A lone figure wound his way down the shoreline through the dark night. He picked his way carefully along the uneven surface using a lantern to see. The night was cold and windy as a mix of sleet and rain caused him to readjust his woolen coat.

There was no ambient light, and he passed no houses or other buildings. He had been walking for several hours when he spotted a light in the distance.

He approached a very small wooden building and opened the door. Inside was another man with a similar appearance. Both men wore beards partially covering lean, weather-beaten faces. They sat together for a time, talking about the weather, the surf and gossip about the people that also inhabited this remote landscape.

Then they exchanged small coin tokens and walked back in the direction they’d come from.

In the mid-1800s these were “Lifesaver Men” or “Surfmen,” who were employees of the United States Lifesaving Service. They spent most of their time in life-saving stations working under the authority of the “Station Master.” During the day, they performed tasks involving maintaining the station and at least one surf boat.

They also, as first responders do today, practiced their skills regularly. This involved practicing an early form of CPR and maintaining a high level of proficiency in rowing the surf boat with the rest of their squad. At night, they took turns walking the beach searching for shipwrecks between their station and the next station if there was one nearby. They would exchange tokens to show the Station Master that they’d actually made the walk and would often meet in a shack that was a halfway point to take shelter from the horrible weather that they often worked in.

When they would find a shipwreck, they had to get people off the boat and to shore safely, usually using a rope and pulley system. Another option was for the crew to don lifejackets made of cork and to row out to the ship. Almost no one at the time knew how to swim, including the rescue crews.

This was extremely dangerous work and there are many tales of bravery against insurmountable odds.

There was a network of these stations around the country and world. The Texas coast had a number of stations as well by the late 1800s. In fact, the Galveston Island Beach Patrol traces the roots of continued lifesaving on the island back to the station at the San Luis Pass that was established in 1875.

In the 20th century, the U.S. Coast Guard took control of many of the lifesaving stations, and with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, a leisure class and resulting recreational swimming, modern beach lifeguarding techniques were developed under the guidance of the United States Lifesaving Association.

This is the group that sets training standards and certification for most open-water lifeguard agencies in our country, including the Galveston Island Beach Patrol and the men and women that protect today’s beachgoers.

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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JD Arnold

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