Bremerton-Olympic Peninsula Council Navy League of the US

A Brief Coast Guard History in the Pacific Northwest


United States has always been a maritime nation.  During our fight for independence, many fortunes were made and lost by American privateers trying to get goods and people through the British blockades.  After winning the war, some of these privateers continued smuggling their goods into ports and coastal areas to avoid paying taxes.  The new nation realized that this needed revenue was important to help sustain a new government.

The Revenue Cutter Service founded on August 4, 1790, by the Tariff Act permitted construction of ten cutters and recruitment of 100 revenue officers.  From 1790, when the Continental Navy was disbanded, to 1798, when the United States Navy was created, the Revenue Cutter Service provided the only armed American presence on the sea.

Prior to the California Gold Rush very few settlers lived in the West.  In 1849, only an estimated 304 Americans lived north of the Oregon Territory.  By 1853 there were almost 4,000 inhabitants in our area and 50% lived in the Puget Sound area.  There was a brisk sea trade and a Customs Revenue Office was established first in Olympia and then in Port Townsend.

US Revenue Cutter Jefferson Davis

In 1854, the Treasury Department sent the Revenue Cutter, Jefferson Davis to Washington State.  The Jefferson Davis was a topsail Schooner built by J M Hood of Sommerset Massachusetts in 1883.  She was 94 ft 6in in length and 23 ft in breadth and 9 ft in depth at 176 Ton displacement.  Captain William C. Please, the youngest captain in the U.S, revenue Cutter Service, commanded a crew of 3 officers and 32 men.  The main port of operations for the Revenue Cutter Service was Port Townsend.  A nice model of a cutter is on display at the Kitsap County Historical Museum in Bremerton.

Soon the role of the cutter increased to transport troops involved in regional unrest with Native Americans and with the British, including the “Pig War” in the San Juan Islands.

Our current United States Coast Guard reflects an exciting history of prior organizations merging with the Coast Guard to broaden its scope of responsibilities.

For example, the United States Lighthouse Board was established in 1852.

The U.S. Lighthouse Service was organized by statue in 1910 and this group merged into the coast Guard in 1939.  On February 28, 1942, the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation was transferred to the U.S. Coast Guard.

Mt Baker and Dungeness Light – John Conniff

Between 1852 and 1958, seven lighthouses were built in Oregon and Washington.  The first two were at Cape Disappointment and New Dungeness.  These beacons of light and sound provided warning to sailors during the many periods of limited visibility along our foggy, stormy coastline.  There are great stories of the lighthouse keepers and their families as they faced the many challenges of living in very isolated locations.

Other navigational aids were put in place such as the buoys in the Columbia River and Astoria Harbor.  There were also three lightships used to light the way in places where no lighthouse could be built.  These ships had to stay in position despite heavy gales and high seas.

In 1838, the Steamboat Inspection Service was established and an office in Portland opened in 1863.  By 1869, 152 vessels were inspected and 188 licenses were issued. Since 1942, inspection and licensing have become an integral part of our U.S. Coast Guard.

The United States Life-Saving Service was a United States government agency that grew out of private and local humanitarian efforts to save the lives of shipwrecked mariners and passengers.  It began in 1848 and ultimately merged with the U. S. Coast Guard in 1915.

The side wheel steamer Shubrick, first Lighthouse tender on the West Coast.

The Coast Guard’s presence in Port Angeles began on August 1, 1862 with the arrival of the Revenue Cutter,  Shubrick. Ediz Hook level sand spit extending from the mainland north and east into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, was declared a federal Lighthouse Reservation by President Lincoln in 1863.  The fist lighthouse was commissioned on April 1, 1865. The Air Station was commissioned on June 1, 1935, becoming the fist permanent Coast Guard Air Station on the Pacific Coast.  Its location was chosen for its strategic position for coastal defense of the Northwest.  The first aircraft, a Douglas RD-4 amphibian, arrived on June 11, 1935 and flew the first “mercy hop” on August 1935.  The 75 ft patrol boats were also stationed at the new unit.

Coast Guard Air Station Port Angeles

During WWII, the Air Station expanded to include a gunnery school training aerial gunners and local defense forces.  A short runway was added to train Navy pilots for carrier landings.  It also hosted independent units such as Naval Intelligence and was Headquarters of the Air Sea Rescue System for the Northwest Sea Frontier Area.  By the end of 1944, the Air Station had 29 aircraft assigned.

Big changes came to our local Coast Guard in 1920; the Volstead Act was passed as “an experiment to outlaw liquor in the United States.” The Coast Guard is essentially the only maritime military service with law enforcement authority of American citizens.  The long unprotected border with Canada and our many inlets and passages provided ample opportunities for rum running. For thirteen years, the Coast Guard needed to focus on this illegal smuggling, but the positive result was that it brought much needed additional resources.

National Motor Lifeboat School

In order to accomplish the Coast Guard’s missions in the Pacific Northwest, the Thirteenth District is home to approximately 1,746 active duty, 133 civilian, and 456 reserve personnel, three Sectors, two Air Stations, a Marine Safety Unit, a Maritime Force Protection Unit, 15 multi-mission small boat stations, four Aids to Navigation Teams, 12 patrol boats, and three Aids to Navigation Cutters. In addition to maintaining operational control over all Coast Guard activities in the district, The Coast Guard District is responsible for cultivating efficient and effective relationships with numerous other federal, state, and local agencies, elected officials, the tribal nations located in the Pacific Northwest, and with the Coast Guard’s international counterparts.

The United Coast Guard continues to grow and assume more responsibilities.  Each time we have the opportunity to tour a Coast Guard command or meet with the wonderful young men and women of the Coast Guard, we are impressed with their dedication, their spirit and their knowledge.

Semper Paratus