Short History of the Ninth Coast Guard District
The Coast Guard's presence on the Great Lakes began with the appearance of three of its predecessor agencies in the early part of the 19th century; the Revenue Cutter Service, the U.S. Lighthouse Service, and the U.S. Lifesaving Service. Soon after the War of 1812, a Revenue Cutter was stationed on the Great Lakes and the number increased through the 19th century. At about the same time, records indicate the first appropriations were made for lighthouses in eastern Lake Erie and western Lake Ontario. The first lighthouse tenders also serviced the region's floating aids and fog signals. The Lighthouse Service grew very quickly, from east to west, keeping pace with the region's settlement and growth of shipping on the Lakes. Twenty lightships served on the Lakes starting in the late 1800s.
The shipping community's increased rate of shipwrecks required some capability to rescue distressed mariners. Both the Revenue Cutter Service and the Lighthouse Service were informally tasked with providing lifesaving services beginning in the 1840s. Unfortunately, a lack of organization, funding, and training resulted in an ineffective system of poorly managed lifesaving stations. Between 1876 and 1877, 28 dedicated and properly funded lifesaving stations were established on all five Great Lakes. Some were co-located with lighthouses and were staffed with a mix of full-time and volunteer crews.
The U.S. Lifesaving Service (USLS) was formally established in 1878 under the Treasury Department. By 1893, there were 47 stations along the Great Lakes and this grew to 60 stations by 1900. The first motorized lifeboat in the USLS appeared in Marquette, MI and they were eventually adopted for use across the service in the early part of the 20th century.
The advent of the steam-propelled vessels came with increased risks from boiler explosions and other marine casualties. In 1838, hull and boiler inspectors were given authority to inspect and certify passenger vessels. Increasing casualties resulted in additional laws that gave rise to the Steamboat Inspection Service (SIS) in 1871 under the Treasury Department. In addition to boiler and hull exams, subsequent laws required lifesaving, firefighting, manning, and other safety requirements including the licensing of operators and engineers and the rules were extended to cargo vessels. On the Great Lakes, two SIS Districts were established to provide inspection services. The Eighth District, headquartered in Detroit, covered the upper western lakes, and the Cleveland office managed inspectors on Lakes Erie and Ontario, and the St. Lawrence River.
The Revenue Cutter Service (RCS) enforced U.S. laws on the Great Lakes ensuring compliance with customs requirements. They were also charged with patrolling local regattas. RCS cutters homeported in the Great lakes also participated in the Civil War and the Spanish-American War. Following creation of the Coast Guard in 1915, Great lakes cutters continued service in the World Wars when the service temporarily came under the control of the U.S. Navy. Of note, the CGC ESCANABA (WPG-77), out of Grand Haven MI, was lost during convoy escort on 13 June 1943 leaving two survivors out of her 105-man crew.
The union of the U.S. Lifesaving Service and the Revenue Cutter Service in 1915 provided the foundation for the modern day Coast Guard, increasing the scope and capabilities of both services on the Great Lakes. The service's search and rescue mission was expanding in reaction to the arrival of the recreational boating community. In 1920, the service's law enforcement mission on the northern border grew exponentially with the passage of the Volstead Act, which implemented prohibition for the next 14 years. Coast Guard small boats and larger patrol boats intercepted alcohol smuggled from Canada at several border-crossing areas on the Lakes.
Steel-hulled Coast Guard cutters had been breaking ice on the Lakes in an effort to extend the shipping season for some time. President F.D. Roosevelt's Executive Order in 1936, assigning the domestic icebreaking mission to the Coast Guard, resulted in additional icebreaking capable vessels including the first CGC MACKINAW in 1943. Icebreaking, to ensure the year-round transport of heating oil and the shipment of iron ore and other raw materials, became a national priority in the time leading up to and throughout World War II. The port safety and security functions and authorities for the Captains of the Ports greatly expanded during both World Wars and the Cold War; through both national security demands and legislation.
The Coast Guard's modern mission set for the Great Lakes expanded after World War II with the transfer of the Commerce Department's U.S. Lighthouse Service (in 1939) and the bureau of Marine Inspection (in 1946) to the Coast Guard, which rejoined the Treasury Department from the Navy after the way. Two thousand aids to navigation and 10 lighthouse tenders joined the Coast Guard's Great Lakes inventory. The Coast Guard Reserve and the Auxiliary were created and became critical components for the safety, security, and stewardship of the Great Lakes. The District's first Air Station was established in Traverse City in 1946 with a fixed-wing aircraft followed by helicopters.
The Coast Guard in the Great Lakes region went through several organizational changes after 1915 The service amalgamated the Areas, District, and Divisions of its predecessor agencies, the Naval Districts while under the control of the Navy and the existing organizational construct of the U.S. Lighthouse Service and the Bureau of Marine Inspection & Navigation. Two Captains served as the first Ninth District Commanders during WWII in Cleveland followed by the first Flag Officer, Commodore James Hirshfield in 1944.
Ninth District field units were eventually organized under eleven Groups with 29 Captains of the Port (COTP) and Marine Inspection Offices (MIO). Several Group Commanders were dual or triple-hatted. Over the 20 years after WWII, the District maintained two icebreakers, seven 180-ft buoy tenders, a lightship, five icebreaking harbor tugs, 51 stations, and 80 manned lighthouses.
The St. Lawrence Seaway opened in 1959 allowing (non-Canadian) foreign-flag ships into the Great Lakes along with invasive species carried in their ballast tanks. Air Station Detroit was established in 1966 and Air Station Chicago was established two years after the Coast Guard was transferred from the Treasury Department to the Department of Transportation in 1967.
Over the next 30 years, the field unit organization continued to evolve and consolidate due to advances in technology and asset capabilities. The 11 Groups merged into five and the marine safety program consolidated into eight MSOs and three Marine Safety Detachments. Air Station Chicago closed and season Air Facilities stood up in Waukegan, IL and Muskegon, MI during the summer months. Five 140-ft WTGB icebreaking tugs and two 225-ft buoy tenders replaced the WWII era 180-ft cutters and harbor tugs.
The terrorist attacks on the U.S. in September of 2001 created a homeland security mission to the Ninth District and focused attention on the 1,500 miles of international border along the Great Lakes. In addition to growing the Coast Guard, the service's transfer to the new Department of Homeland Security in 2003 created more opportunities to work with Customs and Border Protection and other components on the Great Lakes. This resource intensive mission resulted in another field unit reorganization in 2005. Groups and MSOs were combined into four Sector Commands that were established in Buffalo, Detroit, Sault Ste. Marie, and Milwaukee. Marine Safety Units remained at Duluth, Cleveland, Toledo, and Chicago.
Since 2005, the CGC MACKINAW (WAGB-83) was replaced with the new MACKINAW (WLBB-30), an icebreaker with buoy tending capabilities. The WTGB MORRO BAY was transferred to Cleveland from the First Coast Guard District. In 2016, MH-60 helicopters returned to the Great Lakes, replacing HH-65 aircraft at Air Station Traverse City, and most recently, eight small boat Stations were converted to seasonal use and operate from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
The primary source of this information was the "Guardians of the Eighth Sea, A History of the U.S. Coast Guard on the Great Lakes" by Photojournalist 1st Class T. Michael O'Brien (1976)