Shipwrecks were all too common along the coast of Long Island during the 1800’s and continued to occur up until around 1940. The loss of life as well as cargo was overwhelming and the public outcry to do something about this reach Washington. Decisions were finally made. In 1871 the Secretary of the Treasury was authorized by congress to employ crews of experienced surfmen at lifeboat stations at a maximum rate of $40 per month, marking the end of the volunteer system. This was the beginning of direct Federal control over life-saving activities. The United States Lifesaving Service was officially established on June 18, 1878 by a Congressional vote.
By 1914, there were 30 life saving stations stretching along the shores of Long Island from Montauk Point to New York City. Stations were spaced every 3 to 5 miles. The Westhampton Station was called Petunk, West Hampton, and Potunk at various times over the years. The station was # 75 and later was changed to #17. It was sited approximately “1 1/2 miles SW of Potunk Village”.
There were a number of different style buildings that were typically in use in the Life Saving Service. The Potunk Station was a red house-type designed like a salt-box style house.
The men that manned the stations were a tough lot, usually fishermen from local families. They followed a vigorous training schedule. Daily, both the Keeper and the surfmen practiced life saving skills such as launching the life boats as quickly as possible, and shooting the Lyle gun with its life line, in order to be fully prepared in time of need. They were on constant watch for ships in distress from the Stations’ tower and kept records of passing vessels as well. At night the surfmen walked patrols along the beach – one man heading each way from their station and meeting the surfman from the next station midway. They exchanged “checks” and returned to their own station. If needed they would light coston signal flares to warn off ships straying too close to the shore, and in case of floundering ships, headed back to their station to return with the crew and a fully equiped beach cart. They were prepared at all times to go out on the water – no matter the weather conditions, to save lives.
The Surfman’s Motto – ” You have to go out – but you don’t have to come back”
The following were some of the men stationed at Potunk Life Saving Station – KEEPERS Ebenezer Jayne – 1856, Franklin C. Jessup – 1872, 1881-1896, Edward H Ryder- 1873, Isaac Davidson Gildersleeve – 1903, 1911, SURFMEN: William Bishop, John Culver , Walter H Edwards, Richard O Goodman, Mortimer D. Howell, Nathan C Jessup, Franklin W Phillips, Charles L Raynor, Sidney H Raynor William C Raynor, David Rogers, Halsey Rogers
For more information on the US Life Saving Service, please visit US Life Saving Service Heritage Association.
Potunk (Westhampton)(No. 75)(1855-1937)
Assigned Rescue Craft
1856: Francis metallic pulling surfboat
1882 to 1930s: Beebe, Beebe-McLellan, and Race Point type pulling surfboats
1933: Type S pulling surfboat No. 4520
The Potunk Station was active in 1935, but was already inactive by the time of the 1938 Hurricane, when it was totally destroyed. For WWII beach patrol purposes, only a new lookout tower was built on the site.
Information and map courtesy of Tim Dring – US Life Saving Service Heritage Association)