Last week, I wrote about the history of lifesaving in Galveston up to the late 1800s. I’d like to continue that history.

When we left off, the United States was divided into several different lifesaving districts and Galveston was assigned as the headquarters of the ninth district. Through the late 1800s, the problems of shipwrecks began to fade with the new steamboat technology, making ships stronger and more resilient. In the early 20th century, the lifesaving stations eventually transitioned into part of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Just after the turn of the century, with the advent of the industrial revolution and development of a “leisure class,” recreational swimming began to emerge as a popular pastime, and the need to rescue distressed swimmers became apparent.

In 1913, the YMCA organized a crew of volunteer lifeguards for Galveston Island. The volunteers were unpaid, but patrolled Galveston beaches from March to October each year, saving swimmers from drowning. In 1919, this agency became a member of the Red Cross Life Saving Corps.

The group called for plans to build a two-story clubhouse structure, combining a storeroom and headquarters in one facility, built on pilings outside and above the seawall midway between Murdoch’s bathhouse and the Crystal Palace. This building would contain necessary equipment, such as stretchers, life buoys and signs for markings of sink holes on the beach.

The lifeguards remained unpaid volunteers, but were given police authority to help maintain and control the beaches they guarded. Galveston’s legendary lifeguard, Leroy Colombo, worked this beach.

With the number of the beachgoers growing, the city realized the demand was beyond the volunteer level. By 1935, Galveston had hired a handful of lifeguards, stationing them at four main points of the island, including the so-called “Negro Beach on 29th Street.” They each worked eight-hour shifts from March through October.

By the 1940s, the island added a “lifesaving beach patrol system,” and their first emergency response vehicle. With this vehicle, they were able to patrol more miles of beach at a faster pace, and provide lifesaving medical aid in the field, as opposed to taking victims to the hospital with no prior care. By August 1941, the Galveston Island Beach Patrol boasted 20 guards.

By the 1950s, lifeguards were again given police authority and were put in charge of keeping the beaches clean, along with providing aid to the increasing number of beachgoers. Though the number of lifeguards fluctuated throughout the year, the lifeguard group continued to flourish.

By the late 1970s, the Galveston Beach Patrol had been switched multiple times between municipal departments, with no real commitment for funding or ownership. Even though they consistently had between 20 to 30 lifeguards, they struggled with organization and stability, much like other beach lifesaving agencies across the United States.

The early 80s broke this trend. More to come …

Peter Davis is chief of the Galveston Island Beach Patrol. The views in this column are Davis’ and do not necessarily represent those of the Beach Patrol, Galveston Park Board of Trustees or any other entity.

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