BIRTH OF US COAST GUARD – August 4, 1790

Today, August 4, is the birthday of the U. S. Coast Guard, which came into existence 222 years ago, in 1790.

I have a couple of reasons for an interest in the USCG:

1.  My current employment is temporary contract work on real property assessment of US Coast Guard assets.

2.  I am descended from lighthouse keepers, career men in the U.S. Light House Service which merged with the U.S. Coast Guard in 1939. My paternal grandfather spent his childhood polishing the endless brass implements, instruments, and tools associated with lighthouses and grew up to hate brass. He went into a landlubber line of work – pharmacy – featuring chrome, which doesn’t tarnish. His brothers, however, stuck with the lighthouses.

On August 4, 1790, George Washington signed the Coast Guard into existence when he signed the 1790 Tariff Act, ordering ten revenue cutters and establishing ports and districts throughout the states for the collection of duties imposed on imported goods. This small fleet, an armed maritime law enforcement service called the United States Revenue Marine, worked under the Department of the Treasury.

USRC Gallatin (built 1831), 1855 photo
During the unrest between France and the United States between 1798 and 1801, the Revenue Marine worked alongside the brand-new U.S. Navy. created by the Naval Act of 1794 authorizing the construction of ships of war. (Although the Constitution provided for the government to build and maintain a navy, the small navy established during the American Revolution disappeared by 1790. For nearly a decade, until the Navy’s new warships slid down the ways in 1797, the Revenue Marine was the country’s only maritime defense.)

The Revenue Marine’s duties also included arresting America-bound ships engaged in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, illegal in the U.S. after 1807.

The Revenue Marine was renamed the Revenue Cutter Service by act of Congress on July 31, 1894.

My great-uncle Fred Morong, District Machinist USLHS

The U. S. Life-Saving Service came into official existence with the signing of the Newell Act in 1848, the culmination of private and local humanitarian efforts along our coasts. It was loosely managed, with federal dollars often funding state and private organizations in the construction and maintenance of unmanned life-saving stations along the Atlantic coast.  After a major hurricane in 1854 which took the lives of many sailors, Congress appropriated funds to provide full-time staff at many of these stations. The second half of the 19th Century saw the construction and manning of hundreds of stations.  By 1915, more than 270 of these stations – of three categories: lifesaving, lifeboat, and houses of refuge – covered all of the nation’s coastal waterways.

After the Titanicstruck an iceberg in April 1912,  the International Ice Patrol was created to monitor icebergs in the North Atlantic. The US part of this job fell to the USCG, a service which they maintain to this day.

It wasn’t until January 28, 1915, when President Woodrow Wilson signed a Senate bill (S.2337) that these two services were combined into what is called today the U. S. Coast Guard, still under the Treasury Dept. in time of peace, but under the U.S. Navy in time of war.
CGC Escanaba in North Atlantic heavy seas, 1965

The Coast Guard motto is “Semper Paratus” (Latin for “always ready”).  Captain Francis Saltus Van Boskerck, USCG, wrote the words to this march in 1922; the music came five years later.

In 2003, the U.S. Coast Guard became part of the Department of Homeland Security, where it is the largest branch of this department.  It has seven basic missions: Search and Rescue, Aids to Navigation, Ice Breaking and Ocean Science, Marine Inspection, Law Enforcement, Military Readiness, and its motto, Semper Paratus: Always ready!

Happy Birthday, United States Coast Guard!  Semper Paratus!


Wikipedia: United States Life-Saving Service

Wikipedia: United States Revenue Cutter Service 

Photos also from USCG website.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *