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John Dalton & the Cape Cod Life Savers

By Joan Osgood


Lifesavers setting off for a rescue, The LifeSavers of Cape Cod


John Wilfred Dalton

John “Junie” Wilfred Dalton, a Sandwich native born in 1867, led a remarkably interesting life. His parents were Rose (Duffy) Dalton, an immigrant from Ireland, and John W. Dalton Sr. who worked as a glass blower in the Sandwich Glass Factory.  Census records and an 1880 Town map show that they lived in a house on State Street. John married Adeline “Addie” Cashman in 1901. They had two sons. She was a schoolteacher in Sandwich and was a trustee of Weston Memorial Library. John never graduated from school. His father died when he was fifteen, causing him to leave school to take up his father’s grocery business to help support his mother.

However, it seems when he was able to choose what he truly wanted as a profession, he chose newspaper work.  His first article was published at the age of sixteen in the Sandwich Independent. Dalton eventually became its managing editor. And in 1886 he became the Cape Cod correspondent for the Boston Globe as well as the New York Herald, and the Associated Press. Initially, he covered and reported on all sorts of stories occurring on the Cape for these newspapers. But, in due course, he became known for his coverage of our many shipwrecks up and down the Cape shore.

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GRMC ship wrecks of Cape Cod.jpg

Growing up in Sandwich he certainly had heard tales of the many, many ships that were wrecked upon our dangerous shoreline. And we can be fairly certain he knew men who shipped out to sea and perhaps were lost at sea.  However, as his career as a newspaper correspondent advanced, Dalton became very familiar with the U.S. Life Savers Service whose mission was to “save lives and property from the ravages of sea and storm”. The Service was established on Cape Cod in 1872.  It eventually grew to have 13 life-saving stations stretching from Wood End, Provincetown to Monomoy Point, Chatham. As Dalton’s reporting of shipwrecks increased, he became deeply affected by seeing first-hand the treacherous conditions that the lifesavers endured. He wanted to do something more than just report on these events.

At this point John Dalton’s life changes. He transforms from merely writing news reports of Cape shipwrecks to being a determined advocate for the life savers of Cape Cod. He commits the remainder of his life in support of them.

He began in 1902 by writing the book “Life Savers of Cape Cod”.  He wanted to raise the public’s awareness of the hazards and sacrifices that the life savers of Cape Cod made every day.

Above is an idea of the number of shipwrecks from Chatham to Provincetown.

He wrote this paragraph on the first page of his book: “The life savers work is always arduous, often terrible. Quicksands, the blind-storms, the fearful blasts of winter gales, are more often than not to be encountered on their journeys.  When a ship is in distress…the task [of rescue] involves great hazard of their lives, hours of racking labor, protracted exposure to the roughest weather conditions.”


The Life Line, by Winslow Homer, 1884, depicts a breeches buoy in use during a rescue operation.

“The life savers work is always arduous, often terrible. Quicksands, the blind-storms, the fearful blasts of winter gales, are more often than not to be encountered on their journeys.  When a ship is in distress…the task [of rescue] involves great hazard of their lives, hours of racking labor, protracted exposure to the roughest weather conditions.”

He was also critical about the meager pay they received – sixty-five dollars per month with no pension offered. 


He felt this was intolerable especially considering the “unselfish toil for the safety of others in the rigors of winter, one life saver after another is compelled to retire from the service on account of shattered health.”

His book has stories of numerous ship disasters - both historic and current to his day. He highlights the heroic efforts of the life savers. And he includes photographs and biographies of the crews of each of the 13 Cape stations. As you would imagine there are names we recognize as “old Cape Codders” – Bangs, Snow, Ellis, Eldredge, Atwood, Nickerson, Bearse, Doane, and Mayo.


Hand-drawn by John W. Dalton, Titled: “One of the first Life Saving crew,” The Life Savers of Cape Cod

Dalton also began lecturing across the State about the life savers work and did so continuously for years.  He traveled to Washington to give testimony before Congress. He was the guest speaker at various fraternal organizations, Boards of Trade, Church groups, City and Town Councils, etc. Frankly, it appears to me that wherever he could get an invitation to speak – he went. He was always well received. In the May 3, 1914, Boston Evening Transcript where he spoke before the New England Conservatory, it was reported that he “[made] a vigorous plea for recognition of the right of the lifesavers to an adequate pension from the National Government”.

Then on March 17, 1902, disaster struck.  It became known as the Monomoy Disaster.

