|Volume XXXVI, Number 3 Fall, 2001|
|The Life Savers of Klipsan
Life Saving on Parade
Copyright, 2002, by the Pacific County Historical Society. No portion of this publication may be reproduced in any form without the written permission of the Society's Editorial Board.
The Sou'wester is a quarterly publication of the Pacific
County Historical Society and Museum. The Pacific County Historical
Society is a non-profit 501(C)(3) organization in South Bend, Washington.
In addition to the Sou'wester, the Society publishes a monthly newsletter for its members and operates the Pacific County Historical Society Museum in South Bend, Washington.
Design and electronic page layout by Charles B. Summers,
South Bend, Washington.
Fall Issue, 2001
I would like to dedicate this issue of The Sou’wester to Ken Inman (1883-1970) a US Life Saving Service Surfman, Ilwaco Fire Chief, Mayor, and service station owner. Besides his official duties Ken was an amateur historian of the local Life Saving stations. His collection of shipwreck and life saving materials were donated to the Pacific County Historical Society by his daughter Gay Peterson, and sister Mrs. Fred Nolan following his death. This issue would not be possible without them.
Ken joined the Life Saving Service in 1903. According to a Tacoma News-Tribune story about Ken from the late 1960s all new recruits were tested for their swimming and waterman skills, as well as their tolerance of rough water. All boat handling in the service at that time was under oars and sail. Fishermen, who also worked under sail and oar at the time were, according to Ken, frequent casualties in the vicinity of Cape Disappointment, where he was stationed.
The skills and experience gained by Ken’s Cape Disappointment crew earned them the privilege of representing the Service at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle in 1909.
|Inman, and his recent bride, Maude Davis,
spent a year in the city demonstrating the skills used on a daily basis
in the Service to large exposition crowds. Besides the breeches buoy,
and capsize drills, the Life Saving Service was able to introduce the public
to the latest motorized life saving boats. Notably, the photos from
the exhibition show only the oar-powered boat being capsized, not the powerboat.
Reorganization, and technological changes were happening before every ones
eyes, and Ken was there collecting the evidence, and saving it for your
I would also like to thank Larry Weathers, former editor of this publication, for permission to publish the history of Klipsan Lifesaving Station submitted with a National Register of Historic Places Nomination in 1979.
Bruce Weilepp, Editor
By Larry Weathers
The McClelland surfboat is ready to launch for the wrecked French ship Alice in 1909. The life saving crew arrived to find the crew had already escaped. Her cargo of cement was a total loss, however. PCHS#2001.27.397.
The Klipsan Beach Life Saving Station, first known as the Ilwaco Beach Station, was established in 1889. It was once one of 19 Life Saving Stations protecting the West Coast from Nome, Alaska, to the Golden Gate. For nearly 60 years the Klipsan Station provided humanitarian, as well as salvage, and navigational assistance to mariners. Although lighthouses, beacons, and similar navigational aids had been in use around the world for centuries, organized physical assistance for shipwrecked mariners in the United States did not begin until 1785. The first American lifesavers were voluntary associations, modeled after the British efforts. The Federal Government made no attempt to fund these associations until New Jersey Congressman William A. Newell (later Washington Territorial Governor, 1880-1884) made an appeal to the House of Representatives in 1848. Social reform was a popular movement at the time in many social welfare institutions from prisons to hospitals and to social welfare. Congress provided token funding for a life saving effort that year, but it was decades before sufficient funds would be appropriated to build and operate an adequate number of stations on all coasts.
| While lighthouses
and beacons were being established on the West Coast prior to the Civil
War, life saving services lagged behind. The U. S. Life Saving Service
(U.S.L.S.S.), a non-military division of the Treasury Department, first
studied the situation in 1871. The first West Coast U.S.L.S.S. station
was located at North Cove in early 1877, possibly under the mistaken impression
that North Cove was closer to the Columbia River than it actually was.
A station at Cape Disappointment, just inside the mouth of the Columbia
River on the Washington side, was established later the same year with
a paid keeper and volunteer crew.
The North Cove Station was similarly staffed by a paid keeper and volunteer crew, and quickly became known as a challenging keeper assignment. Getting a crew of volunteers together on a stormy night to risk their lives in the breakers sometimes proved next to impossible. Many times the Keeper found himself with one loyal volunteer “Lighthouse” Charley Ma-Tote, from the nearby Shoalwater Indian Reservation. In 1884-1885 crews were hired and paid a salary for both North Cove and Cape Disappointment.
