In the year 1871 two significant events occurred in U.S. maritime history that would ultimately lead to a largely forgotten event in the history of America’s lighthouse tenders. The first event was the launching of the United States Revenue Cutter Service’s (Revenue Marine) cutter the U.S. Grant. Constructed by the Pusey and Jones Corporation of Wilmington, Delaware, the Grant was a barque-rigged, iron-hulled, 163-foot single propeller steamer that displaced 350 tons. The Grant had a complement of 41 to 45, was armed with four 24-pounder Howitzers, and had a cruising speed of 11 knots.
The second event of that year, and one with long lasting impact, occurred when, after ten years as a Treasury Department clerk, Sumner I. Kimball launched his new career as Chief of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, which was also known as the Revenue Marine Cutter Service and was also commonly called the Revenue Marine. Kimball would have a profound impact on the transformation of this military branch of the government from a political to a professional organization, standards that he later applied with the official creation of, and his subsequent management of, the U.S. Life-Saving Service.
Kimball established higher standards of performance for the Revenue Cutter Marine Service and its officers, and accordingly raised the officer qualification requirements for assignment and promotion and created a school of instruction for officer candidates (to later become the Coast Guard Academy) with acceptance based on knowledge and ability, not political connection. It was also during Kimball’s term as Chief that new life-saving stations were established on the Atlantic Coast and manned by those with boating skills and knowledge of the local waters. In 1878 he was selected to become the General Superintendent of the newly created U.S. Life-Saving Service.
The USRC Grant served first on the Atlantic Coast and later in the Pacific region, as well as the Arctic regions of the Bering Sea, conducting search and rescue missions, protecting seals, patrolling during the salmon fishing season, transporting dignitaries, and providing assistance and support to isolated coastal communities.
It was the life-saving function of the Revenue Marine Service and the establishment new life-saving stations that brought Kimball and the USRC Grant together in 1877 for an inspection tour of these stations. This was a trip to be long remembered by those involved, but the record of which is likely hidden deep in the archives and nearly unknown by most historians.
In July of 1877, the USRC Grant was retained to transport Kimball and other dignitaries along the length of the Maine coast for the purpose of visiting five new life-saving stations and a few of the many lighthouses. Included in the group were Kimball’s boss, Treasury Secretary John Sherman; Captain John Walker, Secretary of the U.S. Light House Board; and Captain Carlile E. Patterson the Superintendent of the of the U.S Coast and Geodetic Survey, which was the government organization that produced navigation charts and determined the appropriate locations to be marked by navigation buoys and beacons such as spindles and tripod markers.
Also onboard for the trip was Webb Hayes, second son of and secretary to the President of the United States, Rutherford B. Hayes, who was reporting on the inspection trip directly to his father.
This trip was generally uneventful until the afternoon of Wednesday, July 11, 1877 when the USRC Grant, having sailed from Portland, Maine, arrived at Whitehead Island and the Mussel Ridge Channel entrance. This island was the location of a lighthouse and a new 1874 life-saving station with its first keeper, Horace Norton.
While at Whitehead, the infamous Mussel Ridge fog set in. The Grant departed in the fog to proceed up the channel, but very soon the mood of a pleasant journey abruptly changed when, at 6 o’clock that evening and about one half mile northeasterly from Whitehead, the Grant struck Lower Gangway Ledge. Fortunately the now leaking Grant was able to back off and proceed to False Whitehead Harbor on the north side of Spruce Head Island and there to ground on the flats.
Keeper Norton would record in his personal journal, “John Sherman and Mr. Kimball visited the station in the revenue steamer Grant. Struck Lower Gangway Ledge and stove in her plates. Leaking bad. Had to run her on the flats north side of Spruce Head. The cutter was detained for several days.”
The U.S. Lighthouse Service came to the rescue with the engineering tender Iris.
At high tide the next morning, the Grant was unable to get off the flats, so in the afternoon the Iris transported Kimball and his party of dignitaries to Rockland. However, later at high tide the tug Sanford succeeded in pulling the Grant to deep water and then towed the vessel to the South Marine Railway in Rockland.
At the railway the Grant experienced another unexpected event; an unplanned and uncontrolled launch. The hauling chain broke when the Grant had been pulled nearly to the top of the railway. The ship ran back down the track and there it remained until high tide the following day. So, in an effort to keep the trip somewhat on schedule, Kimball and his dignitaries, who were some of the most noted maritime individuals of their time, boarded the U.S. Lighthouse Service tender Iris and sailed eastward to continue their planned life-saving station inspections at Cross Island, Browney Island,(a/k/a Brownie Island), and West Quoddy.
When finally hauled out, and with the damaged hull plates and floor timbers temporarily repaired, the Grant was launched on Saturday and in the afternoon sailed to Mount Desert Island where the Kimball party left the Iris and was taken on board the Grant to once again to continue the easterly journey to Eastport. However, during that brief time, the Lighthouse Tender Iris had played its role in transporting some of the most notable people in America’s maritime history.
By the following Monday afternoon, the USRC Grant, returned to Rockland, and Kimball and his party of dignitaries disembarked and caught the train in Rockland to make their way back to the nation’s capital. The Grant then sailed to New York and to the Navy Yard for permanent repair.
It was fortunate that the damage to the Grant was not severe enough to cause the ship to sink. If it had, keeper Norton and the surfmen of the Whitehead Life-Saving Station would have launched a surfboat to rescue the crew of the Grant and its notable passengers. Following this, Norton would have been had to prepare the required rescue incident report. This would have been indeed a most interesting report, considering those involved, and that such reports from life-saving station keepers were sent directly to Kimball himself.
Not surprisingly, the wreck of the Grant was blamed on the Lighthouse Service, alleging that the Lower Gangway spar buoy was out of position. Blame the buoy and save a career! The fact was that the pilot, on loan from the cutter Dallas, and the captain of the Grant, apparently lacking local knowledge of the area, made a serious navigation error of several degrees when selecting the heading for proceeding up the Mussel Ridge Channel from Whitehead.
One might wonder what was going through the mind of the captain of the Grant for having nearly wrecked the ship with his boss Kimball and his boss’s boss, Treasury Secretary John Sherman, on board, not to mention the son of Sherman’s boss, the President of the United States.
The USRC Grant remained active for 35 years until 1906. The USLHT Iris continued to serve out of Portland, Maine until 1892 when it was replaced by the tender Lilac. The Iris was sold and became the merchant ship SS Iris operating out of Texas until about 1910 when its name disappeared from the records. Sumner Kimball served until 1915 when the U.S. Life-Saving Service and the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service were merged to create the United States Coast Guard. He retired to live quietly and died in Washington DC in 1923. He is buried in his home state of Maine at the Forest Grove Cemetery in Augusta.
This story appeared in the
May/Jun 2013 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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