“The keeper commands the crew of six surfmen,” James H. Merryman, chief inspector of the Life-Saving Service, wrote in 1880.
“Drawing their first breath within sound of the surf, they pass through childhood viewing the sea in all its moods. In early youth they make their first essay in the breakers and from that on to manhood advance from the least important oar through gradations, until the most skillful reach the command of the boat.”
Such a man was Thomas J. Truxton. According to the Wilmington Delaware Gazette and State Journal, Truxton “followed the water since boyhood and was well-known as a pilot. For years he had been the captain of the life-saving station at Rehoboth.”
In March 1888, a blizzard trapped several dozen vessels behind the Delaware Breakwater, and Keeper Truxton led the crew of the Rehoboth Beach Station on a grueling march across six miles of storm-swept beach to reach the scene of the disaster.
Truxton’s surfmen were joined by the crew of the Lewes station to rescue sailors aboard a three-masted schooner stranded 600 yards from the beach.
After a great deal of difficulty, Truxton was able to maneuver a small rescue boat across the ice to within 50 feet of the schooner. At this point, the ice was thinner, and Truxton laid two oars on the ice to support his weight as he crawled slowly toward the stranded schooner.
Finally, he reached the end of a line that had been thrown from the schooner. The ice was too thin for Truxton to let go of the oars. Consequently, Truxton grasped the line with his teeth and gradually made his way back to his crew of surfmen, who stretched a second line between the boat and the shore.
The surfmen were able to ferry the crewmen from the schooner safely ashore. The schooner’s crew had been saved by the skin of Keeper Thomas Truxton’s teeth.
After this heroic rescue and the arrival of summer, when the ocean was calmer and the chances of a shipwreck diminished, the surfmen were off-duty, and Keeper Truxton was allowed to be away from the station for up to a week at a time.
On July 23, he was at the Bright House, one of the Rehoboth’s premier establishments, when the hotel’s manager, Walter Burton, dashed out of the hotel, ran across the beach, and plunged into the surf. Truxton was not far behind him.
Two vacationers, Mr. W. N. S. Brown and Mrs. H. M. Schooley had drifted too far from the beach and were in danger of drowning. Burton, with the help of a bystander, was able to rescue Mrs. Schooley.
According to the annual report of the Life-Saving Service: “Keeper Thomas J. Truxton of the Rehoboth Beach Station … sprang into the surf and by strong strokes soon reached the drowning man and brought him also in safety to the beach amid the plaudits of the assembled crowd.”
For his action, Truxton was awarded a silver medal by the Life-Saving Service.
When he was not plucking sailors from ships in distress or pulling drowning vacationers from the surf, Truxton was busy teaching Sunday school.
According to Delaware Gazette and State Journal, “Not only was (Truxton) well known among shippers but he was also a prominent man in Sunday-school work in Delaware, being popular at county and state conventions… He was superintendent of the Lewes M. E. Sunday school.”
A perpetual life-saver, Thomas Truxton saved physical and spiritual souls all year long.
James H. Merryman, The United States Life-Saving Service — 1880, Golden, Colorado: Outbooks, 1981, pp. 8-9.
Delaware Gazette and State Journal, July 16, 1896.
Annual Report of the United States Life-Saving Service for the Fiscal Year ending June 30, 1888, Washington: Government Printing Office, 1889, pp. 31-35.
Annual Report of the United States Life-Saving Service for the Fiscal Year ending June 30, 1889, Washington: Government Printing Office, 1891, p. 82.