Sketch of the life of Hon. S.I. Kimball

taken from The History of Sanford, Maine, 1900

Of all the names that have reflected honor upon the town of Sanford, none is sol well known throughout the civilized world as that of the Hon. Sumner I. Kimball.  For twenty-nine years he has occupied the post of the chief of the United States Life-Saving Service, and wherever governments or individuals have organized kindred institutions his name is honored, and the great work he has established and raised to the foremost place among the nations has been carefully studied and lavishly commended. 

While Mr. Kimball's early life was not passed among the practical affairs of the sea, he lived sufficiently near the coast to hear the good folk around the firesides on stormy nights repeat the common New England tales of wrathful gales and piteous wrecks, which, as the writer well remembers, struck so much terror and yet of mysterious fascination into the hearts of the children, and always closed with the solemn ejaculation "God pity the poor sailors tonight."  In his later youth he was also witness to scenes around the ugly shores of Cape Cod, which were well calculated to intensify the earlier impressions; so that from this point of view alone there was much fitness that circumstances should afterwards so happen as to place him at the head of a great organization having for its splendid object the rescue of life from the perils of the sea.

His mental and moral characteristics were well calculated to make him worthy of honors, and likely to receive them.  His capacity for study and his clearness of intellect enabled him easily to enter Bowdoin College at the age of sixteen years.  His earliest education was obtained in the public schools of Sanford, to which town his parents moved when he was twelve years of age from Lebanon, where he was born September 2, 1834.  He attended afterwards, academics at Alfred and North Yarmouth, and the well known seminary at Nort Parsonsfield.  In 1855 he graduated from Bowdoin, having taught school during his college course at Lebanon, Maine, and Orleans, on Cape Cod, at which latter place he came much in contact with coast life and those that followed the sea.

He was admitted to the York County Bar, then preeminent in the state for its great ability, in 1858, after three years' faithful study of the law in the officer of his father, Hon. I. S. Kimball.  For a short period thereafter he served as commission clerk at the State House in Augusta, and then located for the practice of his profession in North Berwick, representing that town and Berwick, in 1859, in the state legislature, where, although he was the youngest member, he received the distinguished honor of a place on the committee on the judiciary.  In 1860 he removed to Boston, and there practiced law until 1861, when the Civil War largely increased the public business in Washington, and he was offered a clerkship in the office of the Second Auditor of the Treasury, which he accepted.  In 1870 he had risen by successive promotions to the grade of chief clerk, and early in 1871 was invited by Secretary George S. Boutwell to become chief of the Revenue Cutter Service.

The condition of this branch of the Treasury Department at that time was seriously demoralized by reason of political abuses and lax administration, and the object of Secretary Boutwell was to work out a reform through Mr. Kimball's well known integrity, inflexibility of will and executive ability.  While the tender of this high position was duly esteemed by Mr. Kimball as a signal compliment, he realized the difficulties and dangers that would inevitably beset his path and possibly wreck his best endeavors, even to the ruin of his reputation, and he was not eager to accept.  However, after making a full survey of the situation, charting, as it were, all the rocks and shoals and adverse currents that could be discovered, he concluded to take the helm, upon the assurances of Secretary Boutwell that the course laid out should be followed, and the chief be faithfully supported by him.  Mr. Kimball was firm in his purposes, which he always took care to have founded upon exact justice, and Mr. Boutwell was uncompromising in his support.  At the end of seven years (in 1878) Mr. Kimball gave up the place for his present position, and enjoyed the satisfaction and the credit, universally accorded him, of having raised the Revenue Cutter Service from a condition of disreputable inefficiency to one of very high repute.

Prior to this time the life-saving stations, few and poorly equipped, located solely upon the coasts of Long Island and New Jersey, had existed only as mere adjuncts of the Revenue Cutter Service, and when Mr. Kimball took charge in 1871 he found them in a deplorable condition of neglect and decay.  As stated in one of the leading magazines of the country "he at once began the seemingly hopeless task of converting the dirty, ruinous station houses and their lazy, disorderly keepers and crews, scattered along the coast, to the order, discipline and efficiency of forts and drilled soldiers, and the result proved that order and discipline, when evolved out of the worst material, can grapple with and conquer even the sea."

