Little known fact: Alexander Hamilton started the Coast Guard as 10 ships known as “revenue cutters,” designed to collect tariffs from ships importing goods into the United States.

The U.S. Coast Guard – or its predecessors – has enforced tariffs, combated piracy, carried mail, prevented the slave trade, protected government timber and stopped smuggling of alcohol. Its servicemen and women have searched for boats and rescued people, fought in wars, and kept boats out of harm’s way.

Today the agency – formed in 1790 and merged through American history – is an armed service that handles law enforcement, homeland security, search-and-rescue missions and marine safety. It has 11 official missions.

  1. Ports, Waterways & Coastal Security
  2. Drug Interdiction
  3. Aids to Navigation, including maintaining the nation’s lighthouses and buoys)
  4. Search & Rescue )
  5. Living Marine Resources
  6. Marine Safety
  7. Defense Readiness
  8. Migrant Interdiction
  9. Maritime Environmental Protection
  10. Polar, Ice & Alaska Operations
  11. Law Enforcement

The Guard was the only armed service at sea until the Navy was founded eight years later.

The Revenue Cutter service in 1915 merged with the U.S. Lifesaving Service, a series of stations along the American coast, where men served at the ready to rescue ships and swimmers from the water. (There’s a fantastic recreation of one, complete with a contraption called a breeches buoy, at Marblehead Lighthouse State Park.)

In 1939, the Lighthouse Service was folded into the Coast Guard.

The culmination of agencies is one reason the Coast Guard today has so many missions. The service has about 56,000 members, with 243 cutters, 201 airplanes and 1,600 boats. There are nine districts; District 9, based in Cleveland, covers all the Great Lakes.

The Great Lakes include 6,700 miles of shoreline and 1,500 miles of the Canadian border, covered by 6,000 active duty, reserve, civilian and auxiliary Coast Guard members.

“Our small boat stations, they range from 18 to 45 people,” said Executive Petty Officer Chris Channels, oversees buoys and lighthouses in all of Lake Ontario and half of Lake Erie. “We’re small, but definitely the smaller communities we’re in know our presence… For as small as we are, we try to make a huge difference in the community.”

In January on the Great Lakes, the Coast Guard has freed freighters and rescued at least five people from the ice.

“Our mission is Semper Paratus. It means always ready,” said Channels.

Take a look at Coast Guard history:

1790 – President George Washington signs the Tariff Act that authorizes the construction of ten vessels, referred to as “cutters,” to enforce federal tariff and trade laws and to prevent smuggling.  The Revenue Cutter Service expanded in size and responsibilities as the nation grew.

1915 – The Revenue Cutter Service merges with the U.S. Life-Saving Service, and is officially renamed the Coast Guard, making it the only maritime service dedicated to saving life at sea and enforcing the nation’s maritime laws.

1939 – President Franklin Roosevelt orders the transfer of the Lighthouse Service to the Coast Guard, putting it in charge of maritime navigation.

1946 – Congress permanently transfers the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation to the Coast Guard, putting merchant marine licensing and merchant vessel safety in its control.

1967 – The Coast Guard is transferred to Department of Transportation.

2003 – The Coast Guard is again transferred, this time to the Department of Homeland Security.