Edwin Loomis. PCHS#10-18-84(3)
|Erosion in the North Cove area eventually
destroyed the North Cove Station in the mid-20th Century, necessitating
a move to nearby Tokeland. Some structures from the Tokeland Station
exist today, although its staff was consolidated with Grays Harbor Station
in Westport during the 1960s. The loss of a Tokeland Station boat
and crew in 1946 is described in the winter 1996 Sou’wester edition.
Continued loss of life and property during the 1880s convinced the Superintendent of the 12th District U.S. Life Saving Service in San Francisco to establish a station between North Cove and Cape Disappointment. In July 1889 a commission, under instructions from the Treasury Department, surveyed the North Beach Peninsula of Pacific County, Washington Territory, for a new life saving station. The commissioners were instructed to find a suitable location that was not too expensive.
|The commission settled on a piece of property approximately 14 miles north of Cape Disappointment, and 12 miles south of the entrance to Willapa Bay. The area was known as Ilwaco Beach, and the property belonged to a bachelor named Edwin G. Loomis. Edwin, and his younger brother Lewis, owned parcels of land throughout the Peninsula. An indefatigable promoter, Lewis was also the principle owner and president of the Ilwaco Railroad and Navigation Company. In fact, tracks of the I. R. & N. Railroad ran along the eastern boundary of the proposed station property. The brothers pointed out how convenient the location would be for the new station, and indicated that it was important that the decision be made quickly. In the commissioner’s report to Samuel I. Kimbell, General Superintendent of the Service, Washington D.C., dated October 16, 1889, they wrote:||
Map of the North Beach Peninsula showing the location of Klipsan Beach Life Saving Station in relation to other communities and the Ilwaco Railroad. Kroll's Map of Pacific County, 1922.
| “Mr. Loomis being at the time
in precarious and failing health, and the property conveyed being valuable,
sought after by private parties, (an offer of two thousand - $2000 – dollars
having been made therefore as a site for a hotel), at his suggestion and
in view of his physical condition, and the fact that in case of his demise
the property would pass into hands involving reviewed negotiations and
serious delays your commission assumed the responsibility of making the
deed of record, trust….under the circumstances may receive your approval.”
The Commissioners had purchased the two-acre site from Loomis for $350 in July of 1889. Edwin died on November 5, 1889.
The property chosen for the life saving station was the most ideal site in the area. Major consideration had been given by the commission to the frequency of wrecks in the immediate vicinity, as well as to the good launching and landing position for surfboats. Additionally, the main track of the Ilwaco railroad ran along the eastern border of the compound. As an added incentive Lewis Loomis generously proposed placing a side track along the northern boundary of the property leading to the water. This spur ran to the boathouse overlooking the ocean. A flatcar was placed on the spur beside the boathouse, so that the crew and boats could be quickly transported to wrecks several miles north or south of the station.
Between 1889 and 1892 volunteers from the local community manned the station. On stormy evenings a solitary volunteer watched over the beach. Downed ships were reported to Cape Disappointment by telegraph.
In 1891 preparations were finally made for a permanent station and paid crew. F. W. Ritten and Company was contracted to build the necessary station buildings between May and October of that year. Volunteers manned the station until the end of the year. In November a British ship disintegrated on the sands near the Ilwaco Beach Station, and seven men were lost. Manning of the Station with a full-time, professional crew was expedited.
| Life saving stations
were built in stylish, but standardized architectural styles, depending
on the period of construction. The first buildings at Ilwaco Beach
Station were “Marquette” style, after the first station of this type built
on Lake Superior in 1890. The architect, Albert B. Bibb, also served
as an inspector of stations. Heavily influenced by the popular Shingle
Style of the time, the “Marquette” design was Bibb’s last for the Service.
By way of contrast, John G. Pelton of San Francisco designed the keepers
residence at North Cove in the slightly older Queen Anne style. The
boathouse at North Cove was of the earlier “1875” type, with gable end
and some decorative woodwork reminiscent of both Carpenter Gothic, and
Stick Style architecture. The early history and design of American
life saving stations is well described in The U.S. Life-Saving Service:
Heros, Rescues and Architecture of the Early Coast Guard, by Ralph Shanks,
and Wick York (1996).
