The U.S. Coast Guard traces its history back to Aug. 4, 1790, when the first Congress authorized the construction of 10 vessels to enforce tariff and trade laws and to prevent smuggling. The fleet was known variously through the 19th and early 20th centuries as the Revenue Marine and the Revenue Cutter Service.
A separate agency, the Life Saving Service, was created in 1878 to improve a largely volunteer network of rescue stations that assisted mariners in distress along the very busy coastlines.
The U.S. Life Saving Service built a station and boathouse, which later became Coast Guard Station Gay Head, in 1895. The station building was near Gay Head Light and the boathouse on the shore west of Dogfish Bar. The first keeper was Nehemiah C. Hayman, who was appointed Oct. 4, 1895, according to a Coast Guard history of the station.
Keepers had to be "able bodied, of good character and habits, able to read and write and be under 45 years of age and a master at handling boats, especially in rough weather," according to the history.
In 1915, an act of Congress merged the Revenue Cutter Service with the Life Saving Service, creating a single maritime service called the Coast Guard, dedicated to saving life at sea and enforcing the nation's maritime laws. President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the transfer of the Lighthouse Service to the Coast Guard in 1939.
Robert E. Kinnecom of Oak Bluffs served at Station Gay Head, the precursor to Station Menemsha in 1951 and 1952, when it was located next to the lighthouse on the cliffs.
Kinnecom said the Great Hurricane of 1938 wiped out the Gay Head boathouse. It was rebuilt in Menemsha in 1939. Kinnecom recalls applying the stain that provided the trademark red roof.
In 1952, the Coast Guard moved the Cuttyhunk station building to Menemsha by barge. Commissioning of the new station took place March 12, 1954. In January 1974, the Coast Guard officially changed the name of the station to reflect its actual location.
Station Menemsha includes approximately 22 Coast Guard men and women. Patrolling in a 47-foot motor life boat and rigid hull inflatable, the station is responsible for an area that includes the waters south and west of Gay Head off the western end of Vineyard Sound.
This column was first published in The Martha's Vineyard Times.
This article originally appeared in the September 2010 issue