The work grew under his hands to such proportions as the demand the entire attention and supervision of one man as chief or superintendent.  Through his efforts a bill organizing the Life-Saving Service separate and distinct from the Revenue Cutter Service was reported in Congress, and became law June 18, 1878.  President Hayes at once appointed Mr. Kimball General Superintendent of the new service, and the Senate instantly and unanimously confirmed the nomination.  A remarkable feature of this promotion was the fact that it followed immediately upon the heels of a bitter attack made in Congress upon Mr. Kimball's administration, and was also conferred by the President without the slightest solicitation.  Indeed Mr. Kimball now holds in his possession a very notable petition for his appointment handed to him by his friends, which was never presented to the President.  This paper bears the signatures of one hundred and twenty one Representatives in Congress regardless of party affiliations, and among them are those of two men who afterwards became Presidents of the United States, James A. Garfield and William McKinley; two also who became secretaries of the Treasury, Charles Foster and John G. Carlisle; four who had been or afterwards became speakers of the House, N. P. Banks, J. W. Keifer, Samuel J. Randall, and Thomas B. Reed, as well as those of Benjamin F. Butler, Proctor Knott of Kentucky and S. S. Cox of New York, Democratic leaders in the House; Eugene Hale, Heister Clymer of Pennsylvania, Gen. J. S. Cox of Ohio, William P. Frye, Omar D. Conger of Michigan, and many others almost equally well known, some of whom had been among Mr. Kimball's most formidable adversaries during the investigation which preceded his appointment.  The result of that investigation is emphatically set forth in the following letter addressed to the President by members of the committee who conducted the examination:

House of Representatives, June, 1878         

To the President, Sir:

     We the undersigned, have the honor to recommend that Mr. Sumner I. Kimball be appointed superintendent of the Life-Saving Service.  In this connection, we desire to state that we constituted the sub-committee of the committee on Commerce of the House of Representatives, to whom were referred the bill H.R. 1920 and H.R. 3462, together with various petitions, protests and memorials relating to the Life-Saving Service, and after a careful study of the whole subject, reported bill H.R. 3988 to organize the service.
     It is proper to add that the recent catastrophes at the wrecks of the 'Huron' and 'Metropolis' had somewhat prepossessed us against the present management of the service, and rather created a bias toward the proposition then advanced to transfer it to the navy.  It was found, however, upon investigation that the disaster at the wreck of the 'Huron' took place before the time for the opening of the life-saving stations, as provided by law, the service being therefore not accountable for the loss of life upon that occasion.   In the case of the 'Metropolis' examination showed that the law had not provided the number of stations required for that coast, and that the assistance rendered by the life-saving crews was both heroic and considerable, and fully as efficient as the means provided by legislation allowed.  The fact was also developed that Mr. Kimball in his successive annual reports as the officer in charge of the service had seriously urged the necessity of increasing the number of stations in that section, and had in fact, predicted disaster as a consequence of their paucity, a prediction which the even verified.  The calamity therefore only afforded the committee evidence of his wisdom and foresight, and their further study of the subject showed that on all coasts where the means allowed him were at all adequate, his organization of the service, and its operation under his management, had yielded results without a parallel for beneficience in the annals of any life-saving institution in the world.  It would indeed by difficult to conceive a more gratifying exhibit than the record of the seven years of the service previous to the present year gave to the committee.  It also appeared that these important results had been accomplished with restricted means and under no conditions which only the signal capacity of the general manager made other than adverse.  The investigation of the committee left them, therefore, somewhat in the position of converts, and they became convinced that greater ability could hardly have been brought to the conduct of the Life-Saving Service than Mr. Kimball has shown.  We therefore esteem it both a duty and a pleasure to urge his appointment as its general superintendent.

We have the honor to be,                       

Very respectfully,                        
Charles B. Roberts                
Jay A. Hubbell                      

I concur in the foregoing in so far as it represents Mr. Kimball as a most efficient and valuable superintendent.  I never regarded the loss of either the 'Huron' or 'Metropolis' as in any way due to improper or unskilled administration of the Life-Saving Service.  The true state of facts is very properly presented.  My position as a member of the sub-committee gave me with my colleagues and excellent opportunity to learn and understand the efficiency of the superintendent of that important branch of the public service.  I concur in the opinion that the retention of Mr. Kimball in his present capacity will be in the interest of that service and to its decided advantage.