The barge WADENA with five men onboard flew a distress signal to the Monomoy station, Chatham.  Captain Marshall W. Eldredge, keeper of the station, and seven of his crew set out in their surfboat to rescue them.  The shoals and rip tides around the tip of Monomoy are dangerous on a good day.   This was not a good day – the weather was horrible – thick with squalls and a heavy angry sea. Captain Eldredge, six of his men and the five men on the barge all drowned. An excerpt from the June 30, 1902, U.S. Life Saving report stated that it was “by far the most distressing calamity to the Life Saving Service [in] many years”.

So again, Dalton changes course. I think he probably felt that his writings and lecturing were making some headway – but in his view, not enough - and not quickly enough.  Lives were still being lost.


J.W. Dalton’s 1901 book, “The Lifesavers of Cape Cod,” for which he visited every station on the Cape and devoted at least one paragraph to each surfman and keeper, including Seth Ellis, the sole survivor of the Monomoy Disaster.

What was to be his greatest achievement took root. In a July 1907 article in “The Technical World Magazine” by Louis J. Simpson, titled “New Buoy for Saving Lives” we are told that “Dalton conceived the idea while witnessing a shipwreck on Cape Cod when all hands on board were lost”.  This shipwreck on Cape Cod was of course the Monomoy disaster.

What was his idea?  One of the pieces of equipment that the life savers had in addition to their surf boats is what is called the “breeches buoy”.  It had been in use for close to 100 years. To very simply explain what is actually a complex and highly skilled rescue procedure: The breeches buoy allows the rescue to be done by shore by shooting several lines to the crew of the endangered ship. On one line is attached the breeches buoy – essentially a sturdy canvas basket with leg holes. The shipwrecked crew attaches the line high on the ship’s rigging. One crew member at a time can then climb into the breeches buoy and be pulled to safety above the raging sea by the life savers on shore.  But there were flaws with the design of the existing breeches buoy. These flaws were widely known for years but had never been corrected.


Excerpt - The Boston Globe, Jan 13, 1907


Excerpt from Dalton’s Patent Document, U.S. Patent Office


Man the lee whip. Haul off. 

Flaws…Rescues usually occurred at night or in storms with high seas and low visibility. Under these conditions, with the existing breeches buoy, it was not uncommon for several difficulties to occur.  When the breeches buoy left the shore no one could tell exactly where it was. The crew did not know whether the life savers had sent the breeches buoy; the life savers on shore or the crew on the floundering ship could not see whether the breeches buoy had reached the ship; the lifesavers could not tell if a crew member had gotten into the breeches buoy; and so at times, the lifesavers pulled the breeches buoy to shore with no one in it.

Dalton invented what was called in some newspaper articles an “illuminated breeches buoy.” An invention which a 1908 Scientific American article said resulted in his being “known to mariner’s all along the Massachusetts coast”. His invention was patented in December 1906. It let the life savers on land and the persons in the wrecked vessel always know the whereabouts of the buoy.   



The LifeSavers of Cape Cod, John W. Dalton

U.S. Life Saving Service Insignia

In general terms, he attached to the breeches buoy a small case with a storage battery in it that operated a series of lights. The battery could burn 24 full hours and the lights could not be put out by water or any amount of tossing about.  When the buoy was unoccupied and the life savers were sending it off to a wreck, a green light showed to those on the wreck to tell them help was on the way, while at the same time a white light is shown to those on the shore. A white light also shined down into the canvas basket to help the person see how to get into it. As soon as a person got into the buoy the weight automatically turned the light a bright red which signaled to those on the shore to pull home.  When the buoy arrived on shore and the person is pulled from the breeches buoy the red light turns white and the buoy is ready for another rescue.

Besides the lighting device, Dalton also added an air bumper under the travers block, so that when a passenger was pulled through the rough sea there was no danger of being struck on the head by the block, or in any other way being hurt by it.  The old breeches buoy had injured numbers of persons in this manner.

In 1907, The Boston Globe wrote: “The improvement …seems most simple, and one which almost anyone would have thought of and devised, and…the desire and necessity for it …has been known and sought after ever since [its] been in use.”  Well, I’m sure that’s probably true. But the fact is, that it hadn’t happened - no one had invented a safer device. So perhaps it took more than a “simple” solution. John Dalton knew these brave men. It seems evident that was the catalyst for his invention. Commitment, ingenuity and grit was also critical – we know our native Sandwich son, John W. Dalton had plenty of that.  And with his patented Breeches Buoy he got the job done - when no one else had. 

Of Note:  For those who would still remember – I do want to add – Yes, Charles C. Dalton, for 35 years Clerk of the Barnstable County District Court, a well-known Sandwich resident, was related to John W. Dalton. He was his son.


John Dalton’s newly designed Breeches Buoy in Operation, The Boston Globe


John "Junie" Dalton, standing second from left, posing with teammates of the Sandwich Athletics.

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