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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.

Exploring Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge

If you’re searching for an escape from everyday life, look no further than the pristine beaches and secluded salt marshes of the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. Nestled on the northern tip of Hatteras Island, this 13-mile-long stretch of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore is home to more than 400 species of wildlife ranging from migratory birds to endangered sea turtles. Whether you’re a local looking for a relaxing place to spend a day away or a visitor to the Outer Banks enjoying a family vacation for the week, taking a trip to the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge is an activity that should not be missed when visiting North Carolina’s barrier island paradise.

bonner bridge
Photo Credit: Seaside Vacations Outer Banks

The roots of the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge date back to 1937, when the United States government designated the section of Hatteras Island north of Rodanthe as an important breeding ground for area wildlife. Bordered by Oregon Inlet to the north and sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean and Pamlico Sound, Pea Island served as the perfect spot for birds migrating from colder regions to make a series of seasonal stops. The lush salt marshes of the region attracted an assortment of species ranging from ducks and swans to geese and egrets, making it a popular place among waterfowl hunters in the early-20th century, long before the Outer Banks became the bustling vacation destination it is today. When the land was deemed a wildlife refuge, hunting was no longer permitted, and huge congregations of birds began to take up permanent and seasonal residence along the soundside ponds and shallow salt flats.

Richmond Navigator
Photo Credit: Richmond Navigator

Today, visitors can take a trip over the Bonner Bridge from the southern edge of Nags Head to Hatteras Island, where they will be treated to beautiful stretches of unspoiled shorelines and opportunities for a wide array of recreational activities, including birdwatching, surfing, shelling, kayaking and standup paddleboarding. A small visitor center is located on the west side of NC Highway 12, about five miles south of the bridge. Here you’ll find a set of informational kiosks, public restrooms and a gift shop, as well as a staff of volunteers who can direct you to the various spots of the refuge you’d like to visit.

seashell seaside vacations
Photo Credit: Seaside Vacations Outer Banks

Comprising 5,834 acres of land and over 25,000 acres of water, the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge is a unique vacation destination that can be explored by foot or by sea and sound. Two nature trails wind their way through the refuge: the North Pond Trail and the Salt Flats Trail. Access to the half-mile-long North Pond Trail begins behind the visitor center and takes hikers around a series of ponds where they will witness various types of wildlife up close and personal. A wooden boardwalk allows visitors to cross what is known as “turtle pond,” a body of water full of freshwater turtles that can easily be spotted from the walkway above. This trail also features a double-decker observation tower and three observation decks—all of which contain mounted binoculars and interpretive panels—that give visitors a higher vantage point for viewing area wildlife and scenery.

birds over waves
Birds soaring over the Oriental, a shipwreck off the coast of Pea Island

The Salt Flats Trail, which is situated at the northern end of North Pond, meanders along the top of the dike that separates North Pond and the Salt Flats area. This trail boasts an off-the-beaten-path type of terrain and is a bit more challenging to travel than the neighboring North Pond Trail. Hikers can expect to see various species of birds ranging from falcons to snowy egrets as well as more than two dozen species of reptiles. The trail ends with a scenic overlook station that gives visitors the chance to see a large cross-section of the soundside portion of the refuge. In the summer months, volunteers provide programs that discuss the various animals and habitats that comprise the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge and are on hand to answer any questions visitors may have about the area.

pea island lifesaving station
Pea Island Lifesaving Station

While the region is most commonly explored by foot, experiencing the refuge by canoe or kayak is an Outer Banks activity unlike any other.  The New Inlet boat ramp provides easy access to the shallow, brackish waters of the Pamlico Sound, where paddlers can put their vessel in the water and embark on a unique journey through the wide canals and salt marshes along the margins of the refuge. As you paddle through the calm waters of the sound, keep your eyes peeled for the hundreds of species of migratory birds and various species of amphibians that thrive within this saltwater habitat.

sea turtle 1
Photo Credit: Seaside Vacations Outer Banks

Although both nature trails and the majority of wildlife are found on the sound side of the refuge, visitors to the Outer Banks shouldn’t skip a trip to the wide, natural beaches bordered by towering sand dunes on the eastern edge of the park. Stroll the shoreline of the Atlantic Ocean and search for the assortment of incredible shells that wash up on these secluded stretches of sand, and be sure to keep a lookout beyond the breakers for pods of dolphins that can be found dancing in the surf. Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge is also known for attracting several species of sea turtles to its undeveloped and unpopulated shores. While loggerhead sea turtles are the most commonly found species to venture out of the sea and lay their eggs safely above the high tide line here, a handful of other species—including leatherback, green, Kemp’s Ridley and hawksbill sea turtles—have also been spotted nesting within the confines of the wildlife refuge.

SeaTurtle-Orsulak-520x289 FWS
Photo Credit: FWS.gov

Whether you visit the Outer Banks in the middle of a cold winter or during the dog days of summer, Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge—with its hundreds of diverse species and array of recreational opportunities to enjoy—offers something for everyone to enjoy during their time spent on the barrier islands of North Carolina.

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