John E. Kenna               

There can be no question that Mr. Kimball is entitled to the honor of conceiving and organizing the Life-Saving Service as it stands today.   To quote again from an important public print: "The actual credit to this great national work of humanity is due to Sumner I. Kimball, who not only conceived the idea of the complete guarding of the coast, and prepared the bill for Congress, but has reorganized the entire system and carried it out to successfully in all of its minute practical details."  Hon. O. D. Conger, of Michigan, in a speech in the House of Representatives on June 4, 1878, declared that all the "splendor of glory that has been given to this branch of the service is due, more than to any other executive officer, to that faithful laborer, the simple chief of a bureau, Mr. Kimball, in the Treasury Department.  To him this country owes, more than to any and all other men, for the organization of the Revenue Cutter Service for life-saving purposes, and for the organization of these life-saving stations and making them efficient as they are today."

Referring directly to a proposition to transfer the Life-Saving Service to the supervising of the officers of the Navy, Mr. Conger added:

Sir, after this service in less than eight years, under the direction of a civilian, the little black-eyed man at the head of the Revenue Marine in the Treasury, has won for himself such distinction, though without means, without proper appropriations, with stations scattered far along our dangerous coasts, I do not believe the American people or their representatives here will dare snatch from this service in the beginning of its career the credit it has acquired and give it to another.

On the same floor Hon. Samuel S. Cox of New York spoke eloquently of Mr. Kimball: 

He did what nobody else thought worth doing.  He organized what we had.  The officers who had preceded him for twenty years previously, might have done the same thing.  This man, first of any, seized the unused opportunities.  With skill, with patience, with perseverance, with energy that never faltered, with foresight that saw the end in the beginning, and judgment that discerned in small and scattered sources the amplest possibilities, he made the service what it is today.  Hampered by legislative restrictions and slender appropriations, he has contrived to set barriers against the measureless destruction of the sea.  With the aid of our funds and his subordinates -- and with partisan preferences always in the way -- he has lined our exposed beaches on seaboard and lake with improved stations.  He has filled them with selected crews, the flower of the hardy beachman; he has stocked them with the best boats, wreck-ordnance and life-saving appliances of every kind that modern skill has been able to devise; he has trained his heroic gangs with constant discipline, until from simple fishermen, they have become soldiers of the surf and storm and the defense of imperiled seafarers.  He has by skill and patience far outdone my most sanguine expectations of 1870; for he has brought into existence that system of patrol which puts the American life-saving establishment in advance of any in the world; that system, by which, all night, from sunset until dawn, through all the months of tempest, no matter what the weather, those patrolmen and crews are watching along the coast from Maine to Florida.  They form a cordon of marching sentinels to espy endangered vessels: They are ready always to summon relief and rescue.  This system Superintendent Kimball has brought into unity out of coherence, and where there was death he has made life.

In the Senate on July 28, 1888, Senator [James B.] Beck of Kentucky, well known as an uncompromising champion of economy, and a legislator of the sternest insistence upon what he believed to be right used the following words:

I can only add that if there is any branch of the public service that is carried on economically and carried on energetically, earning its money, and every dollar of it, it is the Life-Saving Service.  Instead of being extravagant in this service, we have absolutely not gone to the point that common humanity requires us to go for fear that somebody would say that we are giving too much.

In the same debate, Senator [John] Sherman spoke as follows:

I wish to say in connection with this service, that it has been so wisely and economically and carefully managed that one man, Mr. Kimball, has always had charge of it from the beginning to this hour; and through every administration, in all the mutations of party life and the changes which have been made, he has been kept as a model officer.  I do not believe that any administration would be courageous enough to remove him for any cause.  Besides, there is no party politics in it in the slightest degree.

