KEEPER JOHN ARNDT ANDERSON, USLSS 1870-1926©

By Alan Nelson

Originally posted on the Internet on Bill Well’s site – Republished by permission of the author.

This is the Biography of a Norseman turnes United States ‘Surfman in the days when Great Lakes members of the service were laid off during the winter and earned $40,00 per month during the season……  

      John Anderson was born May 22, 1870 in Fredricksstad, Norway. His early years in Norway were occupied working with his brothers for boat builders and working on coastal ships. In 1889, John and his brothers, Martin and Axel departed for the United States by encouragement of friends who had immigrated earlier and located in the Marquette Michigan area. They arrived at New York through Ellis Island. However, unlike many immigrants passing through Ellis Island, they had the ability to read, write and speak the English language.

      In 1890 the brothers arrived at Marquette, Michigan after a circuitous trip by way of Chicago, Illinois, to Iowa and Green Bay, Wisconsin. Settling with friends in Marquette they sought employment. In the spring of 1891, they joined the U.S. Life Saving Service, and were members of the first crew of the U. S. Life Saving Station at Marquette under the charge of Captain [Keeper] Henry Cleary. John signed on as Surfman No. 1 with his brothers, Martin and Axel, taking Surfman positions in order.

     The U. S. Life Saving Service and Revenue Cutter Service valued almost any man from Norway and hired them immediately in jobs on cutters or life saving stations. Norwegians had a worldwide reputation of being top-notch sailors. Captain Henry Cleary transferred from the Deer Park Life Saving Station to take the Keeper duties of the newly opened Station at Marquette. He was considered by many in the area to be the best, and most respected lifesaver on the Great Lakes. Cleary, along with a hand-picked crew, traveled all over the Great Lakes region, giving demonstrations, exhibition drills, training, etc. at other Stations, World's Fairs, special occasions and the like. Cleary was a personal friend of President William McKinley and often "hob-knobbed" with him.

    In Cleary's absence, Surfman John Anderson operated the Marquette Station. John became a very talented and respected lifesaver in his own right. He remained No.1 man at Marquette for 21 years, as Cleary needed a good man to fill in during his absence. All Surfmen, except the Keeper, were laid off during the ice season, and rehired at the spring thaw. During the "active" season, surfmen were paid about $40 dollars per month from which they had to purchase their own uniforms. The stations were highly social organizations. They did not carry the hierarchical relationship the Revenue Cutters did. In essence there was no separation, except by number, by officer or enlisted status. They were all Surfmen.

     During the off-season, John built boats in a local shop. Talk of installing engines in surf boats had been going on for years, but serious efforts took place in Marquette. In 1899, using Captains Cleary's political connections, and under the guidance of USRCS Captain McLellan, a spare 34-foot lifeboat from New Jersey was brought in by rail car. John, using his boat building skills, along with McLellan and Cleary, modified the hull of the life boat and installed a 2 cylinder, 12 horsepower Superior gasoline engine, built by Marquette's Lake Shore Engine Company. Trial runs were successful, becoming the first Motor Lifeboat for the USLSS was put into service. Within the next 10 years many lifeboats had engines with up to 40 horsepower .

     During the early 1900s, John Anderson and Henry Cleary built five cottages near the Marquette Station for the married Surfmen and their families. One remains standing at present. The cottages were needed. On April 4th, 1906, John married the sister [Caroline(Lena) Anderson] of Senior Chief Nelson's great-grandmother, Annie[Anderson]. The girls were from a Swedish family and were the daughters of John Peter Anderson, founder of the well-known Anderson Fish Company of Marquette. John built his home on 623 E. Arch Street across the railroad tracks from the Marquette Station.

     In 1912, the USLSS opened a Life Saving Station at Eagle Harbor on the Keweenaw Peninsula, and Captain Albert Ochoa of the Two Heart River Life Saving Station took charge. This left a vacancy and John, paying his own travel expenses, took the promotion as Keeper of Two Heart Station. The trip wasn't easy. He and wife, Lena, traveled to Grand Marais by train and horse carriage, then by surfboat the 25 miles to the Two Heart Station. The only land route to the Station was by way of dog-sled and horse trails. They were only allowed to bring absolute necessities, which also went with them by way of boat.

     At season closing, around the first of December of each year, the crew was laid off for the winter. John and Lena remained, living in the keeper's quarters. As Keeper, John and Lena lived year-round at this isolated station for three years, from 1912-1915. There were no recorded heroic rescues during these three years, however the surfmen there conducted many successful rescues. John was considered a top notch Keeper and maintained a first rate crew, as well as being highly respected by everyone who knew him. This reputation followed him throughout his life.

     By 1915, the Two Heart Station had a dozen or so families living on the other side of the river. These were woodsmen, hunters, and fishermen. This small community roughed it through the winters, taking the full force of icy gale winds across Lake Superior from Canada. The only contact to the outside world was by dog-sled, west to Grand Marais, about 25 miles, or south to Newberry, about 20 miles. There were, however, other Life Saving Stations. The closest was Deer Park, about 9 miles to the west, then Crisp Station and the Light House 10 miles eastward. And finally, Vermillion Life Saving Station at 20 miles distance. Each one had only the Keeper and his family living aboard during the long cold winters.