The Ilwaco Beach Life Saving Station was a patrol station manned by eight men, including the keeper of the station. Known as surfmen, the crewmembers had to be able-bodied, and experienced watermen. None could be over 48 years of age, and all had to be able to read and write. The local residents called the keeper, usually from the local area, “Captain.”
|Besides the buildings and crew, three basic pieces of equipment made up the backbone of the life saving stations: boats, beach apparatus, and lookout tower. Early in the life of the Service (1848), a study of life saving techniques used by surfmen was made. Two basic methods were found to be already in use. One involved rowing a lifeboat out through the surf to remove the crew and bring them back to the beach. The other method involved the use of a small cannon, called a Lyle Gun, which shot an overhead line from the beach to the stranded ship and enabled the rescue to be carried out with a breeches buoy. Strong tides and sandy shoals on the East Coast were especially hazardous to small boats, and the beach apparatus employing the Lyle Gun was considered the best alternative in most situations.||
The North Cove Life Saving crew practices operation of the Breeches Buoy rig. Everything needed was carried in the beach cart to the right. Anyone who has ever ridden in a Breeches Buoy seat will remember it as the most uncomfortable ride of their life. Its use in actual life saving on the West Coast was rare. PCHS#1998.50.2
A wrecked gillnet boat becomes a beachcombing curiosity. The sad story was all too common, although the specifics in this case are lost to time.
| On the West Coast,
however, boats were more widely used, particularly the self-bailing Jersey
style surfboat and the Dobbins self-righting lifeboat. Measuring
26 feet and weighing 900 Lbm, the surfboat was considered easier to handle
in the Pacific surf, and better suited for the West Coast squalls.
Surfboats were stored on a specially designed four-wheeled wagon that could
be pulled by men of horses and driven into the water and disassembled for
launching. Surf boats were manned by six men with twelve to eighteen-foot
oars. Dobbins type lifeboats were also oar-powered, but were heavier
than surfboats, with raised deck structures at both ends to make them self-righting.
The Ilwaco Beach site was especially suited for its role as a lookout and patrol station. The beach has a very shallow slope and unbroken by promontories or rocks for approximately 12 miles north and south of the station. The surfmen stood tower watch in the daylight hours, except when foggy, and patrolled the beach three miles north and south of the station, one man each way from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. Foggy day watches were sometimes surprised by literally stumbling over the bodies of drowned sailors. More welcome for the frugal lifesavers were the discovery of ships’ furnishings among the flotsam. When patrolling the beach the men carried a clock and costen flares that would burn red for one minute when lighted. The light was used to show a wrecked vessel that it had been sighted, and sometimes to warn vessels when they got too close to shore. When the lookout saw a vessel in distress, he reported to the station, and the keeper would ring an alarm bell. The crew then ran to the boathouse and prepared for the rescue. The beach, or boat, wagon was pulled to the scene of the wreck either by horses, or by the surfmen themselves. By 1900 horses were trained to go into the surf with the wagon to launch or retrieve the boats. During World War I and II the surfmen patrolled the beach on horseback.
|Life saving surfmen were frequently called upon to perform services in the neighborhood of their station, which they were not necessarily paid to do. The records show that they often rescued bathers, would-be suicides, persons who had fallen from the docks or vessels, etc., and sometimes women assaulted on the beach. Persons in urgent need of medical or surgical attention were conveyed to places where such attention could be secured, and from time to time surfmen assisted in fighting local forest fires.||
The sailing ship Potrimpos, grounded December 19, 1896, north of Long Beach, Washington. No loss of life, but she turned on her side during salvage attempts. PCHS#10-6-70-3 M, Ken Inman Collection.
| To save
lives aboard a ship in distress, the crew drilled regularly to improve
their time in launching the wagon-mounted gig. Each day, except Sunday,
the surfmen drilled or cleaned equipment. Twice each week during
the summer season the station held practice drills. Visitors were
welcome to view the station and its equipment in action. Vacationers
came from all the towns along the beach by horse and buggy, railroad, bicycle,
and afoot to be entertained. A regular attraction of the Ilwaco Railroad’s
summer schedule was to stop once a week to watch the drills. In order
to accommodate the crowds, boards were laid on flatcars for seats.
If a wreck drifted in, the railroad would make a special stop so that passengers
could walk up on the sandridge and view it. For this and other reasons,
the railroad soon gained the nickname of the “Irregular, Rambling, and
The station drills were usually performed in two stages. The first was the surfboat drill. The climax came when the men rowed their self-righting craft over the tumbling breakers. By shifting their combined weight they would roll their craft over and right it again. It is hard at this distance in time to imagine the awe such a death defying demonstration held for Victorian viewers. The second phase of the drill involved shooting a line with the Lyle Gun on land and rigging a Breeches Buoy seat to reach a simulated ship’s mast in the sand dunes. While the drills were underway an officer explained the finer points of life saving with an invitation to come back in winter when the shipwrecks were more likely to occur.
1891 construction plan for the Keeper's dwelling at Ilwaco Beach (Klipsan) Station. National Archives record group 26. PCHS#12-29-79-1.
In 1912 the name of the Ilwaco Beach Life Saving Station was officially changed. Theodore Conick, keeper of the station at the time, submitted the name “Klipsan” to the district office. The new name was attributed to retired shipmaster Captain A. T. Stream, who was developing a town site adjacent to the Station. Klipsan, or Klipsun, was said to be an Indian word meaning, “setting sun.”
