Digest>Archives> April 2007

Collecting Nautical Antiques

First Life Saving Medal Awarded

By Jim Claflin

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We recently acquired a wonderful lot of over 80 photos and artifacts from the estate of Capt. Lucein Monroe Clemons, U. S. Life Saving Service. The lot of memorabilia pictures the crews of the United States Life Saving Service Station No. 9 and later Coast Guard station, at Marblehead, Ohio. The photos are superb and the lot is even more interesting because of the fact that Captain Clemons and his brothers were the first recipients of the then new Congressional Life Saving Medal.

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The Congressional Act of June 20, 1874 first provided for the award of medals to honor those who endangered “…their own lives in saving or endeavoring to save the lives of others from the perils of the sea….” The medals were designated in two classes, First Class for “cases of extreme and heroic daring”, and Second Class for “cases not so distinguished”. These classes of awards would become the Gold and Silver Life Saving Medals. Capt. Clemons and two of his brothers would become the first men to receive this new award.

The Life Saving Service Annual Report for the Year Ending June 30, 1876 tells it best:

“The medals of the first class were bestowed upon Mesgrs. Lucien M. Clemons, Hubbard M. Clemons, and Ai J. Clemons, of Marblehead, Ohio, three brothers, who displayed the most singal gallantry in saving two men from the wreck of the schooner Consuelo, about two miles north of that place, on May 1, 1875. [The schooner Consuelo was a staunch craft of 450-tons burden, which had made a voyage across the Atlantic to Liverpool in the early 1860’s, and had out-ridden fierce tempests on that stormy ocean many times. On this day, however, she was caught in a fierce gale about twelve miles from Sandusky, and three miles north of the rock shores of Marblehead.] Between Kelley’s island and Marblehead the water is nowhere deeper than thirty feet, and consequently, in nautical parlance, “a nasty sea” comes up very quickly in a gale.

It appears from the evidence of the transaction that the schooner, which was heavily laden with blocks of stone, was seen by a number of spectators on the shore laboring in apparent distress in the passage between Kelley's Island and Marblehead, the sea at the time being tremendous and the wind blowing a gale from the northeast…. [The Consuelo’s cargo had been hastily and improperly stowed, and either through carelessness or to facilitate unloading, rollers had been left under some of the massive blocks of stone in the hold. The vessel pitched and tossed so violently that these blocks and the whole cargo shifted, and suddenly, almost without warning, the boat gave a lurch and foundered.]

The captain, three men and the cook were at once lost, but Mate Donahue and one of the sailors succeeded in clinging to the spars, where they were sighted from Marblehead by Captain Clemons and his brothers. These remaining two soon succeeded in getting a hold in the cross-trees of the mainmast, which were above water, where they clung for nearly an hour hoping for rescue. It was then that the three heroic brothers took a small flat-bottomed skiff, twelve feet long, three feet wide, and fifteen inches deep, the only boat available on the coast, and leaving their weeping wives and children, who formed a part of the watching group of forty or fifty persons on the shore, went out in this frail shell to the rescue. Family members and onlookers watched in fear as the shallow craft disappeared time and again in the rollers, only to reemerge once again. It seemed as if their frail craft must certainly swamp, but they kept steadily on until they were about exhausted.

The venture was, in the judgment of the lookers on, several of them old sailors themselves, hazardous in the extreme, but after nearly an hour's hard struggle with the waves, the Clemons brothers gained the wreck and delivered the two exhausted men from their perilous position in the rigging. However, the danger was by no means past, as the strength of the two men was entirely spent, and the storm was increasing in its merciless fury.

With the added weight in their skiff they were then unable to make the shore. They remained for a long time tossing about upon the high sea in momentary danger of destruction, when fortunately they were spotted by the steam-tug Winslow which came to their assistance and landed them safely at Kelley’s Island.”

In due time the daring feat of the Clemons brothers was brought to the notice of the proper authorities at Washington. A special committee had been formed to examine all applications for such awards and their recommendations were forwarded to the Secretary of the Treasury for approval. Affidavits from credible persons were solicited describing in detail all aspects of the efforts, and clearly showing exactly how life was risked. After many necessary formalities had been complied with, Captain Clemons and each of his two brothers received from the Treasury Department the first gold medals ever awarded for such service, accompanied by letters of commendation. The medals were of handsome design and very heavy and valuable, each containing over $250 worth of gold and alloy.

On September 9, 1876, the new life-saving station at Marblehead was established, and Captain Clemons was appointed its first keeper as a further recognition of his gallantry. This position he retained until his retirement in 1897. He lived out his life in retirement and ease within sound of the dashing billows he had so often braved.

Shown are two of the over fifty photographs in this collection. These superb cabinet views were taken by Platt, a photographer in Lakeside, Ohio and date probably from the period of Keeper Clemons’ term at the Marblehead station. Note the excellent detail of the station and equipment. Photographs of this quality peaked my interest years ago and I have never tired of searching auctions and shops for more.

Like our column? Have suggestions for future subjects? Please send in your suggestions and questions, or a photograph of an object that you need help dating or identifying. We will include the answer to a selected inquiry as a regular feature each month in our column.

Jim Claflin is a recognized authority on antiques of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, Life-Saving Service, Revenue Cutter Service and early Coast Guard. In addition to authoring and publishing a number of books on the subject, Jim is the owner of Kenrick A Claflin & Son Nautical Antiques. In business since 1956, he has specialized in antiques of this specialty since the early 1990’s. He may be contacted by writing to him at 1227 Pleasant Street, Worcester, MA 01602, or by calling 508-792-6627. You may also contact him by email: jclaflin@LighthouseAntiques.net or visit his web site at www.LighthouseAntiques.net

This story appeared in the April 2007 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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