The Long Blue Line: Joshua James – U.S. Life-Saving Service Hero

Written by William Thiesen, Atlantic Area historian

A rare photograph of Keeper Joshua James and his U.S. Life-Saving Service crew posing in front of their surfboat. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

A rare photograph of Keeper Joshua James and his U.S. Life-Saving Service crew posing in front of their surfboat. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Joshua James was not just a man of the sea; he was also a man of the surf. He was born in 1826 in Hull, located on the beaches south of Boston; and he would grow, reach adulthood and live out his days in Hull. And he would dedicate the majority of his long life to rescuing those imperiled by stormy weather and heavy seas in the waters surrounding that seaside town.

In the 1800s, it was not uncommon to live a lifetime in one place, and not uncommon to be born into a large family like Joshua’s of twelve children. James loved his family, but he adored his mother, Esther Dill James, a native of Hingham, Massachusetts.

Famous photograph of Joshua James showing his collection of Life-Saving Service medals. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Famous photograph of Joshua James showing his collection of Life-Saving Service medals. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

As a youngster, James gravitated to the sea. He learned every trade a waterman could do to earn a living. He also developed a unique sixth sense from living on the coast and experiencing every kind of weather and sea state. According to Joshua James lore, the youngster could “hear the land speak,” from the sounds of the sea as it washed over beaches and rocks, and broke against islands and inlets.

In April 1837, an event occurred that left a lasting impression on James and changed his life forever. On April 3, 1837, Joshua’s mother and sister were returning home from Boston on board his brother’s sailing vessel. Ten-year-old Joshua watched from shore as the vessel approached the anchorage through treacherous Hull Gut. Only one-half mile from the harbor, a sudden squall threw the vessel on its side filling it with water. To Joshua’s horror, the boat sank and took his mother and sister to their deaths. Unable to rescue them, young James resolved to prevent the same fate from befalling others, and to do all he could to save those at the mercy of the sea.

In December 1841, James made good on his pledge. He joined a volunteer crew of the Massachusetts Humane Society, or MHS, when it launched a surfboat off the beach at Allerton to rescue survivors of the Mohawk, a grounded ship hammered by heavy seas. The society was a privately run charitable lifesaving service that operated stations along the Massachusetts coast. James would remain a faithful volunteer of that organization for decades.

But James’s story does not end there. During his lifetime, the Port of Boston enjoyed a dramatic increase in shipping traffic, becoming the busiest port in the nation. The Nantasket Ship Channel, located off Hull’s shoreline, saw 100 ships a day sail past on their way to or from Boston Harbor. The growth in commercial shipping during the mid-1800s and stormy Northeast weather resulted in greater numbers of shipwrecks, with hundreds of vessels going ashore and thousands of victims needing help.

Meanwhile, James had to earn a living while serving as a volunteer lifesaver. He worked the usual watermen’s jobs, such as fishing, salvaging ships, lightering cargoes from ship to shore and transporting heavy paving stones from Hull to Boston. It was hard work, but James’s growing family required financial support and the demanding requirements of his paid jobs kept him physically fit for his lifesaving duties.

 

The Joshua James Ancient Keeper Award is named for Capt. Joshua James, who is credited with saving more than 600 lives in his lifetime. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley.

The Joshua James Ancient Keeper Award is named for Capt. Joshua James, who is credited with saving more than 600 lives in his lifetime. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley.

In fact, the story of Joshua James’s record is one of life-long dedication and physical exertion. He began his sixty-year lifesaving career at age fifteen and was recognized at age 24 with the MHS Bronze Medal for rescuing the crew of the brig L’Essai. At the age of fifty, he became an MHS station keeper. In 1884, he received the MHS Silver Medal for more than forty years of “brave and faithful service.”

Likely, the highlight of James’s lifesaving career took place in the late 1880s. During the Great Storm of 1888, from November 25th to the 26th, he led his MHS crew in rescuing twenty-nine men from six different shipwrecks. It was an unprecedented feat of skill, leadership, and sheer physical strength, especially for a man of sixty-two years of age. For this rescue, James received the MHS Gold Medal as well as the United States Gold Lifesaving Medal. James is the only man to receive both gold medals for one rescue.

And yet, the Joshua James saga was far from over. By 1890, after nearly fifty years of dedicated service, he had saved over 450 victims without a single loss of life. That same year, at the age of sixty-three, he became keeper of the new U.S. Life-Saving Service Station located at Point Allerton. This was in spite of the Federal service’s maximum age limit of forty-five years.

For the next thirteen years, Joshua James served as keeper of the Point Allerton Station, rescuing another 540 individuals. This was 100 more souls than he had saved in his previous fifty years as an MHS surfman and keeper. Again, no loss of life was associated with James’s rescue of these victims. He and the surfmen from Hull, both MHS and Life-Saving Service, became renowned for their amazing prowess as lifesavers.

U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Joshua James, the latest National Security Cutter commissioned by the Service. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Joshua James, the latest National Security Cutter commissioned by the Service. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

On March 17, 1902, tragedy struck Cape Cod’s Monomoy Island Life-Saving Station. During a rescue attempt, nearly all of the station’s surfmen were accidentally drowned by the panicking victims they had tried to save. James learned the news two days later and felt the loss deeply. Two days later, he ordered his men to the surfboats for intensive practice and drilling. Working the steering oar, the seventy-five-year old James ordered the boat ashore. He stepped off the boat, collapsed on the beach and, according to eyewitnesses, issued his dying words, “The tide is ebbing.”

Joshua James’s record of achievement has stood the test of time. He devoted 60 of his 75 years to the service of others. During that time, he went in harm’s way to rescue over 1,000 shipwreck victims without any loss of life. James and his Life-Saving Service crewmates were true models of heroism in their time and ours, and they were members of the long blue line. Today, Joshua James’s name graces the hull of the newest National Security Cutter U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Joshua James; and he is the namesake of the Ancient Keeper Award presented by the Office of Boat Forces to a boat station commanding officer in recognition of their longevity of service and outstanding performance in boat operations.

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