THE Life-Saving Service and Election Year Politics

 By Dave Gamage

©2000 -- All Rights Reserved

Ed. Note -- This article was received on November 6, 2000, the day before the presidential elections. This could not have come a a better time. (PS. Jack is a card carrying Republican.)


The 1876-77 open season at the White Head Life-Saving Station brought more difficulties for this new station and for Keeper Horace Norton. This was a presidential election year, the year of the hotly contested Hayes vs. Tilden election. Problems began for Norton when 1st District Supt. Richardson, contrary to the policy of the service,  told him in September to ship a crew of Republicans for the coming open season.” Norton did as he was told for fear of losing his appointment as keeper. At the outset he lost his most experienced surfmen. No. 1 Surfman Freeman Shea, though a Republican, refused to go along with this political scheme and quit in disgust. No. 2 Surfman Herbert Elwell refused to enroll in the Republican Party. Norton then proceeded to put together a crew of six new men who met Richardson’s political qualifications. To add further to his grief, Norton was asked by a prominent local citizen, if I had discharged my old crew and hired a new one who were Republicans.  I told him "yes." He was very indignant and reported our interview to the Rockland Opinion.  The Opinion published an editorial in which he commented on these facts in a manner not complimentary to my new crew.”

Rockland Opinion, November 3, 1876:


A Life-Saving Station Made a Political Machine.

The Republican party have got all the offices in train to do the utmost possible for it.  Every little source of patronage is made to tell. But it is only recently that the lighthouse system and the life-saving service of the coast have been made a political machine.  Previous administrations have universally considered that it was of greatest importance that the efficiency of the service should be maintained, at all hazards, whether those who hold subordinate positions in it belong to one party or another. The demoralizing rule of civil service which gives positions in reward for political services, rather than on account of the fitness of the appointee, has never been applied here, where it would manifestly be so dangerous.  We cannot afford to have our lighthouses kept by numbskulls, even though they may be good political workers; it is of the highest importance that the first-class men be selected to man our life-boats, even if they cannot pack a caucus.

But the second administration of Grant has changed all this. Every Democrat that was in the service four years ago has now been displaced, and Republicans appointed, no matter how unfit.  We have alluded to one case of this sort-- that of the lighthouse-keeper on Mark Island, where the widow of a soldier was turned out to make room for one of Eugene Hale’s lackeys. We now hear a case in which the efficiency of the life-saving service has been sacrificed to gain a few votes for the Republican Party. 

The life-saving station at White Head was established one year ago, and has been the means of doing a great deal of good.  A station of this kind is greatly needed there, and those employed should be experienced oarsmen and strong, able men.  It is in charge of Capt. Horace Norton, who was appointed when the station was established. He is a gentleman well adapted to the place, and has always given great satisfaction to all who had occasion to need his services.  He is a Republican, of course, but no one would think of objecting to the appointment of a Republican to the place, provided he is fit for it, Besides the captain there are six surfmen at the station.  These are engaged by the captain.  When the crew was made up, Capt. Norton selected his men with reference to their fitness, not their politics.

The six surfmen were men who had passed their lives by the seashore or upon the ocean itself.  All were strong, robust active men, and all thoroughly at home in a boat, with an oar in their grasp. As most of the seafaring men along the coast are Democrats, it is not perhaps surprising that of these six men five were Democrats.  They are only employed during six months of the year, and were discharged on the first of May. When the time approached for commencing operations this season –the first of November –the men got notice from Captain Norton that their services would not be required. It was ascertained that a new crew had been engaged, all of whom were Republicans. One of them a cripple, unable to do a man’s work; one of them is so timid in a boat that he does not dare to alone cross from Spruce Head to the main when the wind is fresh; two of them had scarcely ever handled an oar; none of them would be considered first-class men.  But all vote the Republican ticket. One, who lives at South Thomaston, voted that way for the first time in his life last September.  Was not that a pretty crowd to man a lifeboat!  If they ever get out on the water someone will have to be out to save their lives.

When we learned the above facts, a representative of the Opinion called on Capt. Norton, to learn if it had been correctly represented to us.  He admitted that the services of the men employed last season had been dispensed with, and that it was for political reasons.  The new crew was inferior to the old one, but was as good as he could get without taking any Democrats.  To the question, whether or not he considered that the right way to do business, he replied promptly and somewhat warmly, that he did not. He was not in favor of such a thing, but could not help himself.  “Why,” said he, “in case Tilden is elected, I should of course expect to lose the place of captain: but if we did not draw party lines in the minor appointments, the Democrats would not then do so, and I might be employed as a surfman. Now they will kick me out altogether unless they are fools.”

He said that he had received orders from the commissioner to be sure and have seven Republican votes from the station, and had unwillingly complied, and took men recommended by Republican politicians. One of the old crew was a Republican, but he had discharged him so as to let the politicians have a crew of their own choosing throughout. And he intimated very strongly that he thought they had made a mess of it.  He thought the lighthouse commissioner had got his orders from William P. Frye, member of congress from the Second District.

Seamen, you who are liable to be wrecked in that dangerous locality will you vote with a party that deliberately sacrifices your safety for the sake of getting votes? On the same principle, may not the next step be to give instruction to the life-saving crew not to attempt to save the lives or property of Democrats?                                   

This letter appeared four days before the presidential election and the obvious intent of the local newspaper was to obtain more votes for Tilden, the Democratic candidate. This was the infamous election of 1876 in which both sides claimed victory and that was finally settled in March by the Compromise of 1877 giving the presidency to Hayes. A second letter appeared in the Opinion soon after the election.

“The Republicans are not feeling so jubilant as they did, especially the men at the life-saving station on White Head, who celebrated Hayes’s election three weeks ago, and are now sick with disgust to think what damn fools they made of themselves.”

Norton and his crew believed that they would lose their jobs if the Democrat Tilden were elected. Norton wrote in his journal, “The whole winter was passed in uncertainty as to who was elected. It took all winter to settle the election and when near March fourth we learned that Hayes was declared elected we were greatly relieved.”



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