard was officially known as the Life-Saving Service, prior to 1915. Hence, “Life-Saving Service” has been used in this article.


The modern sailor still braves the tempestuous storms of Lake Superior. Yet, he sails with the confident thought that if the raging seas should disable his ship, his radio-telephone can quickly call to his assistance the United States Coast Guard with powerful cutters from Duluth or Sault Ste. Marie, airplanes out of Traverse City, Michigan, or motor-driven lifeboats from several points along both the north and south shores of the big Lake. This was not the case, however, for the first 29 years of organized American navigation on Lake Superior. From 1846 until 1875 the lake-farers were distinctly on their own. Oh, there were lighthouses scattered at strategic locations all the way from the Soo to Superior City, Wisconsin, but should disaster befall a vessel, shipwrecked passengers and crew had to make shore by their own best means, with occasional aid from whatever land-based help might present itself. Those who sailed the Lake took their own chances.


At that, the safety record of early Lake Superior sailing was not bad. Slightly over one hundred lives had been lost in the first 20 years of consistent sailing (prior to 1845 sailing was only sporadic), although just four accidents accounted for most of this toll. The schooner Merchant had simply disappeared in June, 1847, between Sault Ste. Marie and Keeweenaw Point with 14 aboard; the passenger side-wheeler Superior had disintegrated in late October, 1856, at the Pictured Rocks after striking in a gale, with an estimated 48 casualties; a collision between the steamer Illinois and the schooner Oriole in August, 1862, had drowned 12 more, while the capsizing of the side-wheel passenger steamer Sunbeam off Keeweenaw Point on August 27, 1863, brought death to 25 or 30. In all these cases rescue by lifesavers would have been a virtual impossibility, even if they had been stationed nearby.

Beginning in 1869, nevertheless, came a number of accidents along the South Shore where sailors’ lives might have been saved, had there been trained lifesavers present. The first of these mishaps involved the schooner W. W. Arnold, of 543 tons registry, out of Cleveland. On the night of November 4, 1869 when downbound from Marquette with iron ore, Captain Beardsley in command, this little vessel struck at Big Two Hearted River in a driving gale and snowstorm. Literally within a stone’s throw of the beach the crew of eight, and two passengers perished, their bodies being tossed ashore some miles to the east.1 Even more disheartening was the fate of four schooner crews in the great storm of late November, 1872. Downbound from Marquette in tow of the steamer John A. Dix, the schooner-barges Jupiter and Saturn broke their towlines in the howling gale on the night of November 27 and were cast ashore, the Saturn three miles west of Whitefish Point and the Jupiter 12 miles further west. Fourteen men and one woman again died within shouting distance of shore. Less than twenty miles away in the same storm the schooner C. Griswold, downbound from Duluth, foundered off Whitefish Point, with the schooner W. O. Brown, also en route from Duluth, sinking in Whitefish Bay, apparently near Gros Cap. Sixteen more men went down with these two.2

Sumner Increase Kimball

This heavy loss of life, where rescue may have been a possibility, apparently brought popular requests to the Treasury Department for life-saving protection in these areas, since on March 24, 1873, Secretary of the Treasury Richardson instructed a board of ranking Life-Saving Service officers, then locating life-saving stations on the coasts of the United States, to examine the sixty miles of shore on Lake Superior between Whitefish Point and Au Sable lighthouse for the purpose of establishing lifesaving stations. On the board were S. I. Kimball, Chief of the Revenue and Life-Saving Service, John Faunce, Captain of the U. S. Revenue Marine and Superintendent of Construction of Life-Saving Stations, and J. H. Merryman, also Captain of U. S. Revenue Marine and Superintendent of Construction of Life-Saving Stations. The Committee labored through the rest of 1873, surveying sites along the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts, the other Great Lakes, as well as on Lake Superior. Their report, filed on January 21, 1874, is most enlightening.3 It is reproduced here in part, since, despite the somewhat stilted bureaucratic language, it affords an insight into considerations applied by the Treasury Department in its location of lifesaving installations.


