In the 1800s, Galveston Island was one of the largest cities in Texas and one of the more important ones in the country. Much of this was due to it being a great natural port for the shallow-draft boats of the time.

Before that time, the United States Life Saving Service was created in response to humanitarian efforts to save the lives of shipwrecked mariners. Today’s beach patrol traces its roots back to the lifesaving station at San Luis Pass, which was established in 1875. Galveston has had continual lifesaving protection since that time.

Through the late 1800s, the lifesaving stations on Galveston Island continued to rescue shipwrecked mariners, but the problems of shipwrecks began to fade with the new steamboat technology.

In the early 20th century, the lifesaving stations eventually transitioned into part of the U.S. Coast Guard. Meanwhile, with the advent of the Industrial Revolution and a leisure class, recreational swimming began to emerge as a popular pastime, and the need to rescue distressed swimmers became apparent.

The three large storms that hit the island in the late 1800s culminated with the big one of 1900. After The 1900 Storm, George Murdoch, proprietor of the Murdoch Bathing Pavilion, announced he was building a new pavilion on the site of the old bathhouse to accommodate the increase in tourism.

Murdoch also provided ropes that bathers could hold onto since most people didn’t know how to swim. He also kept beach patrol and lifesaving crews on duty. In 1910, bathhouse records showed more than 150,000 people came to Galveston’s beaches.

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 three main points of the island in addition to the then-called “Negro Beach.” Galveston and its beaches were booming.

By the 1940s, the island added a “lifesaving beach patrol system,” and its first emergency response vehicle. In August 1941, the Galveston Island Beach Patrol boasted 20 guards. That number remained more or less constant until the late ‘80s.

By the 1950s, lifeguards were given police authority and provided aid to the increasing number of beachgoers.

By the late 1970s, the Galveston Island Beach Patrol had been switched multiple times between municipal departments with no real commitment for funding or ownership. Increased tourism meant drowning rates soared. In stepped state Sen. Babe Schwartz, Dr. Jim McCloy, Sheriff Joe Max Taylor and the Moody family, all of whom contributed significantly.

In 1981, the sheriff’s department took over management of the beach patrol, 1 cent was dedicated by state law from the hotel tax through the effort of Schwartz, and beach-user-fee monies were funneled through the Park Board of Trustees to modernize and expand the beach patrol. The United States Lifesaving Association was formalized at a meeting facilitated by Jim McCloy at Texas A&M University at Galveston.

The USLA and a generous Moody grant assisted in the professionalization and modernization of the Galveston Beach Patrol.

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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(1) comment

DANIEL PICKETT

This is very interesting history. I always learn something when reading the columns about the Beach Patrol. Congratulations on doing a great job of keeping the beaches safe.

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