CLEVELAND – Coast Guard men and women celebrate the service’s legacy with our neighbors, communities and maritime partners Tuesday, in honor of the U.S. Coast Guard’s 225th birthday.
The Coast Guard’s foundation traces back to a law President George Washington signed on Aug. 4, 1790, authorizing the construction of 10 revenue cutters to work under the leadership of the first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton to create a “force to regulate the collection of duties imposed by law.”
Over time, the Coast Guard’s missions grew to encompass being an Armed Force, a federal law enforcement agency, a member of the intelligence community, a humanitarian service for the public, and the responsibility for the safety and stewardship of the Nation’s waters.
After 225 years, these missions and the example of those who established ongoing relationships with the communities they served continue to chart the course.
For Coast Guard units on the Great Lakes, their history is rooted in the two earliest services. The Revenue Cutter Service and the U.S. Lighthouse Service. Both had operating facilities on the Great Lakes prior to 1820.
The first documented Revenue Cutter on the Great Lakes was the cutter Erie, stationed at Presque Isle, Lake Erie about the same time as the Presque Isle light was established. Records are incomplete for the first established light house. Accounts point to either the Niagara, Fort light or Buffalo light beginning operations during the same time as the Presque Isle light.
By 1837 the RCS was charged with vigilance for mariners in distress. Severe weather during the 1870 to 1871 shipping season caused multiple shipwrecks and 214 lives were lost. As a result, Congress moved towards establishing the U.S. Life-Saving Service. The 141 foot, steel-hulled, U.S. lighthouse tender Dahlia was built in 1874 specifically for operating in light ice on the Great Lakes. Stationed in Michigan, the Dahlia began the custom of naming this class of vessel after plants.
In 1915, the U.S. LSS was the first to be consolidated with the RCS to create the modern Coast Guard. The U.S. Lighthouse Service was combined with the Coast Guard in 1939 and the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation was initially transferred in 1942 with the transition made permanent in 1946.
World War II brought increased emphasis to shipping on the Great Lakes and in the Atlantic. March of 1943 launched the construction of the Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw. One year later, the $8 million icebreaker was completed to keep Great Lakes shipping running as long into the winter season as possible. At the time, the Mackinaw was the most powerful vessel of her kind.
The Coast Guard Cutter Escanaba was deployed from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic. In June of 1943 she was sunk while underway with a convoy out of Greenland. There were only two survivors. Citizens in Grand Haven, Michigan established a park as a memorial for those who died and raised over $1 million in war bonds to build another cutter to bear the name.
Sunday, the residents of Grand Haven, Michigan concluded their annual, week-long Coast Guard festival. On the Friday of the festival at Escanaba Park, the community holds a memorial service as they have done for the past 72 years. The memorial is for all Coast Guard men and women lost while living the service’s motto, Semper Paratus.
The Coast Guard is a more diverse and inclusive service than at any other point in its 225 year history. The service’s continued strength resides in its people, its history, and its missions. On the Great Lakes, there is an inextricable link to the U.S. Coast Guard’s history and growth of the towns, states and waterways where Coast Guard men and women serve.