Wash., D. C., Jan. 21, 1874

To Sec. Richardson


In obedience to your instructions of March 24, 1873, directing us to ascertain and report at what points on the sea and lake coasts the interests of commerce and humanity would be best served by the establishment of life-saving stations, and to submit a detailed account estimate of the cost of such stations, we have the honor to report that we have employed all available means to obtain as complete information as possible in the respect referred to, by conferring with ship-owners, ship-masters, underwriters, wreck commissioners, officers of the customs, and others likely to be informed as to the frequency and cause of shipwrecks, the number of lives and the amount of property imperiled or lost, the nature of the coast, the means at hand for rendering assistance to distressed vessels, etc., at the various localities with which they are acquainted, by examining such lists of wrecks as could be obtained, and by personally visiting and inspecting such portions of the coast as deemed necessary.

From the information thus obtained we are led to the opinion that life-saving stations of the character specified for each locality, established at the points named below, would be of sufficient value to the interests of commerce and humanity to justify the expenses of their erection and maintenance. . . .

[Points on Lake Superior mentioned lie between Whitefish Point and Au Sable Light — Vermilion Point, Big Two Hearted River, Grand Marais, and Au Sable Point.]

To provide for such cases there seems to be but one method practicable. Houses should be built of sufficient capacity to afford accommodations for at least twenty-five persons and provided with light surf boat, with oars and sails. Provisions, consisting, say, of salt beef, pork, ship bread, coffee, sugar, etc., should also be stored in the houses in sufficient quantities to subsist twenty-five persons for ten days, during the month in which the hurricanes are prevalent.

For the preservation of public property, and also to assist the shipwrecked, it is indispensable that each of these stations should be permanently occupied by some responsible person. A family would, of course, be most desirable, and we are informed by prominent men residing near that section that men with families might be induced to reside in the houses at a compensation of from forty to fifty dollars a month.

For most points on the Pacific Coast and the lakes, there are necessary only lifeboats constructed about the English system, with homes and sufficient capacity to contain the boat on its carriage and such apparatus as particular localities may require. The exceptions are a few localities remote from habitations where it may become necessary to afford accommodations for certain periods to the crews attached to the boats, and at points where the chief signal officer of the army may desire to connect signal stations with the life-saving service. At the latter place, the houses would require sufficient accommodation for the observers.

It is proposed that the life-boat stations should, in general, be manned by volunteer crews, as the occurrence of disasters at the points named for them are not so frequent as to warrant the employment for long periods of regular crews. To insure efficiency from the volunteer crews in those cases, compensation might be paid for services rendered at each wreck, and a system of rewards in the shape of medals of honor to be bestowed on those making unusually tremendous efforts might be adopted.

The cost of establishing the foregoing station is estimated as follows:

Estimate Cost of a Life-Saving Station Complete

Station-house $2,500,00
Mortars and balls 147.15
Hawsers, lines, chandlery 525.00
Bedding, cots, etc. 175.00
Stoves & furniture 70,00
Surf-boat furnished 250.00
Life-car 400.00
Boat-carriage and hand cart 400,00
Signal apparatus, lanterns 50.00
Rocket apparatus with line rockets 635.00
Other expenses 300.00
Total $5,302.15 (sic)

S. I. Kimball
John Faunce
J. H. Merryman


The Secretary of the Treasury conveyed the above report to Congress, and, after appropriate consideration, the Congress in an Act of June 20, 1874, authorized establishment of four lifesaving stations on Lake Superior.4 It was Captain J. H. Merryman who chose the specific locations.

Vermilion River Life Saving Crew

After careful consideration of coastal terrain, in September, 1874, he directed construction of lifesaving facilities at four points somewhat different from those named in the earlier report, namely, Vermilion Point (ten miles west of Whitefish Point), Crisp Point (seven miles west of Vermilion Point), Big Two Hearted River, and Muskallonge Lake (Deer Park or Sucker River).5 They were built and manned in 1875.

