by Capt. Ron Burkhard
In 1874, Congress passed a law that created three classes of stations for the newly formed U.S. Life-Saving Service (USLSS). Pointe aux Barques (PAB) Station was designated as a first class station and went into operation in USLSS's Ninth District on September 15, 1876. This type of station was intended for remote locations and was fully crewed and equipped. The station was located on Lake Huron about 1/8 mile southeast of the Pointe aux Barques Lighthouse, in what is now Huron County's Lighthouse Park.
Five years would pass before two other USLSS stations were built at Grindstone / Port Austin (first class) and Sand Beach / Harbor Beach (second class). A second-class station was manned by volunteer crews in more populated areas. Third class stations were houses of refuge and were only built in Florida.
These life-saving stations were set up to rescue victims of shipwrecks or ships in distress. Their rescue equipment consisted of many items, but the main ones were the lifeboats, surfboats, and the breeches buoy. An old photo of the PAB station shows the main building of the station with living quarters attached and also two small buildings on the water's edge that contain the lifeboat and surfboat. Another surfboat is sitting on a horse-drawn carriage.
The lifeboats were slow heavy boats that were strong and stable. They were used at stations where they could be launched directly into the water, usually along a set of rails. This was the station's largest boat. The size of the station's crew was determined by the number of men required to row the largest boat. Different pictures of the PAB crews show both 7 and 8 men, plus the captain. This could be because in 1881 the PAB station tested a new style of lifeboat called the Dobbins boat. It weighed less than half of the standard English-style lifeboat.
The surfboat had almost the same dimensions as the lifeboat (26' x 7') but was much lighter and drew only 6-7 inches of water. It was designed to be launched by the crew directly into the surf. Usually it was hauled on a cart down the shore to where it was needed and then launched. Both types of boats had buoyancy tanks. The lifeboats were self-righting and were self-bailing. The surfboats were self-bailing.
The breeches buoy rescue equipment used a small cannon called a Lyle Gun to fire a small line out to a near-shore wreck. A heavier line was then hauled out and rigged for a canvas chair device (breeches buoy) used to transport victims from the shipwreck to shore. The 2- ½ inch bore Lyle gun weighed 158 lbs. and could shoot a line out around 400 yards from shore. The gun was fired while it was sitting on the sand and the recoil was terrible. A 1-ounce charge would knock the gun backward 6 feet. A firing of the maximum charge of 8 ounces usually meant the crew would have to go hunting for the gun. Records show crews were injured by the recoil; however, many people were saved by this invention.
The Coast Guard's motto "You have to go out, but you don't have to come back" was proved true by the PAB crew on April 23, 1880. Six of them perished in the cold waters, within sight of their station, while attempting a rescue. They left 16 children fatherless and two women widowed. There was no pension or compensation in those days. It took a special act of Congress to provide $1,000 to be divided among the PAB crew's dependents. This was only the second crew to be lost by the newly formed USLSS. Their keeper, Captain Kiah, survived and was awarded the Congressional USLSS Gold Medal for the rescue attempt. When he recovered from this ordeal, he was appointed USLSS District Superintendent and served for another 35 years. He retired in 1915 at the age of 72.
Although these crews worked under some very dangerous circumstances, it was not all work and no play. There were small cottages at the station for the married surfmen. The station and nearby lighthouse were a popular picnic spot for the local populace. The crews would put on lifesaving demonstrations with the boats and breeches buoy that were well attended and greatly appreciated.
Also, around and after the turn of the century, the PAB crew had an organized baseball team called the Huron City Sluggers. This team had one special rule: all games had to be played at home on the life-saving station's grounds.
Today, about all that remains at the old PAB station site are a boat launch ramp, a small breakwall and the ice house inside Lighthouse County Park. The Pointe aux Barques Lighthouse Museum contains some photos and information about the station. In 1959, the station (with attached living quarters) was moved to the Huron City Museum. It was restored and contained historical information and displays plus an excellent exhibit of some rare life-saving service equipment.
**UPDATE: In the Summer of 2015, the Society was approached regarding the return of two of the original life-saving buildings that were positioned 300 yards south of the lighthouse. This Station, the first on the Great Lakes, was active from 1876 until 1937. The buildings were transferred to the Huron County Road Commission, and on November 1, 2017 the buildings were moved back to Lighthouse Park and secured on new foundations. Restoration efforts have begun.
Below is a video featuring Laura Scharle, the manager of the Indian River Life-Saving Station, who hosted PABLS along with representatives of two other Life-Saving Stations - one in northern Michigan and the other in Maine - for a lecture sponsored by Indian River. Check out the video to learn about ongoing Life Station restoration efforts.