It was 1 a.m. on a cold, stormy January night in 1850. A fisherman walking on the beach spotted the Ayrshire, a three-masted ship, rudderless and aground off Squan Beach on the New Jersey coast. He brought help — volunteers carrying rescue gear, pulled by an oxcart.
The rescuers lit a flare to let the crew and the 200 passengers on the Scottish ship know help was on its way. A Lyle gun was set up; it took two tries, but at last a line was shot to the wreck and firmly attached, the other end secured ashore and the whole stretched tight.
Then rescuers suspended an 8-foot corrugated metal “car” from the line, with ropes on either end that could be used to pull the odd conveyance back and forth from the beach to the wreck. Joseph Francis’ patented “life-car” was about to be put to the test for the first time.
It was hauled to the doomed wreck, now lying on its side, battered by wind and wave. The captain of the Ayrshire urged the first hesitant passengers toward the life-car. They were told to climb in and lie down. The hatch was put into place and bolted down, leaving them in complete darkness as the storm raged around them.
“From two to four came off the ship at a time,” an eyewitness recalled. “They were thus landed. … It took about 15 minutes to land a car and send it back.”
The rescue took hours, with the last passengers coming off the next day, most removed using the life-car.
One person died, out of 166 passengers and 36 crewmembers. A man insisted on riding on top of the life-car as his family inside was hauled to safety — he was swept off by a wave and drowned.
Over the next three years, the life-car rescued at least 1,400 people on the New Jersey shore, as well as countless amounts of cargo. Francis donated it to the Smithsonian Institution in 1885.
This article originally appeared in the March 2016 issue.