To a popular adventure writer of the 1880s, A. B. Bibb, writing in Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, April, 1882, we are indebted for a detailed description of these early lifesaving stations.6 In the Summer of 1881 Bibb and some companions had toured the lifesaving installations on Lakes Erie, Huron, and Superior, the author publishing his observations the following year.

Two Heart River Life Saving Station

In 1881 the South Shore of Lake Superior was virtually uninhabited for fifty miles from Whitefish Point to Grand Marais, except for the four numerically designated Life-Saving Stations, No. 9 at Vermilion Point, No. 10 at what is now called Crisps Point, No. 11 at the mouth of Big Two Hearted River, and No. 12 at Muskallonge Lake, Deer Park, Michigan. Indeed, the little stations, with their headquarters buildings, boat sheds, and living quarters, were islands of civilization in a dense virgin forest of conifers and hardwoods stretching for miles south from the Lake. Even today, this country is off the beaten path, and while good roads reach Grand Marais and Muskallonge Lake, only sandy trails touch most of this shore. (The writer, in September, 1964, discovered how isolated was the area east of Muskallonge Lake; he was spared a five-mile hike back to Muskallonge Lake State Park from his car, disabled in a mudhole, only by the timely chance arrival of a bear-hunting mechanic. To this day the country is still remote and wild.)

Writer Bibb gives an interesting insight into the life of each station. In charge of the respective stations were Captains Bernier (Vermilion), Crisp (Crisps), Chartier (Two Hearted), and Morgan (Muskallonge Lake).7 These men had been appointed by the Chief of the Life-Saving Service upon nomination, after examination, by the Superintendent of the Tenth Life-Saving District at Detroit. Captain Jerome G. Kiah, formerly on Lake Huron, then was Superintendent, having succeeded Captain Sawyer who was drowned in the Fall of 1880 by a tragic boat-capsizing at Rogers City, Michigan. The station captains, entitled “Keepers,” were presumed to be men experienced in the handling of boats and capable of controlling a six-man crew. They were expected to be men of courage and responsibility. In addition, they should be “physically sound, temperate, honest, energetic, cool-headed, brave and skillful surfmen, leaders, men of some education, with enough judgment to pick out good men for their boats.”8 For these qualities the United States paid the magnificent salary of $400.00 a year. The Keeper, in turn, hired a crew of six surfmen for the duty season, generally running from April to December, depending upon weather conditions and the status of navigation. Though many sea coastal stations could use volunteer crews from the surrounding countryside at this time, the Lake Superior stations necessitated paid surfmen, due to their remoteness from civilization.

These early surfmen were generally a rugged lot, chosen particularly from the ranks of professional fishermen and sailors. Numbers of Frenchmen and Indians manned the Lake Superior crews, along with some Yankee Americans. Discipline often was a problem, and Captain Morgan told of carrying a pistol and a hatchet beside him in the surfboat to assure obedience to his commands. The men were quartered in frame and log houses constructed at the station, with married men often having their own cabins. During duty hours they were expected to remain within earshot of the surfboat, with which each station was equipped. Drill areas had been cleared from the forest around each station for training with the lines and breeches buoy apparatus. Indeed, practice with the apparatus and boat drill were part of the day’s routine.

Maintaining good morale at the Lake Superior stations was difficult enough, especially due to the solitude, the nearest lumber camps often being a dozen or more miles to the south. Also, in the summer the station areas were beset by voracious mosquitoes and viciously carnivorous black flies which tormented the crewmen. (The author can attest that the black flies were still present in September, 1964, and bit just as ferociously!)

