The Lifesaving Tradition of the Outer Banks

Most visitors to the Outer Banks think of it as “my beach vacation.” Most residents the Outer Banks think of it as “my maritime community.” And everyone thinks of Cape Hatteras as the yardstick from which to measure the location of all Atlantic hurricanes!

Indeed, those three factors are paramount influences on the Outer Banks: (1) tourism, (2) a marine environment and (3) weather. Those three are exactly what makes the fourth mega-influencing factor for the Outer Banks:  the eventual presence of the United States Coast Guard and a long tradition of Lifesaving on the Outer Banks. But first….


The Beginning

The very, very first lifesavers on the Outer Banks were the original European settlers. They were severely isolated and lived an extremely difficult, hardscrabble life. Their very existence was dependent upon helping each other, so it was only natural that when a shipwreck occurred within their sight that they would go to help. Of course, no records were kept of these activities, so we have no hard data, but these were clearly the first OBX “volunteer lifesavers.” Indeed, we are not even sure when the first European settlers (long after the Raleigh failed attempts of 1585 and 1587) populated Hatteras Island and the real banks. The early records were as murky as the Sound water sometimes. There are official references to Colington and Roanoke in the late 1600s.

By 1696, there was already an official report of Bankers robbing the grounded H.M.S. Hady somewhere around present day Currituck. Probably by the early 1700s Hatteras was being populated, entirely by “squatters.” Most were coming from Virginia and the Carolina colonies, and yes, some were shipwreck victims who just stayed. Most of these folks, for one reason or another, just wanted to be left alone, but would pitch in to help their neighbors – and shipwreck victims.

Here their dual personalities would show clearly: loners when they could; socially when they needed. Help save shipwrecked victims, but steal their cargo and valuables. Author Joe Mobley dramatically recounts in his book Ship Ashore! The U.S. Lifesavers (sic) of Coastal North Carolina, “Captain Albert I. Lewis, a onetime underwriter’s agent, once remarked, ‘The people on Ocracoke and Hatteras would drop a corpse while carrying it to the grave, and leave it on the road, if they heard ‘Ship on the Beach!’ Still another resident remembered: ‘I have known when the signal is given, “Ship on Beach,” crowds to leave church even during a revival meeting.’”  Today’s current Director of the North Carolina Maritime Museums, Joe Schwarzer, may have said it best for modern ears when he describes shipwrecks of that time as “Walmart coming ashore!”

Most of the rare, existing shipwrecks with local volunteer life savers were tragedies, with FAR more losses than saves. One example: In October of 1837, the steamboat Home was sailing from New York to Charleston, with the crème de la crème of both cities aboard. It encountered a hurricane and was totally destroyed. Ninety bodies of passengers and crew littered the beach at Ocracoke the next morning. Two of the survivors used the only two life preservers aboard. The next year, Congress mandated life preservers on all ships for all personnel. But the disasters continued unabated. The local volunteers could simply not keep up with this. The Good Samaritan did not have the training, equipment or time for this full time job. Finally, a reluctant Uncle Sam, according to the famous cartoonist Thomas Nast, agreed to put federal money into the newly created “United States Lifesaving Service.” lifesaving

These first Coast Guard stations on the Outer Banks were not called that at all and were actually from a federal organization called the United States Lifesaving Service. It existed nationally on all of America’s coasts from 1871 to 1915 when it merged with the Revenue Cutter Service to become the Coast Guard. The Lifesaving Service had a singular mission: to save lives in peril from the sea.

The first Outer Banks Lifesaving Service (LSS) stations were built and manned in 1874. They were, from north to south, Jones Hill (later with the more familiar name “Currituck Beach”), Caffeys Inlet, Kitty Hawk, Nags Head, Bodie island (renamed “Oregon Inlet”), Chicamacomico (now village of Rodanthe) and Little Kinnakeet (just north of today’s village of Avon). In 1878, eleven more stations were added. These included the now famous Kill Devil Hills station, which assisted the Wright brothers, and the Hatteras Inlet station. Still more were added, eventually totaling 29, averaging about six miles apart on the NC outer coast from the Virginia line (Wash Woods LSS – 1878), to the South Carolina line (Oak Island LSS- 1886). In 1915, all these became Coast Guard stations.

Heroes of North Carolina’s Outer Banks

From the beginning of sea travel to and from the North Carolina coast, no one knows the total number of shipwrecks, of lives lost, or of lives saved. Even getting those numbers for the age of the U.S. Lifesaving Service (1871-1915) is difficult and unclear. But we do know that the 29 Outer Banks Lifesaving Service stations during their combined times saw hundreds of shipwrecks and saved thousands of lives. We do have a national figure: over that 44-year period, the men of the U.S. Lifesaving Service on every coast of America responded to over 178,000 lives in peril from the sea, of which they saved
OVER 177,00!

