225 years of Service to Nation: Coast Guard lineage

Aug. 4, 2015 marks the 225th birthday of the United States Coast Guard. Throughout the year, we’ll be unveiling a series of blog posts and other events that mark this important milestone. Stay tuned to learn more about the Coast Guard’s 225 years of Service to Nation and join the celebration! Today, we share the second post in a two-part series on the services that combined to form the modern-day Coast Guard.

Written by Scott Price

225 Years of Service to Nation


The Coast Guard traces its history directly from the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, first created on Aug. 4, 1790, but over its history it has absorbed a number of other federal agencies. In the previous blog in this series, it was noted that the current Coast Guard, although tracing its history since 1790, began its new form in 1915 when the Life Saving Service merged into the Revenue Cutter Service and this “new” agency was given the name we now hold dear.

But since that time what had been three separate federal agencies also merged into the Coast Guard – the Bureau of Navigation and the Steamboat Inspection Service, two services which actually merged in the 1930s, becoming the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation before coming into the Coast Guard, and the Lighthouse Service, which was actually older than the Coast Guard, tracing its birthday 1789.

These maritime Federal agencies and their disparate functions found a home in the Coast Guard, bringing with them a history and culture all their own.

U.S. Lighthouse Service

Beloved by the nation, even to this day, the nation’s lighthouses that dot the coastline trace their heritage from the establishment of the first lighthouse of the English colonies in Boston Harbor in 1716. The “new” Federal government agreed to take over the nation’s lighthouses in 1789 and from that point forward, took control of large and small aids to navigation, eventually forming what became the U.S. Lighthouse Service, or USLHS, with a birthday pre-dating the Coast Guard’s, serving under Treasury Department control until it was transferred to the new Department of Commerce and Labor in 1903.

One of the lightships of the U.S. Lighthouse Service. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

One of the lightships of the U.S. Lighthouse Service. U.S. Coast Guard photo.


The USLHS grew to include hundreds of lighthouses and other lighted aids to navigation along the nation’s entire coastline and included buoys and other day marks that ensured safe navigation at sea for the nation’s mariners. Depots were established around the country that designed, built and provided equipment to its personnel, including large and small buoys, lanterns and other lighting apparatuses, and put together the beautiful Fresnel lenses purchased from France. By the time George R. Putnam became the nation’s Commissioner of Lighthouses in 1912, the USLHS was one of the best organized and run agencies in the Federal government, with the employees proud to serve their nation, including during times of war, in keeping mariners and their ships safe.

The USLHS boasted an entire fleet of lightships, which stayed on station over or near dangerous areas at sea where a lighthouse could not be built, and buoy tenders, to supply and service all types of aids.

Both types of vessels were manned by dedicated and professional mariners, many of whom gave their lives while in performance of their duties. Others had near misses, such as George Braithwaite, who narrowly survived the sinking of his Nantucket lightship off Boston when it was rammed by RMS Olympic in 1934. Seven of its 11 crew were lost. All hands were lost on board LV 82 while it served on the Buffalo Station during a gale on May 13, 1913. LV 73 lost all hands during the great hurricane in 1944. Light keepers too were always at risk, manning their stations during storms that forced everyone, but them, to safety. The loss of the Minots Ledge lighthouse in 1851 took the lives of two assistant keepers on duty at the light. The five-person crew of the Scotch Cap light station perished in the line of duty after the entire station was swept away by a tsunami in 1946. Others keepers gave their lives while trying to save shipwrecked mariners.

The Lighthouse Service carries the honor of becoming the first Federal agency to hire women in a capacity outside of secretarial support. The USLHS also hired minorities, particularly for service in Hawaii, with many of their names still echoing down through history. They and others are still honored to this day by the Coast Guard, with cutters being named many of them, including the entire class of 175-foot Coastal Buoy Tenders, with names such as Ida Lewis, Katherine Walker, Frank Drew and Anthony Petit among them. The Coast Guard continues to honor other famous keepers by naming the new 154-foot Fast Response Cutters after them, including Margaret Norvell and Kathleen Moore. The USLHS, on orders of President Franklin Roosevelt, in part to achieve efficiencies and knowing that war was approaching, ordered its incorporation into the Coast Guard as the former prepared to commemorate its 200th anniversary.

