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Pages of History: Soldiers of the Surf

The Jason, off Pamet River

The Jason, off Pamet River

The completion of the Cape Cod Canal in 1914 and advances in engine technology would contribute to improvements in safety upon the seas, but the heroic efforts of the men in the U.S. Life-Saving Service had become both widely known and popular. Fiction writers spun tales of surfmen, the USLSS published annual reports that glorified their deeds, and authors wrote true-life accounts of their work, such as J.W. Dalton’s 1901 book, “The Lifesavers of Cape Cod,” for which he visited every station on the Cape and devoted at least one paragraph to each surfman and keeper, including Seth Ellis, the sole survivor of the Monomoy Disaster. Milton Bradley even created a board game based upon the work of these courageous men. Women also took part in the USLSS; the Blue Anchor Society, a division within the Women’s National Relief Association, provided the stations with trunks of clothing for the rescued sailors, and Martha Coston, who invented the flares the men used to signal ships, was instrumental to the program’s success.

Today, the United States Coast Guard carries out the life-saving missions that were once the bailiwick of the USLSS, but the U.S. Life-Saving Service Heritage Association works to preserve the organization’s stories and memories. The Old Harbor Station, now located in Provincetown, has been restored as a museum, and Dick Ryder narrates a breeches buoy drill there every Thursday night throughout the summer. He says, “Our group in Provincetown has been doing this according to the book for over 40 years. There are only three places in the country that still practice the drill—one in North Carolina, one in Delaware, and our station here on Cape Cod.” Dick Boonisar, who served as the Heritage Association’s first president, owns a station in Plymouth, which he has painstakingly restored. “It’s set up with all the original equipment,” he says. “It’s taken me 40 years to collect everything. But if there’s ever a schooner up on Duxbury Beach, I can send out a line and take ‘em off.”

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