As 1915 approached great changes were on the horizon for the Life Saving Service. Gas-powered rescue boats began displacing the oar-powered lifeboats. Recruitment of healthy, qualified surfmen became much more difficult. Crew left when they found they could make more money doing other things in private, or less hazardous pursuits.
An effort to consolidate the small U. S. Life Saving Service and the U. S. Revenue Cutter Service into one agency resulted in their merger in 1915, forming the U. S. Coast Guard. The personnel and traditions of the old U. S. Life Saving Service were carried over carried over to the new organization. The push for efficiency was also evidenced by another name change. The station was now to be known as Klipsan Station # 309.
Between 1915 and 1947 the need for staffing Klipsan Station waned with advances in marine propulsion and communication. Sailing ships disappeared. Steam-powered vessels were less likely to be driven aground, although the number of motorized pleasure boats rapidly grew. The entertaining beach drills declined as the motorized lifeboats were able to patrol north and south of the Columbia River on a regular basis.
Klipsan Beach Station No. 309 life saving crew circa. 1912.
During Prohibition days (1918-1932) the cargo of the bootlegging gas boat Alpha went aground north of Klipsan Station. Armed Coast Guardsmen from Klipsan endeavored to protect the cargo while waiting for revenue officers to arrive from Tacoma. Not wanting to fire on their neighbors, however, they allowed many local “sea gulls,” to carry off quite a bit of the loot.
In the 1920s the U. S. Navy Department moved into the compound alongside the Coast Guard crew and ran a radio direction finding transmitter. This “Compass” station caught and transmitted signals sent from passing ships. It allowed navigators to estimate their position and avoid danger. By World War II the invention of radar and LORAN, a long-range radio navigation aid, made the “Compass” station obsolete and the Navy Department moved out. During this period the station continued to operate as a life saving station, but the problems were different. The crew often rescued automobiles caught in the surf during clam digging excursions. Eventually the station became a training site for Coast Guard personnel who were then transferred to other stations, as well as a rest and recreation compound for servicemen.
At the end of the War the Treasury Department found that the Klipsan Beach Station had outgrown its usefulness and made plans to close it. Steamships, airplane patrols, and electronic communications and navigation aids combined to make such small stations obsolete. On January 8, 1947, the last caretaker was removed and everything of value in the buildings was stripped, including the plumbing. The station was abandoned after 58 colorful years. When the Treasury Department closed the station, plans were made to remove all the buildings. The land reverted to the descendants of the Loomis Family, from whom it had been obtained. Many of the buildings were already useless hulks, and one was being used as a chicken coop. Demolition, however, never occurred. The rundown station was given back to the Loomis Family as it was.
The original boat house after it was turned into a private residential apartment.
Much of the popular literature of the late 19th Century spoke of those in life saving service in such phrases as “Heroes of the Surf”, and “Storm Warriors.” The Coast Guard, which replaced it, certainly deserves the same glowing terms, but the fact remains that an era has passed. The crack of the Lyle gun is no longer heard. Today’s dramatic rescues are accompanied by the roar of a helicopter, and usually occur out of sight of land. Gone is the drama of the keeper standing erect in the stern of his surfboat, urging his crewmen to pull their plunging craft to the rescue. Gone, but not mourned, are the major shipwrecks which used to occur with regularity near Klipsan Beach. The surviving Klipsan Beach structures remain today as a reminder of the special men who tried to make our dangerous shoreline a safer place.
The Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Demonstrations
By Bruce Weilepp
The AYPE Lifesaving Station on what is now the University of Washington campus.
Firing the Lyle gun (obscured behind the smoke).
Attaching the Breeches Buoy line to a simulated ship mast.
A real dunking during the Breeches Buoy demonstration.
Safely ashore in the Breeches Buoy.
The Dobbins life boat underway with oar power.
Rolling the Dobbins self-righting life boat.
The Conqueror, one of the first successful motor lifeboats, puts in an appearance at the A-Y-P Exposition. While she was designed to be self-righting, there is no evidence she was rolled for an audience. Her oarlocks also suggest that gasoline power was still not completely trusted.
Large photo of Service group at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. Names are on the back.
Top row: Oley Oleson, Howard Culver, Cap Wickland, M. Bartholomew, B. Anderson.
Bottom row: Greenbrook, Will Brumbach, (unknown), Sonerson, Charles Thompson, Ken Inman.
PCSH#10-6-70-3 (p). Inman Collection.
Vintage AYPE 1909 Souvenir Sword Pin