When most visitors to the Outer Banks hear the words “Pea Island,” images of a windswept wildlife refuge that stretches from sea to sound on the northern tip of Hatteras Island often come to mind first. But for those familiar with the storied past of the barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina, such words don’t just conjure thoughts of a location known for exceptional shelling spots and opportunities to see a wide array of wildlife in their natural habitats—the area is synonymous with one of the most important groups of people in Outer Banks history: the surfmen of the life-saving station at Pea Island.
Decades before thousands of vacationers venturing to the Outer Banks for a week of rest and relaxation began spending time on Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge during their stay, this narrow sliver of sand just south of Oregon Inlet served as the location of the U.S. Life-Saving Service’s Station 17. Founded in 1871, the U.S. Life-Saving Service was tasked with ensuring the safe passage of sailors aboard vessels that made their way up and down the shipping lines along the Eastern Seaboard. The shifting shoals off the Outer Banks of North Carolina proved extremely treacherous for even the most experienced of sailors to navigate, resulting in so many dozens of shipwrecks over the years that the region was subsequently dubbed “the Graveyard of the Atlantic.”
For Station 17, architect J. Lake Parkinson designed a boathouse-type structure to be erected on the sandbar overlooking the shoreline of the Atlantic Ocean. Featuring rustic wood walls, dormers to allow light to splash onto second floor, and a crow’s nest that offered a 360-degree view of the surrounding area, the life-saving station became home to a crew of seven surfmen led by the now-infamous Richard Etheridge. Although it was one of seven life-saving stations to be constructed along the North Carolina coast during this time period, Station 17 was unique in that it was the only station in the country manned by an all-black crew. Born a slave in January 1842, Etheridge enlisted in the Union army in August 1863, shortly after the North invaded the Outer Banks—and with considerable Civil War experience under his belt, he joined the U.S. Life-Saving Service upon his return home from the war.
Continuously faced with the grave and imminent danger posed by strong currents, rough seas and frequent storms off the North Carolina coast, the surfmen at Station 17 had their work cut out for them each day they reported for duty. Though Etheridge was, at one time, one of only eight African-Americans serving in the entire U.S. Life-Saving Service, his sharp skills and superior leadership abilities quickly led to his promotion, and he soon became the first black keeper to serve in the U.S. Life-Saving Service.
Etheridge and his all-black crew on Pea Island earned a reputation for operating “one of the tautest [life-saving stations] on the Carolina coast,” and made headlines when they rescued nine crew members off the E.S. Newman, a three-masted schooner that had veered 100 miles off course in a storm on Oct. 11, 1896. Etheridge and his fellow surfmen fought massive waves, pouring rain and blowing wind for hours on end as they repeatedly ventured into the ocean and back to the shore 10 times to save every sailor from the E.S. Newman—an effort for which the Station 17 crew was posthumously awarded a Gold Lifesaving Medal on the mission’s 100 anniversary in 1996.
The Pea Island life-saving station, its crew and, most notably, its leader, keeper Richard Etheridge, played a pivotal role in the history of both the Outer Banks and the U.S. Life-Saving Service, which would later evolve into the modern-day United States Coast Guard. After 20 years of service at Station 17, Etheridge fell ill at the age of 58 and passed away in January 1900. The life-saving services provided by the station continued to be operated by an all-black crew until the end of World War II, and the station was officially decommissioned in 1947. Shortly after the turn of the 21st century, William Charles Bowser—one of the last living surfmen to serve at the station—passed away in June 2006, at the age of 91. In March 2010, Herbert Collins—the surfman who had secured the locks on Station 17 on the day it officially closed—also passed away.
Although the life-saving station at Pea Island sat empty for decades and was left to deteriorate in the harsh conditions that characterize the desolate sandbar on the edge of the earth, the structure underwent an extension renovation in 2008. Stay tuned for our next story, which will highlight the renovations performed on this life-saving station that has earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.