Lighthouses & Ferries
The Heroes Of Hatteras: NC’s Coastal Life-Savers
On August 16, 1918, the British tanker Mirlo was heading north along the East Coast of the U.S., carrying oil and gasoline for the war effort in Europe. Suddenly, as the ship was just off the Outer Banks of North Carolina, it was rocked by a torpedo fired from a German U-Boat. The Mirlo split in two, and the flammable cargo ignited and spread across the water. As the call came to abandon ship, some crewmembers had to actually dive into the flames, in hopes of swimming beneath the surface to a safer area.
On shore, the men at the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station could hear the explosion and see the flames. Acting quickly, they made several attempts to launch their surfboat into rough seas, finally getting underway and rowing into the deadly smoke, flaming wreckage, and burning gas and oil. By the time it was over, the Chicamacomico crew had rescued 42 of the 51 British sailors. For their efforts, the men were awarded British and American Grand Crosses for bravery.
History Comes Alive At Chicamacomico
The rescue of the Mirlo crew remains one of the greatest maritime rescues in U.S. history, and its most decorated. But for those serving in the U.S. Life-Saving Service on the Outer Banks, rescuing souls from the Graveyard of the Atlantic was a common occurrence. There were 29 Life-Saving Stations in North Carolina, ten on Hatteras Island alone. The tales of the people who served here (mostly locals) are tales of constant training, bravery, and sacrifice. Sadly, very few people have heard those stories, but now, the Chicamacomico (pronounced chick-a-mah-COM-ih-co) Life-Saving Station is trying to change that.
“It’s an exciting part of history that most people don’t know about,” says James Charlet, who manages the refurbished station as a historic site and museum. “The men of the Lifesaving Service saved thousands upon thousands of lives, and their stories deserve to be told.”
The Chicamacomico Station, in the village of Rodanthe, is the most complete Life-Saving Station complex left in the country, and one few left standing on the Outer Banks. Here, you can see the original station built in 1874 and the one built to replace it in 1911, still on its original foundation. You can also see the cookhouses and the wreck pole (used for training), as well as the actual surfboat used in the rescue of the Mirlo. But while the Chicamacomico Station complex faithfully reproduces the lives and work of its former occupants, it also stands as a museum to the proud and little-known history of the U.S. Life-Saving Service.
The Life-Saving Service began in 1871, as a post-Civil War nation made a concerted effort to protect the lives of mariners and passengers at sea (some of NC’s lighthouses were also built around this time). The men who served in the Service underwent constant training and drills, and were required to patrol miles of isolated beach on foot. The shore along the Outer Banks, with its storms and shoals, proved to be a particularly busy stretch of coastline.
Pea Island and the E.S. Newman
In one case, North Carolina’s Life-Savers also provided the country with a bold social experiment at the time. At the Pea Island Life-Saving station (six miles north of Chicamacomico), a station keeper who bungled a rescue was fired and replaced by Richard Etheridge, an African-American who was one of the best surfmen on the North Carolina coast. Under the racial standards of the 1870s, everyone under Etheridge’s command also had to be black, so the Pea Island Life-Saving Station became the only one to have an all African-American crew.
That crew became famous on October 11, 1896, when the three-masted schooner E.S. Newman was driven ashore by a hurricane. The storm was so ferocious that beach patrols had been suspended for the day, but an eagle-eyed surfman noticed a distress signal from the station and the Pea Island crew set out on its rescue mission. The extreme wind and waves prevented the crew from launching a surfboat, but two surfmen volunteered to swim out to the schooner and attach a line. Those surfmen went into the water ten times, and eventually saved all nine people on board the Newman. One hundred years later, the Pea Island Life-Saving crew would be posthumously awarded the Gold Lifesaving Medal.
End Of An Era
In 1915, the Life-Saving Service was combined with the Revenue Cutter Service to create what is now the U.S. Coast Guard. By the 1950s, helicopters proved to be more efficient rescue vehicles than surfboats, and one-by-one, the Life-Saving Stations were closed. But in its time, it is estimated that the U.S. Life-Saving Service responded to more than 28,000 shipwrecks across the country and saved more than 177,000 lives. Today, visitors can experience that heroic legacy at the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station, and discover a part of Outer Banks maritime history that has largely gone unnoticed until now.
The Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station is located just off of NC Highway 12 in the Village of Rodanthe and is open from mid-April through late November. Each Thursday from June through August, members of the US Coast Guard perform a reenactment of a Beach Apparatus Drill at 2pm.
added: December 16, 2008
updated: April 15, 2013