Here are just three examples from those hundreds of actual rescues –

Pea Island LSS – October 11, 1896. A hurricane wrecks the E.S. Newman just north of the station. Due to conditions, neither the surfboat nor the Beach Apparatus can be deployed. So Keeper Etheridge asked for two volunteers. A rope was tied around them, they waded into the raging surf and miraculously retrieved a victim. The same technique was used to rescue the entire party of nine persons. lifesaving2

Goal Shoals LSS – August 16, 1899. Rasmus Midgett, Surfman Number 1, was on Beach Patrol in the middle of the night during a hurricane when, about 3 AM, he heard cries of distress. Rasmus was one of the many lifesavers who had done numerous rescues the day before from this same storm. He was an hour and a half from his station. It would take too long to go back and get the full crew and equipment. So he went in solo. One at a time, Rasmus pulled the 10 victims out of the ship and brought them to shore. Single-handed. In the middle of the night. In the middle of a hurricane.

Chicamacomico LSS – August 16, 1918. The British tanker SS Mirlo was either torpedoed or struck a mine laid by German Submarine U-117 seven miles offshore, almost directly in front of the station. It carried 6, 679 TONS of gasoline and related flammable materials. Three explosions rocked the Mirlo, splitting it in two, releasing all of its volatile cargo. It ignited and spread like lightning over acres of ocean. After a six and one half hour ordeal, covering over 28 nautical miles, “Capt’n Johnny” (Keeper John Allen Midgett, Jr.) and his crew of five in their 26-foot Surfboat No.1046, saved 42 of the crew of 51. It was to become the most highly awarded maritime rescue in all of American history.

What is Left of the Originals

Very little of those original U.S. Lifesaving Service stations remain. Caffey’s Inlet has been converted to the “Lifesaving Restaurant,” part of the Sanderling Resort. It has been extremely modified and modernized. The Kitty Hawk station was similarly converted to the Black Pelican Restaurant. Unless you know what to look for, its origins can easily be missed. The Kill Devil Hills station has become the office of the Twiddy Insurance Company in Corolla. The 1898 Oregon Inlet station is that restored but abandoned structure you see crossing the Oregon Inlet Bridge, the first building ocean-side on Hatteras Island. Chicamacomico is the only fully restored museum open to the public. One of the other five built in that 1911 style islifesaving4 a beach rental cottage in Kill Devil Hills, again, highly modernized, but still very recognizable. Little Kinnakeet had its 1874 station reconstructed and its 1904 station exists but is badly in need of restoration. Owned by the National Park Service, neither is open to the public. Just south of that is Creeds Hill. The 1918 Chatham-Type station is a private “beach getaway” not open to the public and rarely occupied. Portsmouth Station, even farther south on Portsmouth Island, has been beautifully and expertly restored by the Park Service. This one is open to the public, but it is very difficult to get to, only accessible by boat, and thus has little visitation. The 1888 Cape Lookout station exists, but not for much longer at the current rate. It is unrestored, unrepaired, unattended and has seriously deteriorated. The 1889 Oak Island LSS station has been beautifully restored, but with a modern interior as it is now a private residence. West and south of Wilmington, it was the southernmost of all NC Lifesaving sations. 

All the rest of the original 29 stations are completely gone. Some destroyed by storms, some simply fell apart over the years due to abandonment, and some were destroyed on purpose after decommissioning.                                               

Why So Many Shipwrecks in the Waters off the Outer Banks?

There are a variety of explanations for the origin of the term, “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” The most popular one involves Alexander Hamilton. Even then, the details of the story vary widely! According to a 1773 publication, Hamilton “passed Cape Hatteras on a summer night in 1773 and thereafter remembering the night’s terror, he spoke of that portion of the sea as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.”  This, according to renowned NC historian William S. Powell, may be the most authentic. That moniker is important to the understanding of the lifesaving tradition of the Outer Banks.

It is, in fact, one of the most treacherous and violent areas of ocean in the world. Estimates of the total number of wrecks there range from 2,000 to 6,000. There are a number of factors accounting for this. Any one of these can cause a shipwreck; a combination of them is guaranteed to be lethal.

