Richard Etheridge and the Pea Island Lifesavers

Source: Con Carbon

Along the Outer Banks in North Carolina, near where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Chesapeake Bay, are the treacherous waters known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” More than 600 ships have wrecked off the sandbars of the Hatteras Islands.  In 1871 the United States Lifesaving Service – a federal agency – was established to save the lives of shipwrecked mariners and passengers.  These first responders were called “surfmen” and, in North Carolina, they worked the desolate beaches.   In 1915 the agency was renamed the United States Coast Guard.

In 1880 Captain Richard Etheridge, a former slave and Civil War veteran, was appointed as keeper of the Pea Island Lifesaving Station, 30 miles north of Cape Hatteras.  When he arrived to assume his command, the white surfmen there abandoned the station, unwilling to serve under an African American.  Other black surfmen from other stations were transferred to Pea Island which became the first all-black lifesaving station in the nation.  For 70 years the Pea Island station was manned by an all-African American crew until 1947 when it was decommissoned.

Known for their courage and dedication the Pea Island lifesavers led many daring rescues saving scores of men, women and children.  In 1896, during a hurricane, they rescued the entire crew of the E.S. Newman for which — 100 years later — they were awarded the Gold Lifesaving Medal.  In 1992 the U.S. Coast Guard commissioned a cutter, Pea Island, in memory of the African-American crews who served there.

“The general run of the work of the lifesavers is not the spectacular kind that sometimes gets into the newspapers.  The routine drill, the labor of keeping the station and the boats and outfit bright and clean and ready for business, and the lonely night patrol of the silent beach, constitute the bulk of the men’s work.”  Herbert H. Brimley, naturalist and visitor to the Outer Banks in Fire on the Beach, by David Wright and David Zoby, Oxford Univ. Press, 2000.

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