Coast Guard celebrates 222nd birthday


Bering Sea Patrol

A deck hand aboard the fishing vessel Gulf Winds prepares to unload a crab pot Nov. 19, 2008, during a law enforcement boarding conducted by a CGC Sherman boarding team. Boarding teams operate in extreme weather and sea conditions to prevent violations of U.S. law, inspecting fishing licenses and permits, emergency alarms and drills, logbooks and safety and firefighting equipment. The boarding occurred during a two-month long Alaska Patrol when Sherman crewmembers conduct fisheries enforcement, law enforcement, and search and rescue in the Bering Sea. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Erik Swanson.

Story by Caitlin Goettler

Boasting a history of 222 years, the Coast Guard will celebrate its birthday on Aug. 4. As one of the oldest federal organizations, the role of the Coast Guard has grown and adjusted with the changing needs and focus of the nation.

The Coast Guard, known then as the Revenue Cutter Service, was created in 1790 as a maritime organization to enforce federal trade and customs laws. What started as a group of 10 cutters soon grew as the nation developed, and when the United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867, the service’s responsibility extended to include data collection and environmental protection in the newly acquired territory.

Upon the Americans’ arrival in Alaska, the once booming fur seal industry was in decline as a result of overharvesting, and the Revenue Cutter Service began conducting the Bering Sea Patrol to protect seal rookeries from illegal hunting and ensure the sustainability of the fur seal harvest.

At the time, Alaska’s worth seemed minimal, and many in the contiguous United States referred to Secretary of State William Seward’s decision to purchase the territory as “Seward’s folly.” The Revenue Cutter Service transported officials from the Lower 48 to Alaska to help demonstrate its worth.

However, Alaska proved its own worth when gold was discovered in Nome, sending a rush of people to the region and with it the Federal Life Saving Service in 1905. Shortly after, in 1915, Congress combined the Revenue Cutter and Life Saving Services, creating the modern-day Coast Guard and further extending its missions to include ensuring the safety of life at sea.

About a decade after statehood in 1959, oil was discovered on Alaska’s North Slope in Prudhoe Bay. Construction on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System began in 1974 amid a national oil crisis and required massive amounts of cargo to be delivered by sea. The Coast Guard guided barges through ice-filled seas from Wainwright to Prudhoe Bay every summer until the pipeline’s completion in 1977.

Today, the Coast Guard’s role in Alaska has expanded upon the foundation laid by the Revenue Cutter Service. The Coast Guard continues to oversee the safety of the oil industry by escorting approximately 280 tankers through Prince William Sound every year. The Coast Guard also helps to ensure the sustainability of Alaska’s billion-dollar fishing industry, and the aids to navigation allow for the safety transits of the state’s tourism and shipping industries.

Perhaps most important is the Coast Guard’s continued dedication to ensuring the safety of all mariners along Alaska’s 42,000 miles of coastline, including its renewed presence in the Arctic, not only through its search and rescue and medevac capabilities, but also through education and outreach programs.

In Alaska and throughout the rest of the country, Coast Guard Day serves as a celebration of the long history of the service in the United States and the many active duty, reserve, civilian, auxiliary and retired members who continue to prepare it for the future.

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