The U.S. Coast Guard has a rich history of military service, law enforcement, and maritime rescue. It is currently the world’s twelfth largest naval force and enforces U.S. law in 3.4 million square miles of coastal water. These impressive statistics make it hard to believe “The Guard” had humble beginnings connected to the Postal Service. Yep, you read that correctly — the Postal Service!
It all began in 1790. At the request of Alexander Hamilton, then Secretary of the Treasury, Congress established the Revenue Marine, which was responsible for collecting customs duties in the nation’s seaports. In 1848, the Revenue Marine had the Life-Saving Service added to its responsibilities. Around this time, the Treasury Department realized they were paying too much to rent spaces used by government entities. So the decision was made to fund the construction of Post Offices and other government buildings, including life saving stations along the coast. The first stations were run primarily by volunteers with no one in charge and no one receiving proper training. In fact, most of the early crewmen were political appointees and Postal Service employees!
The lifesaving system managed to continue with this lack of structure and training until the 1850s when Congress appropriated more funds to pay the salaries of full-time keepers at each station and superintendents to supervise. But keepers still had to wrangle volunteer crews to help when ships were in distress!
Things changed in 1871 when Sumner Increase Kimball, a lawyer from Maine, was appointed the chief of the Revenue Marine Division. He succeeded in gaining funds to employ crews of surfmen and build new stations. He also drew up regulations, established crew performance standards, and set station procedures.
By 1874, Life-Saving Stations were being built in North Carolina. One of these stations was Chicamacomico, pronounced “chik-a-ma-COM-eh-co,” which is an Algonquin Indian word meaning “land of shifting sands” or “sinking sands.” Sinking sands is an apt description because the construction process was not a smooth one!
Building was supposed to begin in 1871, but was quickly stymied. The contractor began work without proper materials, the winter weather interfered with progress, and the laborers walked off the job claiming deplorable work conditions. The original contractor even threatened the foreman with a gun, claiming he was responsible for the abandonment of the crew.
In 1874, a second contractor was hired and construction progressed more smoothly. The station was commissioned on December 4, 1874. Over time, violent storms damaged the original structure beyond repair, so a new station was built in 1911 and still stands today.
According to James Charlet, site manager of the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station Historic Site and Museum, the station employed up to eight lifesavers and one keeper, all of whom worked six days a week and spent Sundays on call. They endured a grueling daily regimen of drills and if a crewman wanted a day off, he had to give 30 days notice and pay for his substitute’s wages!
Typically aided by only ropes and a wooden rowboat, the rescues these men performed were heroic. One of the most famous rescues was of the British Tanker Mirlo in 1918. The Mirlo was torpedoed by a German U-Boat off the coast of Rodanthe. Carrying a massive amount of oil, the tanker immediately caught fire. Six Chicamacomico crew members launched their wooden boat from the beach, and paddled five miles out to where the crew was stranded. The life-saving crew made multiple trips to rescue as many sailors as they could. After six and a half hours, the crew had saved 42 of the 51 British sailors. As a result of this rescue, the six crew members received The Grand Cross of the American Cross of Honor. This medal of valor had requirements so high that only 11 people total have ever received it. Six of them were stationed at the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station.
By the mid-20th century, with the development of more reliable navigational aids, helicopters, and more powerful boats, the life-saving stations had become obsolete. The Chicamacomico Station was decommissioned in 1954 and in 1959, the 1874 Station was moved closer to the 1911 Station by the National Park Service. After that, the Station’s buildings lay abandoned for years. But in 1974, the Chicamacomico Historical Association (CHA) was formed and attempts were made to purchase and restore the Station. It wasn’t until 2002 that all buildings were deeded to the CHA.
The station is the largest and most complete U.S. Life-Saving Service station in the country, with every building listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s also one of the only original 1874 stations that is open to the public and one of the few stations with all of its original buildings intact.
Chicamacomico is also the only station in the country that is open as a museum, usually from April to November. The most popular museum program is the weekly Beach Apparatus Drill performed by active members of the U.S. Coast Guard. Chicamacomico is the only life-saving station that still offers a demonstration of this drill, a routine that was required to be practiced weekly by all crewmen in the late 1800s and early 1900s. This drill serves as a reminder of the Coast Guard’s humble roots and honors the Postal Service employees, fishermen, and other volunteers who risked their lives every day.
Blog by Jessica T. Smith for the Coastal Cottage Company