Sunday, June 3, 2012

United States Life-Saving Service

"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 tumultuous sea ... and all for what? So that others might live to see home and friends."

Historical records are filled with stories of ship disasters off the Outer Banks. It's astounding to learn how many ships grounded and washed ashore during the 18th and 19th centuries and how often Bankers risked their lives to rescue mariners and their cargo.

During the 18th century, the Outer Banks offered no organized method of dealing with one of the area’s most constant and worrisome problems … shipwrecks. Fortunately, on their own, it's residents, known as "Bankers", did a fair job of it themselves. In some cases they were rewarded for their actions either by wreck survivors, by the ship’s owner or by public sale of the ship’s cargo.

In 1801 the North Carolina Assembly finally legislated a loose system of wreck districts for the Outer Banks that authorized wreck commissioners to handle maritime disasters. Wreck masters were responsible for gathering a party of people to rescue ships in distress—accounting for the wreck and its cargo and assuring that the ship’s owners reimbursed the rescue party. If the cargo from a wreck went unclaimed for a year, a public sale was arranged by the wreck master. At best, this system was disorganized, leaving initiatives with the various coastal communities, and depending on Bankers to have the integrity to do the right thing.

A rash of maritime disasters near the mid-9th century convinced a reluctant Congress to appropriate funds for government-sponsored lifesaving stations and in 1852, federal money paid for surfboats to be stationed at Wilmington, Ocracoke and Bodie Islands in the custody of the customs collector. But it was not until 1871, following another series of shipwrecks, that a Revenue Marine Bureau was funded within the U.S. Treasury Department and given responsibility for maritime rescues. The new legislation authorized 7 lifesaving stations on the Outer Banks, to be built in 1873 and 1874, at Jones’s Hill, Caffrey’s Inlet, Kitty Hawk, Nags Head, Bodie Island, Chicamacomico and Little Kinnakeet. 

The presence of lifesaving stations on the Outer Banks was a step in the right direction, but the stations were understaffed for years. It required the wreck of the Huron off Nags Head in 1877, with the loss of 103 lives, to create a public outcry for increased government resources for maritime disasters.

Two months later, the steamer Metropolis grounded at Currituck, and 85 people drowned. That same year, Congress conferred full bureau status on the U.S. Lifesaving Service (USLSS), and the agency came into its own. Like the Revenue Marine Bureau, the USLSS lay within the Treasury Department.

Still, the government rescue operations extended only halfway down the North Carolina coast, leaving Core Banks, Shackleford Banks, Bogue Banks, Topsail Island and the Cape Fear regions without an official means of responding to shipwrecks. This geographical limitation may have been influenced by the Union sympathies of the upper half of the Outer Banks during the Civil War.

The politics of Reconstruction may have dealt another hand in the evolution of the USLSS on the Outer Banks. The story of the Pea Island Station, for example, is an anomaly in the service’s annals and should be recounted in some detail.
Photo: U.S.Coast Guard
     Built in 1878, it was staffed with an all-white crew. Soon after its opening for active duty, one of its watches failed to spot a grounded vessel. This lapse cost the lives of four men. An investigation of the tragedy by USLSS officials forced the resignation of the station keeper and of the surfman who had neglected his duties. The investigating official further recommended Richard Etheridge, a local black, for the position of keeper, and on January 24, 1880, he became the first black station keeper in the USLSS. The appointment of a black keeper raised the anger of the locals, especially when Etheridge hired an all-black crew. On May 29 the station burned to the ground. An investigation cited arson as the cause, but no one was ever charged with the crime.
     Captain Etheridge supervised the construction of a new station and continued with his duties, drilling his crew beyond the requirements of the service. “We knew we were colored,” recalled one of the unit’s later members, “and, if you know what I mean, felt we had to do better whether anybody said so or not.” Read more HERE. 
     Yet another shipwreck tragedy was required to convince Congress of the wisdom of extending lifesaving operations south of Kinnakeet to the southern reaches of the Carolina coast. The dreadful breakup of the Crissie Wright in 1886 off Shackleford Banks, during which horrified citizens watched passengers and crew freeze to death in the ship’s rigging, inspired lifesaving stations at Hatteras, Ocracoke, Portsmouth, Lookout and so on down the coast to Wilmington and Southport.
     The U.S. Lifesaving Service, originally set up on a nationwide basis in 1871 and expanded to include part of the North Carolina coast in 1876, was merged with the older U.S Revenue Cutter Service on January 28, 1915. The name given to the new federal agency thus formed was United States Coast Guard, but the change made little difference along the coast, for the same stations, equipment and crews were still employed.
     At the time of the formation of the Coast Guard there were 29 stations on the coast of North Carolina. These were, from north to south: Wash Woods, Pennys Hill, Whales Head, Poyners Hill, Caffeys Inlet, Paul Gamiels Hill, Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, Nags Head, Bodie Island, Oregon Inlet, Pea Island, New Inlet (abandoned the following year), Chicamacomico, Gull Shoal, Little Kinnakeet, Big Kinnakeet, Cape Hatteras, Creeds Hill, Durants, Hatteras Inlet, Ocracoke, Portsmouth, Core Bank, Cape Lookout, Fort Macon, Bogue Inlet, Cape Fear and Oak Island.
     The Coast Guard absorbed the Lighthouse Service in 1939 and its duties came to include both prevention and rescue, customs violations, prohibition enforcement and all other national maritime regulation. In many instances, the Coast Guard simply occupied the structures of its predecessors and went on with business as usual.

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