Officers and crew of the Lightship Magnolia. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Officers and crew of the Lightship Magnolia. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Bureau of Navigation

One of the lesser known of the Coast Guard’s predecessor agencies, Congress created the Bureau of Navigation in 1884 under the Treasury Department. The new agency was established to carry out a myriad of responsibilities, including documenting merchant vessels and administer the nation’s navigation laws. Most if its early duties were carried out by the local Collector of Customs as supervised from Bureau’s headquarters in the Treasury Department.

In short, the new agency was headed by a Commissioner of Navigation, the first being Capt. Jarvis Patten, a noted mariner in his own right, who was responsible for the nation’s merchant marine — from its seafaring fleet and its seafarers, to the nation’s navigation laws. Its responsibilities grew to include managing the nation’s navigation laws and regulating ports and anchorages, with the latter being carried out thorough an official request to cutters of the RCS, hence demonstrating again that the Federal government’s maritime agencies all worked together at some point in their histories. The Bureau was transferred to the new Department of Commerce and Labor in 1903 and gained more duties relating to the regulation of the U.S. merchant marine fleet, its seafarers and the ever-growing number of smaller motorboats filling the nation’s waterways. They even regulated the new technology of wireless telegraphy at sea. Its history is closely tied into the next agency we’ll look at: the Steamboat Inspection Service.

Steamboat Inspection Service

The Steamboat Inspection Service dates from an initial attempt by Congress in 1838 to respond to the growing dangers from exploding maritime steam engines by establishing an inspection and licensing regime for commercial steamboats. This attempt marked one of the first times the Federal government involved itself in regulatory activities of the nation’s economy and also marked its first foray into the realm of marine safety. Vessel inspections were first performed by engineers appointed by U.S. district court judges. The Steamboat Act in 1852 formally established the Steamboat Inspection Service, or SIS, in the Department of the Treasury and authorized the appointment of supervising steam vessel inspectors. The SIS also issued licenses to steamboat operators, one of the more famous being Samuel Clemens, who earned his license in 1859. The SIS was transferred to Department of Commerce and Labor in 1903. It combined with the Bureau of Navigation to form Bureau of Navigation and Steamboat Inspection in 1932 and was renamed the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation in 1936. It was temporarily transferred to the Coast Guard during World War II, a transfer that was made permanent in 1946.

Then-Commandant of the Coast Guard Russell Waesche was largley responsible for the merging of many of the services to formt he modern-day Coast Guard. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Then-Commandant of the Coast Guard Russell Waesche was largley responsible for the merging of many of the services to formt he modern-day Coast Guard. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Some famous names stem from this fine old agency, including one of the first inspectors, Capt. Edward Tripp. Tripp introduced steam-boating to Baltimore in 1813 with the building of the steamboat Chesapeake. He performed these duties from 1838 to 1852. Other names include Halert C. “Shep” Shepheard, who accepted a commission as a Coast Guard officer when the Bureau was first transferred in 1942 and led the successful integration of marine inspection into the Coast Guard. When Gen. Dwight Eisenhower asked for a merchant marine professional to join his staff in England prior to the invasion of Normandy in June, 1944, Coast Guard Commandant Vice Adm. Russell Waesche sent Shepheard.

Speaking of the Commandant, he was at the forefront of the acquisition of both the Lighthouse Service in 1939 and the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation in 1942 and 1946. He was instrumental in making these mergers go smoothly and it would seem that he really never found a maritime-based mission he did not like and gladly acceded to the order to merge them into his Coast Guard. He realized many of the personnel who made up the incoming professionals were wary of donning a military uniform, and conversely that many Coast Guardsmen resented being superseded on the rolls by incoming civilians. He smoothed the process over, calmed fears and concerns, through his steadfast leadership and bureaucratic expertise. He permitted these new Coast Guardsmen to remain in the Civil Service if they so chose, including many from the Lighthouse Service who took him up on his offer, and that led to some of the crews of various light stations, lightships and buoy tenders being made up of a mixture of uniformed personnel and civilians. But his efforts worked.

The mergers have not been easy, and some argue the process is still on-going, but the functions and expertise these agencies brought with them survive intact. They have made today’s Coast Guard what it is — the world’s premiere maritime agency.

Now that you’ve learned about the Coast Guard’s lineage, stay tuned in the coming weeks to learn more about each individual Coast Guard mission! We’ll be highlighting how each mission originated and changed over time to become what it is today.

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