First is the fact that the Outer Banks stick out so far into the Atlantic. Its easternmost point, Rodanthe, is 300 miles EAST of Jacksonville, Florida! That means ships captains must go far out of their way to pass around. In the early days of sailing ships, most captains did not trust navigation instruments, and thus never sailed out of sight of land. Around the Outer Banks, peppered with shallow and shifting shoals (a second huge reason), that often spelled disaster.

A third major factor is the point of Cape Hatteras is the confluence of two major ocean currents:  the south-bound cold waters of the Labrador Current collide violently with the warm waters of the Gulf Stream right there. Every second of every day, 24-seven, waves are breaking into each other head-on ninety degrees from the usual surf on the beach!  These can be towering collisions, which in themselves would wreck a ship. But the real danger is that they are dispersing sand in a random fashion making miles of shoals…and they change every minute. The famous Diamond Shoals off of Cape Hatteras extend 20 miles out to sea, where the depth can be as little as four feet. This single factor alone has accounted for hundreds of the ship grave sites. But it gets worse. The two currents are obviously moving in opposite directions. The ships sailing our Atlantic Coast, the “I-95” of its day, were wooden sailing ships. They were powered by wind and basically sailed whichever way the wind was blowing (very limited tacking ability). So if a ship was sailing south from New York to Charleston, it already had a south current but if it was a south wind (that is, blowing from the south to the north), it was in their face and they were in trouble. The opposite, of course, was true –  sailing from Charleston to New York the northern current was great but a north wind put you on hold. As a result, hundreds of ships often gathered around Cape Hatteras waiting for the wind to change favorable to them. When it did, there was often a mad scramble of “bumper ships!”

Additional factors were storms, often rising suddenly; the fact that North Carolina’s coast is a string of barrier islands, and that is exactly what they are:  there is no port available for 301 nautical miles from the Chesapeake to Wilmington. A sailing ship of those days could take four or five days to navigate that, and a lot can happen in that time. More factors included: mechanical problems, rudders stuck, sails torn, watch falls asleep, captain drunk, mistaken course plots, pirates and most recently, the two World Wars.

So, Who Were These Life-Saver Men?

lifesaving1Three short, but spot-on, answers, in this order – one by a poet, one by an official report from a U.S. Life-Saving Service Supervisor, and one by the acknowledged expert in this field:

“He’s a rigger, rower, swimmer, sailor, undertaker, And he’s good at every one of ’em the same, And he risks his life for others in the quicksands and the breakers. And a thousand wives and mothers bless his name. He’s an angel dressed in oilskins, he’s a saint in a “sou’wester,” He’s as plucky as they make, or ever can. He’s a hero born and bred, but it hasn’t swelled his head, And he’s jest the U.S. Government’s hired man.”

Author Unknown.

“I do not believe that a greater act of heroism is recorded than that of Daily and his crew on this momentous occasion. These poor, plain men, dwellers upon the lonely sands of Hatteras, took their lives in their hands and, at the most imminent risk, crossed the most tumultuous sea that any boat within the memory of living men had ever attempted on that bleak coast, and all for what? That others might live to see home and friends. The thought of reward or mercenary appeal never once entered their minds. Duty, their sense of obligation, and the credit of the Service impelled them to do their mighty best. The names of Benjamin B. Daily and his comrades in this magnificent feat should never be forgotten. As long as the Life-Saving Service has the good fortune to number among its keepers and crews such men as these, no fear need ever be entertained for its good name or purposes.”

Report on the wreck of the barkentine Ephraim Williams, 1884, Cape Hatteras LSS Station

“They were the greatest heroes of the American coast, routinely risking their lives in the grand maritime rescues. Their work was respected and honored by America’s most prestigious leaders, celebrated in the most popular publications of their time and of deep interest to medical, educational, religious and political leaders. The Wright Brothers knew them well, poet Walt Whitman wrote of them, and the artist Winslow Homer painted them. But somehow America forgot these peaceful heroes. Yet anyone reading of their bravery today will always remember them. The Life-Saving Service answered that most basic of human questions, “Who will help in our hour of greatest need?”

lifesaving3Ralph Shanks, The U.S. Life-Saving Service, Heroes, Rescues, and Architecture of the Early Coast Guard, Costano Books, Novato, CA © 1996, p.1

James Charlet recently stepped down from his post as site manager at the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station Historic Site & Museum in Rodanthe to pursue a career as a speaker, performer, and author. Prior to serving on the staff at Chicamacomico, Charlet taught North Carolina history for 24 years, and spent a combined 13 years providing historical interpretation at the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, Wright Brothers National Memorial, and Roanoke Island Festival Park.

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