Since pre-Civil War days, ocean lifeguarding had consisted of the congressionally authorized U.S. Lifesaving Service (USLSS), the forerunner of the U.S. Coast Guard. The USLSS, a federally funded professional service, was created to rescue imperiled crews and passengers of sailing ships along the Atlantic Coast, the Great Lakes, and the Pacific Northwest. Rescues utilized “Surfmen”, rowing a five-man Surfboat through the surf, and an elaborate system of ropes, rescue cars, buoys and harnesses which would be attached by lines between the rescue team on shore and the stricken vessel. Though the USLSS was not operating in Southern California, they had established a national model for ocean lifesaving. Within the Santa Monica Bay, the period between 1900 and 1925 will be remembered as an era of volunteerism. Two main national organizations dominated the local scene; the U.S Volunteer Lifesaving Corps (USVLSC), and the American Red Cross Lifesaving Corps. Headquartered on the old Venice Pier, and staffed with some of the most famous watermen of the day drawn from the plunges (pools) and bathhouses adjacent to these popular beaches, the USVLSC responded to rescues throughout the bay. The Red Cross Lifesaving Corps, founded in 1914, also provided organized volunteers along the same beaches as the USVLSC, and provided national standards for lifesaving and resuscitation training for other beach and plunge lifesavers.
During this period, the beaches of Los Angeles were populated by a growing number of year round residents. Shipping and commerce drew many to the coastal area; Santa Monica Bay was the port of entry for Los Angeles, and the Mile-Long Wharf off of Santa Monica Canyon and the piers off Redondo were the links between maritime commerce and the Southern Pacific Railroad.
The other chief attractions to the beaches were the numerous amusement and fishing piers being developed. Hotels, restaurants, ballrooms, plunges (swimming pools), including Abbott Kinney’s Venice were all being constructed to draw the citizens of Los Angeles to the beaches of Santa Monica, Ocean Park, Venice, and Redondo. Land speculation and real estate sales were the motive of many of the entrepreneurs who subdivided the last remnants of the area’s Spanish land grants.
The developed beaches became a mecca for tourists and Angelenos alike, and public transportation, via the Pacific Electric Railway (“Red Car”) line, linked the populated inland cities with these coastal areas. Sleepy little beach towns like Manhattan and Hermosa, with resident populations numbering in the hundreds, witnessed these “Red Cars” transporting literally thousands of people to the beach on sunny weekends and holidays, seeking relief during the hot weather. These visitors patronized the great plunges and bathhouses, which had been constructed adjacent to popular beaches to combine the safety of calm water with the therapeutic benefits of salt water. Local businesses aggressively promoted water sports and aquatic recreation, and each plunge supported teams in swimming, diving and water polo. These rival teams fostered fierce competitions that eventually spilled over into the ocean. The various plunges prided themselves in having the best teams, lifeguards and instructors.
In 1908, two separate events took place on either side of the Palos Verdes Peninsula which would alter the evolution of lifeguarding for the next 20 years. On the southern side of the peninsula, the City of Long Beach hired its first professional lifeguard, Hinnie Zimmerman, who was stationed at Golden Ave. The following year, the Long Beach Police Dept. expanded the lifeguard Corps to include 10 men. This professional service predated any in the Santa Monica Bay by 17 years.
On the other side of the peninsula, in Redondo, entrepreneur Henry Huntington hired George Freeth as head swim instructor for the newly completed Redondo Plunge, the largest salt water plunge in the world. Only one year earlier, author Jack London had added to the legend of the Hawaiian-born Freeth by portraying him as the “Brown Mercury” for his surfing prowess at his native Diamond Head. While London described Freeth’s skills in somewhat mythical proportions, he truly was, by all accounts, a prize catch for Huntington’s new Redondo Plunge. Freeth quickly became savvy to the promotional aspects of his new job, and found himself dazzling the crowds assembled at the pier to witness the man who could “walk on water”. Freeth’s status in the community grew as he introduced and taught swimming, water polo, diving, spear fishing and surfing. Freeth also competed in many professional swimming events in Santa Monica Bay, but because of his professional status, Freeth was not permitted to participate in the Olympics. Freeth never received the acclaim given his countryman, Olympic Champion Duke
Kahanamoku, but the Duke credited Freeth as the best swimmer of their time. He was also a star water polo goalie, representing at various times the Redondo Plunge, the Venice Plunge and the LA Athletic Club. Freeth represented, and taught, the true skills of a “waterman”; an individual at harmony with the ocean, not fighting the sea, but going with it and using its energy to handle the rip currents and surf with confidence. Many of his young protégées went on to be come the lifeguards and aquatic stars of the future.
As a Captain of the United States Volunteer Lifesaving Corps of Venice, George Freeth was responsible for what many consider the greatest rescue in our history. For over two and a half hours Freeth repeatedly swam through gale force winds and up to fifteen foot surf to rescue seven Japanese Fisherman who had been thrown out of three separate overturned fishing boats. Despite severe hypothermia he continually returned to save each person in distress. For this and floundered in three separate boats attempting to find shelter at the Venice Pier. December 16, 1908 rescue he received the nation’s highest honor that can be bestowed on a civilian – the Congressional Gold Medal. By a special act of Congress he was awarded this honor an honor that has only been bestowed on approximately 250 Americans since 1883.
The USVLSC was a success, and in 1914 adopted the doctrines of the newly formed Red Cross Life Saving Corps. The Corps was now present at Santa Monica, Ocean Park, Venice, Hermosa and Redondo.