Mr. Emile Cacheux, Secretary General of the Fifth International Congress of Life-Saving, held in Toulon, France, in April, 1890, in his official report gracefully bears testimony in the following words to the world-wide pre-eminence of the Life-Saving Service of the United States:

Nearly all civilized nations have established life-saving stations along their coasts.  The most complete service is, as shown by the documents which we have received, that of the United States, directed with so much devotion by General Superintendent Kimball.  All along the coasts of the United States, life saving stations have been established, manned by regular crews who are so paid as to allow them to devote themselves exclusively to the protection of mariners.  The crews of the stations are drilled every day in launching the boats, in using the beach apparatus, or in resuscitating the apparently drowned; this is whey the United States Life-Saving Service crews have such extraordinary skill and dexterity.  In no nation of the old world is the life-saving service so well organized as in the United States.  Nevertheless, Mr. Kimball is not yet satisfied.

Beyond question, the one great secret of Mr. Kimball's wonderful success in developing the Life-Saving Service has been his early and unwavering resolution to conduct it upon non-partisan lines.  He realized at the outset that by this policy alone could it be made efficient, and he began at once to plead with Congress for the enactment of a laws to place the service upon a non-political basis.  In 1882 his efforts were rewarded by the passage of the following act of Congress, approved May 4, 1882.  Section Ten reads: "The appointment of district superintendents, inspectors, and keepers and crews of life-saving stations shall be made solely with reference to the fitness, and without reference to their political or party affiliations."  It is worthy to note that this law was the first of the kind ever enacted by Congress.  Even this, however, did not fully protect the service from the assaults of politicians, and therefore, in 1896, upon the recommendation of Mr. Kimball, the President issued an executive order placing the life-saving establishment within the classified civil service.  Its safeguards are now believed to be complete, and every lover of mankind rejoices that at last this sacred service of humanity is founded upon a basis where it may forever rest secure and command the respect and support of all men of all creeds and all parties, regardless of political makeshifts or partisan quarrels.

The confidence reposed in Mr. Kimball during his incumbency by the various secretaries of the Treasury and Presidents of the United States is shown in the frequency with which he has been designated temporarily to perform the duties of other high officers during their absence or disability.

On April 15, 1872, Mr. Kimball was appointed by President [Ulysses] Grant a member of the board of examiners for appointments and promotions in the Treasury Department under the rules promulgated on December 19, 1871.  Looking back at the record of that first board more than a quarter of a century ago, one is decidedly impressed with the excellence of its work, which may be confidently cited as unsurpassed by any that has succeeded it.

As already stated, Mr. Kimball was appointed General Superintendent of the Life-Saving Service by President Hayes on the 18th of June, 1878, and on that day the nomination was unanimously confirmed without reference to a committee, a most unusual honor.

On the 25th of February, 1889, he was appointed by President [Grover] Cleveland to the important diplomatic position of delegate on the part of the United States to the  international marine conference convened in Washington, and composed of leading representatives of the principal maritime nations of the world.  Before the committee on life-saving systems and devices, of which he was chairman, he read a paper entitled "Organization and Methods of the United States Life-Saving Service," which commanded universal applause, and has, at their request, been furnished in large numbers to foreign life-saving societies, mercantile associations and legislators.

On October 31, 1892, he was appointed by President Harrison acting first comptroller of the Treasury whenever the first comptroller and his deputy should be absent, and on November 3, 1892, he received from the President a like designation as acting register of the treasury, the duties of which office he performed for several months.

On February 7, 1900, President McKinley appointed him acting comptroller of the Treasury to discharge the duties of the comptroller, when necessary, which appointment he now holds.  On August 23, 1900, President McKinley appointed him acting solicitor of the Treasury during the absence of the solicitor and assistant solicitor.  Thus it will be observed that seven times Mr. Kimball has been honored with appointments of great importance by presidents of the United States.

In 1891 Bowdoin College conferred upon him the degree of Doctor of Science.  Mr. Kimball is a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, of the National Geographic Society of Washington, and of other scientific bodies.  He is also a member of the Cosmos Club and the University Club.

His lifework has been the creation and development of the present Life-Saving Service of the United States, an object worthy of the ambition of the noblest mind.  He has made it the best in the world, and such a monume3nt of personal industry, wisdom, and untiring fidelity as few men have ever been able to establish.

Since the publication of the above, Congress has recognized Mr. Kimball's services as General Superintendent of the Life-Saving Service by providing, in the "Legislative, Executive, and Judicial Appropriation Act" for the fiscal year 1904, and each subsequent year, an increase in salary of "five hundred dollars additional while the office is held by the present incumbent."