ALPENA - A national association dedicated to preserving the memories of all things United States Life Saving Service came to Alpena and Rogers City Thursday, sharing stories about each city's maritime connections.
Members of the U.S.L.S.S. Heritage Association came from across the country for an annual conference, visiting the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center in Alpena, a former life-saving station at Hammond Bay north of Rogers City and the Great Lakes Lore Maritime Museum in Rogers City, association President-elect Tim Dring said. The organization works to preserve and share the history, artifacts and lore of the service and the early U.S. Coast Guard.
"The heritage association tries to partner with museums and other preservation groups to provide technical expertise and an educational resource in teaching the history of the service's impact on the overall American history," he said.
After its stop in Alpena, the association was set to visit the Great Lakes Lore Maritime Museum to speak with Director Dave Erickson, who survived the wreck of the Cedarville, and Larry Syrett, who served in the Coast Guard at Hammond Bay in the 1940s, Dring said. The association chose Alpena and Rogers City because of its strong maritime ties, especially to the life-saving service. There were four stations in Alpena and Presque Isle counties, and shipping continues to play a role in the area.
Association members gave presentations on the service and its local ties to the area after Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary Superintendent Jeff Gray gave his own presentation about what the sanctuary is. He told them about the many shipwrecks within its boundaries, and the proposed expansion that would include many more. Some shipwrecks are in such good shape, they're almost "Disney-like."
"What we have done is connect people to the value of our history and the value of our heritage, and shown people that it wasn't just important then, it's still important now," he said.
Dring, association member Eric Hartlep and board member Debbie Jett gave a presentation about Hartlep's great Uncle George. He was a surfman at the Middle Island Life-Saving Station. In 1919, four years after the service merged with the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service to form the Coast Guard, he went to North Carolina to train to repair the new gasoline engines that powered the newest surfboats. He and other personnel then boated from there to New York with 11 new boats in tow. By taking two canals and crossing three Great Lakes, they traveled to Chicago to deliver the boats.
Working for the service was a thankless, low-paying and dangerous job, Jett said. There were myriad hazards, from the frigid waters to stormy seas to getting hit and killed by an oar lock when re-righting a capsized lifeboat. The service had an unofficial motto: "You have to go out, but you don't have to come back."
If a ship wrecked close enough to shore, the life-saving station crew would fire a weight with a line tied to it from a Lyle gun, which resembles a small cannon, Jett said. They'd use this line to haul survivors from the wreck in a breeches buoy, a sort of life ring with something like cloth shorts inside to keep people from falling out. Service personnel would drill twice weekly with the equipment, using a dummy mast as a target, drilling on other skills on different days of the week.
John Persons served as keeper of Thunder Bay Island's Life-Saving Station from 1877 to 1915, Jett said. He was a teenager when witnessed the Meteor collide with the Pewabic in 1865. The shipwreck took many lives, and it affected him deeply. As station keeper, he lived year-round on the island with his wife and children. They kept a garden and visitors were always welcome.
Persons' and George Hartlep's stories are just two of the many who served for the service, and Jett ended her presentation with a plea not to let their work be forgotten.
For more information about the association, visit its website: www.uslife-savingservice.org