On what was supposed to be a fun, summer outing swimming in the ocean, Mary Proctor drowned.
A popular nurse in her 30s, she rented a bathing suit that day, July 7, 1912, at a bath house in what was then Pablo Beach. But she couldn’t swim, and when she got into trouble in the surf, no one there knew how to rescue her.
Proctor’s death saddened and outraged the community, especially since her drowning had been preceded by many others. Bathing in the ocean was growing in popularity in the early 20th century, but many people didn’t know how to swim. The closest hospital to Pablo Beach, now known as Jacksonville Beach, was 25 miles away, which worsened the situation.
To protect against further loss of life, Clarence McDonald and Lyman Haskell founded the first volunteer lifeguard corps in the country that summer of 1912, as the U.S. Lifesaving Corps. Their station sat where the current red and white landmark station is located, on the beach at the foot of what is now Beach Boulevard.
After two years, in 1914, the corps joined the American Red Cross and changed its name to the American Red Cross Volunteer Life Saving Corps. It was composed of trained young men who guarded the beach on Sundays and holidays when hundreds of visitors from Jacksonville flocked to the beach by train. Soon after, other U.S. beach towns formed volunteer corps using them as a model. But 102 years after its founding, the Jacksonville Beach volunteer corps is the last of its kind in the country.
Highly trained volunteer guards still protect the Jacksonville Beach beaches on Sundays and holidays year round, while paid city Ocean Rescue guards do so Mondays through Saturdays.
Women joined the corps in the 1970s, and for the first time, its captain is a woman – Jelisse Marrero, a member since 2001.
“It’s a unique organization,” says Skip Cramer, regional chair of volunteers for the North Florida region of the American Red Cross. In 1914, there were between five and 10 members, he says. Now there are approximately 130 active guards, supported by a very active alumni organization that helps with building maintenance and fundraising. He estimates there have been about 3,500 to 4,000 members in the last 100 years.
Marrerro, a nurse practitioner, is proud to serve the corps that has a long history of keeping beachgoers safe. When she accepted the position of captain, “I knew it would be difficult,” she says. “But I love it.” Members, who are about 10 percent female, “all work well together,” she says.
With sloughs, run outs, and shifting tides and conditions, “the beach is always changing,” she says. “You never see the same beach twice.”
Guards always have to be ready, and aware of everything that is going on around them in the water and on the beach, Marrerro says.
“It’s very mentally and physically challenging,” but “it’s really a lot of fun.”