Soldiers of the Surf

The Early Lifesaving Service on Sullivan’s Island

By Suzannah Smith Miles

In August 1884, a young woman named Elvira Benjamin drowned while attempting to save the life of a child caught in the currents at the lower end of Sullivan’s Island. The dramatic rescue, later reported in Charleston’s News & Courier, caught the hearts of everyone.

“Between 2 and 3 o’clock in the afternoon a number of children went in bathing in front of Dr. (Robert A.) Kinloch’s house on Sullivan’s Island. The spot has always been considered a dangerous one, and it is said that several persons have been drowned near the place.”

The report went on to say that the child had gone out too far and was in serious danger when Miss Benjamin rushed in to rescue him. She was a good swimmer and managed to reach him and hold him up for almost 15 minutes as they waited for a boat to arrive.

Unfortunately the story had a bittersweet ending.

“She kept afloat until the boy was safe,” the news report said, “and then sank.”

Starting in the early 1800s, as Sullivan’s Island emerged as a popular summer resort, frequent drownings became a public concern. Some of this could be attributed to the weight and unwieldy nature of bathing costumes at the time, but more often, the problem was the bathers’ location.

The two spots where most drownings occurred in the 1890s remain dangerous places today – the waters at the Grillage in front of Fort Moultrie and at Breach Inlet. Especially at low tide, these areas appear misleadingly calm and inviting to unsuspecting swimmers. Water that looks like a smooth, glassy lake can conceal treacherous currents, unstable sands and undertows that quickly sweep under even strong swimmers.

These days, both Isle of Palms and Sullivan’s Island have well-trained and equipped rescue squads to assist people in trouble. But prior to the invention of 911 calls and emergency medical technicians, there were the surfmen of the U.S. Lifesaving Service.

In 1884, the first fully staffed lifesaving station was built on Morris Island, chosen because of its proximity to the main shipping channel. In 1894, the station was reassigned to Sullivan’s Island – partly because the new jetties changed the shipping channel and partly because of the public’s growing concern about drownings.

The lifesaving station consisted of the head “keeper” and his crew of surfmen. The July 3, 1894 edition of the News & Courier noted that the station provided “a safe-guard against the danger of drowning which venturesome bathers are confronted with when they get out beyond the roll of the breakers.” The surfmen were also the first responders when a vessel in the ocean or harbor ran into trouble.

Because of the nature of their job (living on the beach and having long spells between rescues), these men often received friendly digs for their easy life and good looks.

“The Lifesavers are Back,” wrote the News & Courier on July 29, 1897. “The duties of the service are of course hazardous at times but as a general rule, the lifesavers have an easy and comfortable berth.”

The reporter went on to explain that the lifesavers’ “easy and comfortable” life included lounging about the station and the beach, smoking pipes, watching pretty girls and eating three meals a day.

During the first years, the keeper was Captain John Adams, who apparently had as good-looking a crew as any group of modern calendar-worthy firemen. Joked the News & Courier, “Captain Adams is making an effort to get together the finest looking set of men he has yet had under him, probably on the principle that if they are to adorn the beach they should be handsome ornaments.”

 

The good-natured ribbing clearly didn’t dissuade the men from their appointed mission, as these “handsome ornaments” proved their merit over and over through the years as they saved lives. In November 1911, the News & Courier wrote, “There is no way of computing in cash the value of a human life. The importance of the lifesaver’s service to his country … is inestimable. And the percentage of efficiency among these gallant fellows is admittedly high. It has to be.”

In January 1915, the Lifesaving Service merged with the Revenue Cutter service to form the U.S. Coast Guard, which continually manned a station on Sullivan’s Island until 1973, when it was decommissioned. The early boathouse of the original Lifesaving Service still stands, however, as a reminder of the station’s historic role in saving lives. Designated as the Sullivan’s Island Historic Coast Guard District, it is on the National Register of Historic Places and now under the purview of the United States Park Service.

Suzannah Smith Miles is a prominent Lowcountry historian and author of The Islands: Sullivan’s Island and Isle of Palms, an Illustrated History.

2018-10-19T10:23:20+00:00