     When spring arrived, the stations became active communities as surfmen and their families returned. Commercial fishing and shipping grew each year, and massive lake freighters were traversing the lake in growing numbers. Station crews drilled constantly to hone their skills, and were on constant vigil for mariners in distress. The area of Upper Michigan shoreline carries, and rightly so the nickname "Shipwreck Coast". Seldom a week went by when one or more of the stations wasn't called into action to aid a ship or boat that foundered, or got lost and grounded on the dreaded offshore shoals and sandbars. This was the only area of the United States that had four Life Saving Stations within a 65-mile stretch of coastline. By 1920, the number grew to six, protecting life and property in the most treacherous area of the Great Lakes.

     In January 1915, an act of congress merged the Life Saving Service into the Revenue Cutter Service creating the United States Coast Guard. During the summer of 1915, the newly formed Coast Guard Tenth District constructed its first station at Mackinac Island [funding had been appropriated in 1912]. Mackinac Island is located in the straits between upper and lower Michigan on Lake Huron. In November of 1915, John Anderson was transferred there to take charge.

     John and Lena had a changed lifestyle, almost over night. Mackinac Island was a busy place that catered to the lifestyles of the rich and famous. With the title of "Captain", John and Lena became very popular with the wealthy and cultural inhabitants. They fit in well, and rubbed elbows with many famous people. John would have his crews perform boat drills and beach apparatus demonstrations to entertain gatherings and social affairs for the island's wealthy visitors and residents. In turn, John and Lena received invitations to social events and parties at the World Famous Mackinac Island Grand Hotel.

    Mackinac Island Station wasn't as busy with life saving duties as was expected. The two nearby stations of Boise Blanc Island and Hammond Bay, within 15 miles, drew the majority of the calls. Even so, the Mackinac Island Station served a better purpose of promoting the Coast Guard and in turn, brought support of the wealthy and politically connected who used the island as a vacation get away. This lifestyle remained until March 23, 1923, when John retired on pension after 23 years of service. They moved back to Marquette to reside in the house John built in 1906. John's health was failing, presumably due to the rigorous, difficult life of an early surfman, and passed away on April 4, 1926, after living a life of service to the maritime community.

     John's brothers outlived him. Martin remained with the Life Saving Service for six years and took on other work in Marquette. Axel served for three years, and eventually purchased and settled on a farm some 15 miles south. After John's death Lena moved in with my great-grandfather, great-grandmother (her sister) and my grandfather in a house on Front Street in Marquette. Lena died in 1953, and my great-grandparents died a week apart in 1954. My grandparents moved into the house on Arch Street where they lived until my grandfather's death in 1982. Many historical items were retained and donated to the Marquette Maritime Museum. Many pictures exist of life in the Service, in those days, and remain in my family's possession.

     John and Lena are buried in the Anderson Plot of the Park Cemetery in Marquette Michigan. John was a commanding man of about 6'3", and always carried himself in a respectful and proper manner. At this time nothing remains of the Deer Park and Crisp Stations, and at Two Heart, only the foundations exist today. The Vermillion Station has been preserved, and operated until the 1940s. The other three were closed in then 1930s and demolished sometime in the '60s. The only path to these historic locales is along two desolate rutted trails.

 

MKCS Alan Nelson, USCGR, wrote this article on information compiled by his father Donald L. Nelson. Senior Chief Alan Nelson, a 4th Generation Coast Guardsman with over 25 years Active and Reserve Service, is the great-nephew of John Anderson. Donald Nelson, a former Coast Guard Engineman and Lighthouse Crewman, is considered an expert in Great Lakes Light Houses and USLSS History.

Used with permission of the author © 2000 

Remis Velisque

 

Return to Coast Guard Stories 

 

 

     During the off-season, John built boats in a local shop. Talk of installing engines in surf boats had been going on for years, but serious efforts took place in Marquette. In 1899, using Captains Cleary's political connections, and under the guidance of USRCS Captain McLellan, a spare 34-foot lifeboat from New Jersey was brought in by rail car. John, using his boat building skills, along with McLellan and Cleary, modified the hull of the life boat and installed a 2 cylinder, 12 horsepower Superior gasoline engine, built by Marquette's Lake Shore Engine Company. Trial runs were successful, becoming the first Motor Lifeboat for the USLSS was put into service. Within the next 10 years many lifeboats had engines with up to 40 horsepower .

     During the early 1900s, John Anderson and Henry Cleary built five cottages near the Marquette Station for the married Surfmen and their families. One remains standing at present. The cottages were needed. On April 4th, 1906, John married the sister [Caroline(Lena) Anderson] of Senior Chief Nelson's great-grandmother, Annie[Anderson]. The girls were from a Swedish family and were the daughters of John Peter Anderson, founder of the well-known Anderson Fish Company of Marquette. John built his home on 623 E. Arch Street across the railroad tracks from the Marquette Station.

