This year represents the 90th anniversary of the first celebration celebrating the Coast Guard in Grand Haven. This celebration, which had traditionally taken the form of picnic for enlisted men and their families, eventually became a larger, communitywide celebration. Today it draws more than 100,000 people to the city for a week of festivities. There is more on this later on, but let us begin at the beginning with the Life Saving Service.
In the early years of our country, when transportation by ship or boat was crucially important, the only method of coping with disasters at sea was for ships to help other ships. Assistance from shore was desperately needed and, as the death toll rose, so did the outrage of the public.
Congress responded by establishing what would become the United States Life Saving Service (LSS) in 1871. By the time Congress established a Life Saving Service, William R. Loutit — the ship owner, captain and lumber-shipping entrepreneur — already had a volunteer life-saving crew trained.
The Grand Haven Station No. 9 opened May 1, 1877, and was selected as headquarters for the 11th District, with Capt. Loutit as the first superintendent for 12 stations on Lake Michigan.
The Grand Haven station was a two-story building with a two-stall boat house and an observation tower. In the years 1878 and 1879, the Life Saving Service stations on Lake Michigan responded to 17 disasters, 10 of which were by Grand Haven Station No. 9. The surfmen saved approximately 4,000 lives annually nationwide and quickly became legendary heroes, with titles like “Heroes of Peace” and “Storm Warriors.”
Originally, Life Saving Service crews had been local volunteers, but after the creation of the Coast Guard in 1890, routine transfers made it difficult to cultivate the same level of camaraderie. In order to change this, the Grand Haven 10th District Office planned a picnic for the entire district to be held in Grand Haven. It was to be held on Aug. 4, 1924, as that day in 1890 was the founding of the Revenue Cutter Service and the date was carried forward as the birthday of the Coast Guard.
For the next nine years, this annual picnic was held at different stations in the 10th District, and word of the picnics made its way back to Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington. Local leadership was commended for the success of the picnics and the celebration of the Coast Guard’s birthday, and headquarters urged them to continue their tradition and expand on the idea.
Eventually, the picnics became sponsored by the community, and several friendly contests between the stations resulted in the public showing up to see the races and demonstrations. When it came time for the Grand Haven Citizens Committee to plan for the 1937 picnic, they decided to make the event no longer exclusive to those that belonged to the Coast Guard and their families; they designed a full-blown community birthday celebration that included parades, dances, ball games, surfboat races and demonstrations.
The celebration, named Water Fete, was held over three days — Aug. 3-5 — and despite it falling in the middle of the week, it had an impressive turnout. A memorial ceremony was held at Kelly Memorial Park, today’s Escanaba Park, presided by mayors Richard L. Cook of Grand Haven and Tunis Johnson of Grand Rapids.
The Water Fete and birthday celebration of the Coast Guard would continue on, but with the onset of World War II, the celebration was a stripped-down version of the previous years. It was not until 1943 when Grand Haven received the news of the sinking of the Escanaba, a ship that had been the pride of the community, that it was decided to have an “old-fashion” Coast Guard birthday celebration. The purpose of this was not only to help raise the spirits of the community and offer support to those who had lost loved ones, but it would kick off the War Bond drive to raise money to build a cutter that would replace the Escanaba.
Coast Guard Day — Aug. 4, 1943 — 20,000 people attended an Escanaba Memorial Service at Kelly Park.
Grand Haven’s annual Coast Guard birthday celebration had been a source of fun and games, and a celebration that the entire community could enjoy. After the events surrounding the Escanaba, however, the celebration took on a deeper meaning and would continue to grow into what we know now as the Coast Guard Festival.
The museum would like to encourage visitors to this year’s festival to visit the Depot Museum of Transportation to learn more about the Coast Guard’s role in the development of our community, and to take advantage of a special exhibit that looks at the USS Flier tragedy, courtesy of a partnership with the USS Silversides Museum in Muskegon. For information on these and other exhibits, visit the museum at both our locations, the Akeley Building at 200 Washington Ave. or the Depot Museum at 1 N. Harbor Ave.; or visit us on the web at tri-citiesmuseum.org; or “like” us on Facebook.
Steven Radtke is director of the Tri-Cities Historical Museum.