Digest>Archives> Jul/Aug 2011

Lost in the Pages of Time

USRC Levi Woodbury and its Duties during the Changing Face of America

By Timothy Harrison


You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<

While most people would readily acknowledge that the United States Life-Saving Service was the sister organization of the United States Lighthouse Service, it might then be said that the United States Revenue Cutter Service was a brother to both organizations. Formed in 1790 as an armed maritime law enforcement agency under the Treasury Department, for a time it was the only military presence of the United States on the high seas. In fact, in those days, there was no Navy; the U.S. Navy had been disbanded after the conclusion of Revolutionary War and would not be officially reestablished until 1794, and it would be another 125 years before the Coast Guard would be created.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<

As part of its duties, the Revenue Cutter Service was mandated by federal law to patrol the waters of New England in the wintertime to assist mariners in distress and keep the rivers and harbors open from ice.

Shown here, on a rare vintage post card, is the U.S. Revenue Cutter Levi Woodbury in the ice at Belfast Harbor, Maine, on March 21, 1905. The vessel was launched in 1864 for the Revenue Marine Service, which, in 1894, was renamed the Revenue Cutter Service. The USRC Levi Woodbury was a 130-foot, 350-ton steamer rigged as a top-sail schooner, and was originally outfitted with one single-powered 30-pounder Parrott Rifle and five 24-pounder Howitzers.

When it was launched the vessel was originally named Mahoning, after a river in Pennsylvania. On June 5, 1873 it was renamed Levi Woodbury in honor of Levi Woodbury, one of only a few men in history to serve in all three branches of the government of the United States of America. As well as being a United States Senator, Levi Woodbury also served as Secretary of Navy, and later, under Presidents Jackson and Van Buren, he served as Secretary of the Treasury. In 1845 he was appointed to the United States Supreme Court and served there until his death in Portsmouth, New Hampshire in 1851. In his younger years he had also held a number of elected positions in New Hampshire and served as governor of the state from 1823 to 1824.

This vintage post card clearly shows that the Woodbury had broken the ice to reach this part of the harbor in Belfast, Maine. A large number of locals from Belfast can be seen who had walked out over the ice to get a close-up look at the important government vessel. In those days this must have been a sight to behold, something that they could tell their grandchildren about.

The winter of 1904-1905 was exceptionally cold. From early February to late March of 1905, the Penobscot Bay, Penobscot River, and most of the nearby harbors along the coast of Maine had frozen over. The Woodbury spent most of its time that winter in Rockland, Belfast, and Blue Hill Bay breaking ice and assisting other vessels that had become stranded in the ice.

Many people strapped on their skates or hitched up their sleighs for an exciting adventure out onto the ice. But it was not all play. Many vessels had become stranded in the ice and outlying islands were running short on supplies. As the situation deteriorated, the locals loaded goods and food onto sleighs, as well as into some automobiles, and while traversing cautiously across the ice, delivered the items to the island inhabitants, who, in some circumstances, were desperate for supplies.

As shown on the historic photograph, courtesy of the Belfast Historical Society, locals from Blue Hill, Maine formed a work crew of men with horses pulling saws behind them in an attempt to cut the ice and open up the frozen Blue Hill Harbor for ship traffic. However, even after the cutter Woodbury showed up to give them a hand, the going was slow. The Woodbury would lurch forward, knocking against the ice, going each time about the length of the ship, and then it would back up for another rush at the ice. The cutter soon caught up with the men on the ice. Then the men, with the help of the Woodbury, broke up a large enough area of the ice to allow the Woodbury to turn around, and, with its work done, head back out and on its way to the next harbor where it was needed.

Although the Levi Woodbury was called away for duty during the Spanish-American War, most of its life was spent in the waters of Massachusetts and Maine. By 1913 the USRC Woodbury was the oldest active duty vessel of the United States Government.

Perhaps the last triumph of the Woodbury occurred on August 7, 1914. Described as one of the most important rescues of the year, the Woodbury towed to safety the steamer Bay State, which, with 250 passengers and a crew of 104, had run aground in an exposed position near Maine’s Portland Head Lighthouse and within sight of the Cape Elizabeth Two Lights Lighthouse Station. Although crews from the nearby Life-Saving Station were standing by, ready to assist, it was stated that if the Bay State had not been rescued in time, the ship may have tipped over on its side and the risk of the loss of lives would have high. (Coincidently, the date of August 7, when the rescue took place, later became known as National Lighthouse Day in honor of when, in 1789, the newly formed government of the United States federalized all lighthouses.)

Interestingly, on September 23, 1916, the steamer Bay State was shipwrecked near the same location that the Woodbury had saved her a couple of years earlier, but this time the Woodbury was not around to assist. In 1915 the Revenue Cutter Service and the Life-Saving Service were merged to create the United States Coast Guard. Within weeks after the merger, the Coast Guard decommissioned the Levi Woodbury and sold it to a private owner. By 1932 the old vessel, once known as the USRC Levi Woodbury, had disappeared from the registry of ships. In 1939, by an Act of Congress, the U.S. Lighthouse Service was dissolved and its duties were taken over by the United States Coast Guard that was once the United States Revenue Cutter Service.

This story appeared in the Jul/Aug 2011 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.

All contents copyright © 1995-2024 by Lighthouse Digest®, Inc. No story, photograph, or any other item on this website may be reprinted or reproduced without the express permission of Lighthouse Digest. For contact information, click here.

to Lighthouse Digest

USLHS Marker Fund

Lighthouse History
Research Institute

Shop Online

Subscribe   Contact Us   About Us   Copyright Foghorn Publishing, 1994- 2024   Lighthouse Facts     Lighthouse History