Podcast: Guardians of the Gulf, Tracing the History of the Galveston Island Beach Patrol

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Galveston Island has a proud history of lifesaving and beach patrol stretching over a century. From the early days of the United States Lifesaving Service to the modern-day beach patrol, the island has seen a dramatic transformation in how it protects its beaches and the millions of visitors who come to enjoy the Gulf of Mexico every year.

Lifesaving services on Galveston Island were not instituted to protect beachgoers but rather to protect the vessels entering the busy port of Galveston in the mid-1800s. The Port of Galveston was a major shipping hub, making it one of the largest and most important cities in Texas. Like other major ports around the nation, sinking ships and drowning mariners in the harbor was not only a tragedy but also bad for business. A national organization known as the United States Lifesaving Service was created in response to these tragedies. A lifesaving station and a lifeboat were dedicated in the 1850s to the port of Galveston. For the remainder of the 1800s, the focus on water safety remained in the maritime interest of the port, and a lifesaving station was even opened at San Luis Pass.

During Galveston's late 1800 economic boom, local and visiting beachgoers filled bathhouses along the beach, and loosely organized volunteer lifeguards would watch busy shallow water areas, but there was no true organized effort to watch most of the beach. The transition from being dedicated to mariners and sinking vessels to open-water swimmers and beachgoers took a full swing due to the 1900 storm. The Port of Galveston saw fewer and fewer vessels coming and going from the port after the disaster.

In turn, fewer and fewer shipwrecks. As the economy of Galveston transitioned away from major banking and maritime shipping after the storm, the building of the seawall, and grade-raising projects, Galveston's Beaches experienced a spike in tourism. In 1910, the Murdochs Bathing Pavilion provided ropes in the shallow waters for brave bathers to hold onto since most people did not know how to swim.

The pavilion owner also kept a beach patrol and lifesaving crew on duty. These small crews were mainly volunteers. In 1913, the Y M C A organized a crew of volunteer lifeguards for the beaches of Galveston Island. In 1919, that small organization became a member of the Red Cross Lifesaving Corps. Beach lifeguards remain unpaid but were given police authority as summer crowds could sometimes get out of hand with the number of people on the shoreline.

The city realized the demand was beyond a volunteer level, and by 1935, Galveston hired a handful of lifeguards, stationing them at three main points along the beachfront. However, this early lifesaving organization was not mandated to be stationed along the segregated beachfront on the designated black beaches. On these segregated beaches, Black volunteer lifeguards dedicated their time and skill to protect the segments of the beach that were overlooked by the official paid lifeguard organization.

By the 1940s, hundreds of thousands of visitors were arriving on Galveston Island yearly just to go to the beach. The city added a lifesaving beach patrol system and vehicle to the beach patrol fleet. By 1941, the paid lifeguard service reached 20 lifeguards, and for the next four decades, the number of lifeguards to protect all of Galveston island's beaches hovered around 20.

The beaches and beach patrol were eventually racially integrated in the 1960s. With no real funding organization or strategy, growing the Beach Patrol was increasingly difficult. As the number of beachgoers continued to increase, by 1981, with visitors to the island in the millions, the Sheriff's Department took over management of the Beach Patrol, and funding was secured through hotel occupancy tax.

Today, Beach Patrol is managed by the Park Board of Trustees of Galveston. Galveston Beach Patrol not only makes a significant impact on Galveston Island but is connected and works closely with organizations throughout the United States to enhance lifesaving techniques and services. Going one step further, Galveston Island Beach Patrol works with international lifeguarding associations to help start and maintain beach patrol services worldwide. Galveston Beach Patrol keeps an eye on the water throughout the year and is not limited by the shorelines of Galveston Island. During natural disasters, such as hurricanes, Galveston beach patrol can be deployed to put their expertise to work in areas hit by major flooding as experienced personnel are trained in swift water rescue. Galveston's lifesaving services, from sinking ships to saving swimmers on Galveston's busy beaches.

From Galveston's beaches to the world.

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J.R. Shaw Creator & Host of Galveston Unscripted

J.R. Shaw is the creator and host of Galveston Unscripted Podcast & audio tour. Shaw recognizes that history is nuanced and learning it can be powerful. He's made it his mission to reduce the friction between true history and anyone who is willing to listen! J.R. Shaw focuses on telling the full story through podcasting and social media with the goal of making learning accurate history easy and entertaining for all who seek it.

J.R. grew up along the Texas Gulf Coast, where he learned to love talking with anyone about anything! He started Galveston Unscripted after he realized how much he loved talking to people about their stories related to Galveston Island and Texas History. "So much of our history is lost when we don't have the opportunity to hear from those who lived it or have second-hand knowledge."