In patrolling the Lake Superior shore, each station was assigned a particular beat, running several miles east and west. These patrols often met patrols of neighboring stations. In some stretches the patrolmen could walk the beach, though where a sheer bank or cliff bounded Lake Superior, roads had to be cut through the forest paralleling the Lake. Small ravines or rivers were bridged. At night or in fog, the beach patrolmen carried lanterns and signal lights which could be burned to warn vessels coming in too close of impending danger. Interestingly enough, Captain Morgan of Station No. 12 had contrived an ingenious danger signal. At his unit were kept the sled dogs used on the winter mail route from Sault Ste. Marie to Marquette. The Captain had trained these animals to walk the shore on foggy nights with the patrolmen, baying as they went, and the voices of these dogs could be heard by sailors far out on the Lake.9

On June 18, 1878, Congress authorized an additional lifesaving station, this for Portage Entry on Keeweenaw Point, the crews of which were to make many a momentous rescue.10  Then came establishment of a station at Grand Marais in 1884, at Marquette in 1890, and at Duluth in 1896. Other stations have included Eagle Harbor, Michigan, and Grand Marais, Minnesota.


As fate would decree, once the lifesaving stations were established in the original areas, few serious disasters would occur there for many a year. To be sure, some accidents were prevented by timely warnings from the lifesaving patrols on the beach. Not until 1887 do these eastern south shore stations make headlines. Then, two colorful rescues were reported within a month in the Fall of 1887 at the Muskallonge Lake Station.11 On the night of October 23 the lifesavers rowed through a pounding surf and roaring gale to rescue the crew of the steamer Laketon aground in the breakers off Deer Park, and on the night of November 16 this same crew duplicated this exploit in a blinding snowstorm to take off all 14 men in the crew of the lumber steamer Pacific being beaten to pieces off Deer Park. Thereafter, the crews of these early south shore stations are to figure repeatedly in almost fantastic rescues, and many a sailor on both steamer and schooner is to owe his life to the intrepidity of these early lifesavers. Eventually, these original stations, with the exception of the later installation at Grand Marais, were closed down, but not before their crews had written many a chapter in the valorous history of the United States Coast Guard.

  1. The grisly tale of the Arnold wreck is told in a number of articles and letters appearing in the Marquette (Mich.) Mining Journal beginning Nov. 20, 1869, and running into Apr., 1870.
  2. Marquette Mining Journal, 7, 1872.
  3. The full text of this report appeared in Marquette Mining Journal, 21, 1874.
  4. Annual Report of the U. S. Life-Saving Service, 1876, p. 55.
  5. Marquette Mining Journal, 26, 1874.
  6. B. Bibb, ‘The Life-Saving Service on the Great Lakes.” In Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, XIII:4, pp. 386-397, Apr., 1882.
  7. Bibb, cit. p. 395.
  8. Bibb, cit. p. 390.
  9. Bibb, cit., p. 398.
  10. Annual Report, U. S. Life-Saving Service, 1879, p. 45.
  11. Annual Report, U. S. Life-Saving Service, 1888, pp. 139, 183; Marquette Mining Journal, Nov. 21, 25, 1887.

Read More of Inland Seas Online

About the Author: Dr. Julius F. Wolff, Jr., is Professor of Political Science, University of Minnesota, Duluth. For the last ten years he has been occupied in a part- time research project for the Graduate School, University of Minnesota, on the history of Lake Superior shipping accidents. Over 1,300 shipping mishaps since 1822 have been verified, and Dr. Wolff now is compiling the story of each incident. He has written several articles for INLAND SEAS and other historical journals.

This article was a lecture given by Dr. Wolff at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, in November, 1964, before the officers and men of the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Coast Guard Reserve, and Power Squadrons of the Duluth-Superior area. The assembly commemorated the ninetieth anniversary of the congressional enactment authorizing lifesaving stations on Lake Superior. Though a Lieutenant-Colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, Dr. Wolff has been made an honorary officer of the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Woodrush by Commander John H. Bruce, USCG, Commanding, for his studies of Lake Superior Coast Guard history.

Learn more about our award-winning Inland Seas© journal and become an Inland Seas member