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Mason County Memories

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Mason County is fortunate in the depth and breadth of the maritime history that spans 150 years. Our lakeshore boasts two lighthouses and we had two lifesaving stations. Add to that the harbor at Ludington, the shipping that also took place at Lincoln and Buttersville, carferries, ore boats, vacation cruises, lumber hookers, barges tugs and fishing boats and you have quite an impressive line up.

I wanted to take a look back at the early days and also the lifesaving stations before the Coast Guard took over that responsibility in 1915. The first Mason County lifesaving station was built in 1876 at Big Point Sauble and was in operation until 1921. The little cluster of buildings on the dune's edge are long gone having been razed about 1935. The photograph loaned by Lorraine Oseland shows the Big Point Sauble lifeaving crew in 1916 proudly showng off their surf boat. The other photo taken about 1930 shows the cluster of buildings that made up this little outpost which in 1876 was surely considered in the wilds of the north.

Imagine for a second, the cold blowing winds, waves crashing, and the crew is awakened by the alarm, they rush out without any of what we would now consider mandatory lifesaving vests or equipment, the surfmen who were referred to as soldiers of the surf would push the boat out of their shed along rails to the waters edge to launch the boat.

At times they might use a Lyle Gun, a small mounted cannon that would shoot a line out to a boat close to shore, (up to 600 yards) this would allow them to pull out a thicker line and set up a life saving buoy or a breeches buoy to ferry the men into shore from the boat. Sometimes they got a good dunking on the way in but being pulled in on the buoy was often preferable then remaining on a ship being battered or trying to swim in treacherous waters.

It was the treacherous waters, and unrelenting winds that would drive a sailing schooner towards shore and to the battering on sandbars that more often caused the shipwreck then a captain's failure to navigate the waters at hand.

Captain James W Morgan was a surfman at Big Point Sable under his father who was the keeper about 1875, this excerpt from Mansfiled's History of the Great Lakes Volume II published in 1899. "Morgan's father became keeper of the life-saving station at Big Point au Sable, and he joined the station as one of the crew. He remained four years with the station, at one time aiding in the rescue of the schooner J. H. Rutter, which had broken her tow line, and was drifting rapidly down the lake in a fierce storm. When first sighted, she was about ten miles out in the lake, with her lee rail under water, due to the shifting of her cargo.

His father being away, under leave of absence at the time, Captain Morgan, as No. 1, took charge of the crew and started in the surf boat for the wreck. After being swamped in the surf three times, the boat was finally carried out over the bar, and the wreck was reached after several hours of very severe work. When Captain Morgan reached the Rutter he found that her master was Capt. Jerry Simpson, who was at one time a member of Congress. Captain Simpson wished to abandon the wreck at once, but Captain Morgan believed that the vessel could be saved, and when the tug he had sent for, before leaving shore, arrived, the boat was towed to Ludington, and was saved after thirty-six hours of hardest effort.

The crew of the surf boat worked in drenched clothing and covered with ice for the greater part of the time, and when they finally became thawed out, their garments literally fell off their forms, having been torn and broken by the ice." This illustration gives us a brief insight into the daring and heroic ventures of the lifesaving crews who risked their lives in the effort to provide assistance to those mariners whose lives were in peril. The advent and increasingly widespread usage of steam power, the end of the days of the schooners and the inability of the service to draw new recruits into a service that paid minimal wages and provided no benefits for retirement hastened the end of the lifesaving service.

The needs to provide assistance though were still there because of the rapidly increasing numbers of gasoline pleasure boats that needed assistance, and the increase in pleasure boating, shipping, ore and fishing boats. The changes in technology brought about a need for a different type of response and brought about the creation of the Coast Guard through the merger of the lifesaving and lighthouse services.

If you have any stories or photographs you would like to share with our readers please feel free to contact me at 757-3240 or davep@blakcreekpress.com

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