Digest>Archives> June 2009

William D. O’Connor - An American Legend

By Timothy Harrison


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William Douglas O’Connor wrote the legendary ...

Some time ago the book, Heroes of the Storm, came into my possession along with a number of other old maritime books. Being busy at the time, I barely even looked at the book, and shelved it onto one of my many overcrowded book shelves, where it sat for a number of years. That is, until the other day, while looking for something else, I rediscovered the book and dropped what was doing to read through its amazing selection of true accounts of the United States Life-Saving Service.

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The U.S. Life Saving Service Station on ...

Although the valiant stories of heroism in the book make for great reading, I had read most of them before. What I found myself drawn to was the author, William D. O’Connor; especially since this book was published in 1904, an amazing 15 years after his death in 1889.

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The book, Heroes of the Storm by William D. ...

The Introduction section of the book, written by Summer I. Kimball, who served as the General Superintendent of the Life-Saving Service until it became part of the Coast Guard in 1915, provides a lot of the insight into what type of person O’Connor was.

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Sumner I. Kimball was the only man to serve as ...

Born in Boston in 1832, for the most part, O’Connor was a self taught man, who was an accomplished painting and writer. By the early age of twenty he was working for the Boston Commonwealth, a large daily newspaper of its time. In 1854 he joined the editorial staff of the famous Philadelphia Saturday Evening Post, a position he held until 1860 when he was fired for his political views against slavery.

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The crew of the Plum Island Life Saving Service ...

After writing a number of works, he needed a more steady income and moved to Washington D.C to look for work and in 1861 he became a civil service employee. He started his government career as a corresponding clerk with the United States Light-House Board, the organization responsible for all United States lighthouses from 1852 to 1910. By 1873 he had worked his way up to Chief Clerk of the Light-House Board, a position where he felt he was extremely overworked. Requesting a transfer, he took a job as a librarian at the Treasury Department where he stayed for two years.

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Interior of the Fletcher’s Neck life Saving ...

In 1875 he secured a position as a clerk in the office of the Revenue Marine Division, which the Life-Saving Service operated under at that time.

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This engraving appeared in the Harper’s New ...

When the Life Saving Service was reorganized in 1878 to operate as its own independent agency under the Treasury Department, O’Connor was appointed Assistant General Superintendent. Although O’Connor had become enthralled at the stories of heroism and dedication of the crews of the Life Saving Station that had crossed his desk over the years, his new boss Sumner Kimball might also have picked him for the job because of his eloquent writing abilities.

Whatever the case, O’Connor knew these stories needed to be told and saved so they could not only shared with the government officials and citizens of the day, but for future generations and that they needed to be told in a way that would bring to life the sacrifices and amazing bravery of the men who risked their lives to save the victims of shipwrecks, even if it meant the loss of their own life. Up until that time, most accounts of the bravery of the surfmen and keepers of Life Saving Service were general mater-of-fact reports issued to Congress. O’Connor’s writing abilities changed that and in doing so he changed the course of history.

The manner in which O’Connor’s reports were written for Congress were never exaggerated, but written in such a way as to give one the experience of having been there watching the events unfold or actually participating in them..

His boss, Sumner Kimball wrote, "The appearance of the Annual Reports containing these narratives attracted wide attention, and the demand for the volumes became so great that large editions were necessary to meet it. The interest in the service (referring to the Life-Saving Service) thus stimulated by Mr. O’Connor’s work largely contributed to its early development and aided in its subsequent prosperity and success."

During one point when Congress was considering transferring the Life Saving Service duties to the U. S Navy, O’Connor wrote to Congress, adamantly opposing such a move. In doing so he pointed out why the Life Saving Service required specialized training, which was so much different than the Navy’s duties or training that would cause serious consequences. Congress agreed and left the Life Service alone

During his lifetime, O’Connor, through his many works and with his wide variety of interests became friends with many notables of his time, including the often controversial poet Walt Whitman, who said of O’Connor, "Other men are more famous .. but no man is greater." Although Whitman and O’Connor had some major differences over the years, they remained friends. When believing that Whitman was about to die, his friends requested that O’Connor come and speak at the funeral. However, O’Connor, himself ill at the time of the request, died on May 9, 1889 at the age 57. Interestingly, Whitman lived for another three years.

After O’Connor’s death, many of his friends wanted the public to be made more aware of the graphic stories of heroism of the Life Saving Service that he had written about in his reports to Congress. Leading the way was O’Connor’s longtime friend Charles W. Eldridge who had owned a publishing firm that in 1860 published O’Connor’s book, "Harrington: A Story of True Love."

Eldridge then took on the considerable task of reading all of the Annual Reports of the Life-Saving Service that had been written by O’Connor and then chose the best ones he felt should be published in a book. Finally, in 1904, 15 years after O’Connor’s death, the book, "Heroes of the Storm," was published, but sadly, Eldridge never got to see the book, he died as it was about to go to press.

Locating a copy of the book today for your home library, may be difficult, they are now considered rare. However, the stories are out there for all to read, thanks to William D. O’Connor, who started out his government career as a lighthouse man.

This story appeared in the June 2009 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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