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William Douglas O'Connor Letter

A description of the collection at Syracuse University

Finding aid created by: MRC
Date: 30 Jun 2010

Biographical History

William Douglas O'Connor (1832-1889) was an American journalist, author, civil servant, and friend of poet Walt Whitman. He began his government career as a corresponding clerk with the United States Light-House Board and eventually rose to the position of Assistant General Superintendent of the Life-Saving Service. His Annual Reports to Congress were not the usual dry government documents; they were in fact such vivid, lively narratives that "the demand for the volumes became so great that large editions were necessary to meet it." A compilation entitled Heroes of the Storm was published in 1904. When Congress proposed transferring the Life-Saving Service from the Treasury to the Navy, O'Connor wrote eloquently opposing it.

[Partially adapted from Timothy Harrison's article, "William D. O'Connor - An American Legend," published in Lighthouse Digest, June 2009.

Scope and Contents of the Collection

The William Douglas O'Connor Letter consists of a letter and a partial manuscript.

The letter is a 50-page handwritten letter, unsigned and undated, from O'Connor to the Honorable Charles J. Folger, Secretary of the Treasury. The letter protests the recimmendation of the Secretary of the Navy that the Life-Saving Service (as part of the Revenue Marine) by removed from the Treasury Department and put under the Navy. Although undated, the letter must have been written between 1881 and 1884 while Folger was Secretary of the Treasury.

In closing, O'Connor writes that the experience and activities of the Life-Saving Service are

entirely foreign to the knowledge or habits of employment of the personnel of frigates, into whose hands, however, in the event of transfer to the Navy, the stations and station work would inevitably fall. The result would also be inevitable. Shorn of the veteran surfing science and life-saving knowledge and experience of the present race of beachmen, the Life-Saving Service would suffer a sea change into a nondescript condition, the immediate prelude to decadence and ruin.

Following this is an incomplete ten-page manuscript, marked as pages 76-86, describing a visit made in the winter of 1877 to one of the stations of the Life-Saving Service. The town, the station, and the men are described, but the station is not named. The account ends with part of a description of the "brave keeper" referred to in the beginning having laid down his life in the performance of his duty. The document may have been part of a draft for one O'Connor's Annual Reports.

Arrangement of the Collection

As paginated.


Access Restrictions:

The majority of our archival and manuscript collections are housed offsite and require advanced notice for retrieval. Researchers are encouraged to contact us in advance concerning the collection material they wish to access for their research.

Use Restrictions:

Written permission must be obtained from SCRC and all relevant rights holders before publishing quotations, excerpts or images from any materials in this collection.

Subject Headings


Folger, Charles J. (Charles James), 1818-1884.
O'Connor, William Douglas, 1832-1889.

Corporate Bodies

United States. -- Life-Saving Service.


Lifesaving -- United States -- History.

Genres and Forms


Administrative Information

Preferred Citation

Preferred citation for this material is as follows:

William Douglas O'Connor Letter,
Special Collections Research Center,
Syracuse University Libraries

Acquisition Information

Transfer, 1970.

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