The Long Blue Line: Patterson–FRC namesake and Gold Medal hero of 135 years ago

By Cmdr. Timothy R. Dring, U.S. Navy Reserve (retired) U.S. Life-Saving Service Heritage Association, member


The United States Coast Guard will soon be commissioning a new Fast Response Cutter named for John C. Patterson, a recipient of the Congressional Gold Lifesaving Medal for heroism. John Patterson was born in 1834, in the town of Howell, New Jersey, to a local farm couple. Like his father, John worked as a farmer and also learned basic carpentry and mechanical skills. He married Mary Corlis in June 1859 and they had two children.

John C. Patterson’s portrait from the out-of-print book The New Jersey Coast in Three Centuries, edited by William Nelson. (Library of Congress)

With the outbreak of the Civil War, Patterson volunteered in July 1862 as a private in New Jersey’s 14th Militia Regiment. In the famous battles in the Maryland and Virginia campaigns, Patterson demonstrated superior leadership under pressure. He was quickly promoted into the officer grades, rising to the rank of brevet colonel by the end of the war. Following the war, he continued to serve in the New Jersey State Militia and rose to the rank of brevet brigadier general.

After the war, in 1870, Patterson signed on as a surfman at the U.S. Life-Saving Service Station located at Sandy Hook, New Jersey. He was a surfman there until 1876 when he was appointed the station’s keeper. John served as the keeper at Sandy Hook until 1883, when he was transferred to Station Shark River, New Jersey. Patterson would serve as the keeper of Station Shark River from 1883 until he retired.

Station Shark River at about the same time John Patterson was keeper. (National Archives)

As noted in the Life-Saving Service Annual Report for 1887, Patterson and his crew of surfmen were subjected to an extreme test of their skills and endurance in July 1885. On Monday, July 27th, during a heavy onshore gale, they responded to the foundering yacht Foam. While on a pleasure cruise from Jersey City to Barnegat Bay, with three crew on board, the Foam had anchored offshore of Long Branch, New Jersey, to ride out the gale that had developed a day earlier.

On the morning of the 27th, the yacht’s crew discovered that their vessel had dragged anchor down-coast to a position about half-a-mile off of Avon, New Jersey. With the yacht taking on water, the crew signaled shore for help. At that time, the Lifesaving Service station crew had not begun its seasonal operations. Fortunately, Patterson spotted the distressed vessel and notified his men who lived in the nearby towns of Ocean Grove and Asbury Park. Borrowing a team of horses, the crew pulled their beach apparatus cart of rescue gear to a point adjacent to the sinking yacht.

A 27-foot Long Branch pulling surfboat and wagon similar to the surfboat used by Patterson and his crew in their famous rescue. (Courtesy of Timothy R. Dring)

After four unsuccessful attempts to fire a shotline to the yacht to rig their breeches buoy, Patterson decided to deploy the station’s surfboat. He and his men returned to the station, hauled the surfboat to shore and launched it; however, heavy winds and severe currents prevented them from getting to the yacht. Patterson and his crew returned to shore and waited for the seas to subside. While waiting, Patterson received word that his brother was dying and wanted to see John before he expired. But, shortly thereafter, the heavy surf and high winds eased and Patterson and his crew had to return to the struggle preventing Patterson from seeing his dying brother.

Patterson and the men re-launched the surfboat and got close enough to the yacht for the survivors to leap into the water and get pulled into the surfboat. Patterson’s surfboat, with the survivors safely on board, landed on the beach after an hour of rowing through heavy seas and breaking surf. Although partially flooded, the Foam, was recovered the following day.

By the time the rescuers returned to shore, a crowd of nearly 4,000 spectators had assembled on the beach to observe their heroic rescue. Some of the spectators petitioned the Life-Saving Service to award medals for bravery to Patterson and his crew. After reviewing the case, the Life-Saving Service determined that Patterson, his crew, and an additional volunteer were worthy of Congressional Lifesaving Medals as follows:

Gold Lifesaving Medal: Keeper John C. Patterson

Silver Lifesaving Medal: Surfmen John Redmond, John H. Pearce, John H. Smith, David Kittell, Henry A. Bennett, and Edward Brand; and volunteer William Newman

 Life-Saving Service beachcart apparatus similar to the one used by Keeper Patterson in his Gold Lifesaving Medal rescue. (Courtesy of Timothy R. Dring)

While a station keeper, Patterson also served as a member of the Life-Saving Service Board on Lifesaving Appliances, beginning with the board’s establishment in 1879 through 1885. Members of this advisory board were carefully selected by famed Life-Saving Service chief Sumner Kimball for their experience and technical expertise. The board members were responsible for the evaluation and testing of new equipment used by the service.

John Patterson served a total of 16 years in the Life-Saving Service, starting as junior-most surfman and rising to the rank of keeper. He was a keeper at two different stations and a member of the Life-Saving Service’s Advisory Board. Even after his 1886 retirement from the Service, Patterson continued to serve his community of Ocean Grove until his death. As with his Army service in the Civil War, Keeper Patterson demonstrated exceptional technical knowledge and devotion to duty as a lifesaver and a community leader.

Station Sandy Hook showing John Patterson standing at the far left, holding onto the boat wagon wheel. (National Archives)

John C. Patterson died in 1918, at the age of 83 years, following a long illness, and is buried in the Baptist Cemetery in Farmingdale, New Jersey. He was one of countless heroic rescuers of the long blue line.

Image Gallery

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