Thursday, February 16, 2012

Lifesaving Along the North Carolina Coast

"Imagine yourself patrolling a deserted open beach on a winter night with the sound of the surf pounding in your ears. Your job is to cast a weather eye upon the angry sea for any sign of a ship in distress. There is little light to guide you on your patrol. Suddenly, a sound makes you stop in your tracks. The cries of distress from a ship in danger is your call to action. As a United States Life-Saver it is your job to get back to your station and alert the rest of the surfmen. You and the rest of the crew will do everything possible to save those aboard the periled vessel. This was the mission of the United States Life-Saving Service."   [Taken from "Saints in Sou'westers," on the U.S. Life-Saving Service Living History Association web page at:]

Some efforts had been made to provide assistance to shipwrecks as early as 1847. Those efforts, however, were meager and ineffective. It was not until 1871 that the U. S. Life-Saving Service was established under the capable administration of Sumner Increase Kimball. Ten life-saving stations were added in 1874 including 7 along the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The North Carolina stations were: 1. Jones Hill (Whale Head/Currituck Beach); 2. Caffeys Inlet; 3. Kitty Hawk; 4. Nags Head; 5. Bodie Island (Oregon Inlet); 6. Chicamacomico; and 7. Little Kinnakeet. The Cape Hatteras Lifesaving Station was built in 1880. By 1905, there were 29 stations along the Outer Banks, all within 5 to 7 miles of each other. A list of these stations as well as the lighthouses along the NC coast can be found at:

Through the years, life-saving stations were established all along the U. S. coastline. An inventory determined that the US Life-Saving Service and Coast Guard established approximately 450 stations prior to 1961. Many of these are no longer active today.

Each of the life-saving stations along the Outer Banks has its own stories of bravery and heroism. The following rescue took place at the Cape Hatteras Life Saving Station. The story was taken from Coast Guard records of awards for bravery. The medals were presented on April 24, 1885 to Benjamin B. Daily, Patrick H. Etheridge, Isaac L. Jennett, Thomas Gray, John H. Midgett, Jabez B. Jennett, and Charles Fulcher.


Wreck of the Barkentine Ephraim Williams, 1884 Cape Hatteras Life Saving Station, North Carolina

"On 22 December 1884 the crew of the Cape Hatteras (NC) Station (Sixth District), performed one of the most heroic feats in the annals of the Life-Saving Service. Under the leadership of Keeper Benjamin B. Dailey, assisted by Keeper Patrick H. Etheridge, they rescued the nine men composing the crew of the barkentine Ephraim Williams. Out of Providence, RI the vessel was bound home from Savannah, GA with a cargo of pine lumber. On 18 December, when to the northward of Frying Pan Shoals, she encountered heavy weather and became waterlogged and almost a complete wreck. In this condition she drifted helplessly before the southerly gale until near Cape Hatteras.

Cape Hatteras Life-Saving Station
 "On 21 December her anchors were let go to save her from driving onto the outlying shoals several miles from shore. The ill-fated craft dragged some distance further. Just before dark, she seemed to fetch up. The crews of the Durant’s (1878), Creed’s Hill (1878), and Cape Hatteras (1880) Stations saw her but it impossible for them to do anything. Experienced local surfmen swore that the surf was the heaviest and most dangerous they had seen for years. The aforementioned station crews, along with that of the Big Kinnakeet station (1878), maintained their vigilance through the night for any signal from the bark. Nothing was seen, however, during the night.

At daylight on 22 December, it was found she had made it past the shoals lay six or seven miles northeast of the Cape Hatteras Station, nearly opposite the Big Kinnakeet station. The Big Kinnakeet crew, nearly all of whom were at the Hatteras Station, set out at once for their own station to get their boat. Tired from loss of rest, they ate breakfast upon arriving at the station. Keeper Dailey came up with his horse-drawn boat. Keeper Patrick H. Etheridge of the Creed’s Hill station took the place of an absent member of the crew. It was then about 10:30 AM. Up to that time there was no sign of life on the bark, but as they stood watching her a flag was run up to the mast-head as a distress signal. That was enough for Dailey and his crew to launch their boat. The Cape Hatteras men were soon ready. They lashed all loose articles in the boat, stripped off clothing that might impede them (if) the boat capsized. Then, donning their cork belts, they shoved the boat in and gave way.

Benjamin Dailey in 1957

To those on the shore it seemed a forlorn hope. Few believed it would be successful. The breakers on the inner bar were safely crossed, but then came the infinitely more hazardous outer bar. The scene was enough to make even the most stout hearts quail. As Dailey neared the barrier, he held his boat in check for a brief period awaiting his chance. The chance soon came. Quick as a flash, the word was given to the rowers and a few powerful strokes carried the boat safely beyond the bar and through the greatest danger. Keeper Scarborough and the crew of the Big Kinnakeet Station attempted to follow in Dailey’s wake, but could not get through. They were compelled, very much against their inclination, to turn back and beach the boat.

There was still a pull of several miles for Dailey and his gallant fellows, they reached the bark about 12:30. It was impossible to lay the boat alongside for fear of being swamped. So it was anchored off the bark’s quarter by means (of) a line thrown to them by the captain. This allowed them to move close enough to take the men off one by one. This required the most skillful maneuver to avoid staving the boat. The rescued people were distraught with cold and hunger, as they had been battered by the weather for over ninety hours. As soon as they were seated and everything was ready, the anchor was weighed and a start made for the shore. Keeper Etheridge relieved Dailey at the steering-oar while the latter tended the drag. The boat, laden with sixteen souls, was almost gunwale deep, but it rode the seas like a duck.

 After safely passing the outer line of breakers, they reached the shore in good shape. Once there, they were met by the Big Kinnakeet crew and the others on the beach. A hearty meal had been prepared at the Big Kinnakeet Station by Keeper Scarborough’ s direction and the castaways were taken there to be revived. Thus was accomplished one of the most daring rescues by the Life-Saving Service since its organization.

The officer detailed to inquire into the circumstance of the gallant affair closes his report with the following remarks:

I do not believe that a greater act of heroism is recorded than that of Dailey 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. Dailey 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.

 For their conspicuous bravery the boat's crew was awarded medals of the first class. Those receiving awards included Keeper Benjamin B. Dailey and Surfmen Isaac L. Jennett, Thomas Gray, John H. Midgett, Jabez B. Jennett, and Charles Fulcher of the Cape Hatteras Station and Keeper Patrick H. Etheridge of the Creed's Hill Station."

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