     In 1912, the USLSS opened a Life Saving Station at Eagle Harbor on the Keweenaw Peninsula, and Captain Albert Ochoa of the Two Heart River Life Saving Station took charge. This left a vacancy and John, paying his own travel expenses, took the promotion as Keeper of Two Heart Station. The trip wasn't easy. He and wife, Lena, traveled to Grand Marais by train and horse carriage, then by surfboat the 25 miles to the Two Heart Station. The only land route to the Station was by way of dog-sled and horse trails. They were only allowed to bring absolute necessities, which also went with them by way of boat.

     At season closing, around the first of December of each year, the crew was laid off for the winter. John and Lena remained, living in the keeper's quarters. As Keeper, John and Lena lived year-round at this isolated station for three years, from 1912-1915. There were no recorded heroic rescues during these three years, however the surfmen there conducted many successful rescues. John was considered a top notch Keeper and maintained a first rate crew, as well as being highly respected by everyone who knew him. This reputation followed him throughout his life.

     By 1915, the Two Heart Station had a dozen or so families living on the other side of the river. These were woodsmen, hunters, and fishermen. This small community roughed it through the winters, taking the full force of icy gale winds across Lake Superior from Canada. The only contact to the outside world was by dog-sled, west to Grand Marais, about 25 miles, or south to Newberry, about 20 miles. There were, however, other Life Saving Stations. The closest was Deer Park, about 9 miles to the west, then Crisp Station and the Light House 10 miles eastward. And finally, Vermillion Life Saving Station at 20 miles distance. Each one had only the Keeper and his family living aboard during the long cold winters.

     When spring arrived, the stations became active communities as surfmen and their families returned. Commercial fishing and shipping grew each year, and massive lake freighters were traversing the lake in growing numbers. Station crews drilled constantly to hone their skills, and were on constant vigil for mariners in distress. The area of Upper Michigan shoreline carries, and rightly so the nickname "Shipwreck Coast". Seldom a week went by when one or more of the stations wasn't called into action to aid a ship or boat that foundered, or got lost and grounded on the dreaded offshore shoals and sandbars. This was the only area of the United States that had four Life Saving Stations within a 65-mile stretch of coastline. By 1920, the number grew to six, protecting life and property in the most treacherous area of the Great Lakes.

     In January 1915, an act of congress merged the Life Saving Service into the Revenue Cutter Service creating the United States Coast Guard. During the summer of 1915, the newly formed Coast Guard Tenth District constructed its first station at Mackinac Island [funding had been appropriated in 1912]. Mackinac Island is located in the straits between upper and lower Michigan on Lake Huron. In November of 1915, John Anderson was transferred there to take charge.

     John and Lena had a changed lifestyle, almost over night. Mackinac Island was a busy place that catered to the lifestyles of the rich and famous. With the title of "Captain", John and Lena became very popular with the wealthy and cultural inhabitants. They fit in well, and rubbed elbows with many famous people. John would have his crews perform boat drills and beach apparatus demonstrations to entertain gatherings and social affairs for the island's wealthy visitors and residents. In turn, John and Lena received invitations to social events and parties at the World Famous Mackinac Island Grand Hotel.

    Mackinac Island Station wasn't as busy with life saving duties as was expected. The two nearby stations of Boise Blanc Island and Hammond Bay, within 15 miles, drew the majority of the calls. Even so, the Mackinac Island Station served a better purpose of promoting the Coast Guard and in turn, brought support of the wealthy and politically connected who used the island as a vacation get away. This lifestyle remained until March 23, 1923, when John retired on pension after 23 years of service. They moved back to Marquette to reside in the house John built in 1906. John's health was failing, presumably due to the rigorous, difficult life of an early surfman, and passed away on April 4, 1926, after living a life of service to the maritime community.

     John's brothers outlived him. Martin remained with the Life Saving Service for six years and took on other work in Marquette. Axel served for three years, and eventually purchased and settled on a farm some 15 miles south. After John's death Lena moved in with my great-grandfather, great-grandmother (her sister) and my grandfather in a house on Front Street in Marquette. Lena died in 1953, and my great-grandparents died a week apart in 1954. My grandparents moved into the house on Arch Street where they lived until my grandfather's death in 1982. Many historical items were retained and donated to the Marquette Maritime Museum. Many pictures exist of life in the Service, in those days, and remain in my family's possession.

     John and Lena are buried in the Anderson Plot of the Park Cemetery in Marquette Michigan. John was a commanding man of about 6'3", and always carried himself in a respectful and proper manner. At this time nothing remains of the Deer Park and Crisp Stations, and at Two Heart, only the foundations exist today. The Vermillion Station has been preserved, and operated until the 1940s. The other three were closed in then 1930s and demolished sometime in the '60s. The only path to these historic locales is along two desolate rutted trails.

 

MKCS Alan Nelson, USCGR, wrote this article on information compiled by his father Donald L. Nelson. Senior Chief Alan Nelson, a 4th Generation Coast Guardsman with over 25 years Active and Reserve Service, is the great-nephew of John Anderson. Donald Nelson, a former Coast Guard Engineman and Lighthouse Crewman, is considered an expert in Great Lakes Light Houses and USLSS History.

Used with permission of the author © 2000 

Remis Velisque

 

Return to Coast Guard Stories