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Richard Etheridge & the Pea Island Life-Saving Station: Part 1

Richard Etheridge & the Pea Island Life-Saving Station: Part 1

Photo: Bowman Murray Architects
Photo: Pinterest

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.”

Photo: Pinterest

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.  

Photo: Pinterest

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.

Photo: Hatteras Realty

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.

Photo: Seaside Vacations Outer Banks

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.

The Mirlo Rescue on Hatteras Island

Nicknamed the “Graveyard of the Atlantic,” the coastline of the Outer Banks of North Carolina is sprinkled with thousands of shipwrecks that lie just offshore from Carova to Ocracoke Island. While many of the vessels that sank to the bottom of the sea ran aground in storms during the 17th and 18th centuries, others—such as a tanker called the Mirlo—were the victim of attacks as recently as World War I.  

Chicamacomico Historic Site & Museum / Photo: Scenic USA

A British tanker that weighed 6,667 tons and had a crew of 51 members, the Mirlo was carrying a cargo load of gasoline and oil from a port in New Orleans, Louisiana, to New York Harbor in August 1918. As the ship emerged from the Gulf of Mexico, rounded the Florida Keys and began making its way up the coast of the Eastern Seaboard, it became increasing exposed to the threat of enemy German submarines that had invaded U.S. shipping lanes during that spring and summer. Several ships were sunk by mines laid and torpedoes launched from the U-boats, putting Captain John Allen Midgett and his crew of surfmen at the Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station on Hatteras Island on guard should any ships be sunk off the Outer Banks. 

Photo: NCGenWeb.us

Located in the village of Rodanthe, toward the northern end of Hatteras Island, the Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station was commissioned on Dec. 4, 1874, and home to the first shore-based rescue responders in the state of North Carolina. In the early afternoon on Aug. 16, 1918, the Mirlo struck a mine dropped by German U-boat 117 off Wimble Shoals, resulting in a series of explosions that destroyed the engine room and caused the cargo load of gasoline the ship was carrying to erupt into flames. Realizing that the boat was not salvageable, the captain ordered his crew to board the Mirlo’s three lifeboats and evacuate the sinking ship.

Photo: TripAdvisor
Photo: NPS.gov

The first lifeboat to leave the Mirlo capsized in the Atlantic Ocean, tossing all 16 of its passengers into the sea. When a third explosion erupted on the nearby Mirlo, all but six of the sailors who clung to the capsized lifeboat perished in the seas that were still rough from a recent storm. A second lifeboat contained 19 passengers and drifted helplessly amid the fiery gasoline-soaked seas while a third lifeboat, which carried 16 crewmen and the captain of the Mirlo, was able to clear the flaming wreckage and head toward the coastline of the Outer Banks.

The rescue that ensued has since been deemed one of the most dramatic rescues in maritime history. A Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station lookout named Leroy Midgett was in his post when the Mirlo first exploded and notified Captain John Allen Midgett Jr. of the attack. The alarm was sounded, and the crew raced to the stables to harness the team of horses, rode to the station and readied the McLellen Boat wagon that carried the rescue boat: Surfboat No. 1046. The crew put the surfboat into the ocean and fought their way through strong offshore winds and crashing waves with heights up to 20 feet to attempt to reach the crew members of the Mirlo who were stranded in lifeboats off the coast.

Photo: OuterBanks.com

The huge breakers overwashing the surfboat ultimately flooded the small vessel before it could reach the crew of the shipwrecked Mirlo, forcing it to return to the shore to be drained. Two relaunches were attempted, but the breaking waves were too large and too strong, and the surfmen from the Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station were unable to get the surfboat past the breakers. The rescue crew tried a fourth launch, which was ultimately successful, allowing the boat to clear the rough waves and make it through the surf into the open waters where the Mirlo crew was stranded near the burning wreckage of the tanker approximately five miles off the coast of Rodanthe.

The Chicamacomico rescue crew reportedly first encountered the lifeboat that contained the Mirlo’s captain, who instructed the rescuers to bypass their boat and search instead for the survivors of the boat that had capsized after the explosion. Pushing through flames that shot 100 feet in the air from exploding barrels of gasoline that had been aboard the Mirlo, the rescue crew pressed on until they reached the capsized lifeboat—and found a handful of survivors clinging to the overturn boat in the smoke and rough seas. According to accounts by the Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station, the six surviving men were exhausted from the ordeal and coated in oil. The Chicamacomico rescue crew pulled the sailors from the sea and continued their search for any remaining survivors in the other lifeboat.

Captain John Allen Midgett Jr.

Once the lifeboat was spotted, the rescue crew realized that the vessel was extremely overloaded, leaving it so crowded that the men aboard could not move enough to row it toward the shore. Instead, it was drifting out to sea. The Chicamacomico crew pulled their surfboat alongside the lifeboat, tossing a line aboard so the lifeboat could be towed to safety. The crew then headed back to the spot where they had encountered the Mirlo captain’s lifeboat and been instructed to move on to save those in more immediate danger and provided a tow for that lifeboat as well.

As darkness fell on the coast of the Outer Banks, the Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station rescue crew towed the two lifeboats toward Hatteras Island, ultimately saving the lives of 36 sailors from the sunken Mirlo tanker. Later that fall, on Nov. 8, 1921, Captain Midgett and his crew of surfmen were awarded gold lifesaving medals for “gallantry and humanity in saving life at sea” by the British government for their incredible efforts to save the lives of dozens of sailors who were aboard the Mirlo when it was destroyed by German forces. Today, surfboat No. 1046 and an assortment of photos, artifacts and replica equipment can be viewed at the Chicamacomico Lifesaving Historic Site and Museum in Rodanthe.

 

 

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