My Montana

My Montana
My Montana

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Black Hero's of Pea Island Life-Saving Station

(Get your cup of coffee first - this will take awhile)

The Pea Island Visitor Center sign, in its parking lot, says an all black lifesaving station was once on these lands  There is more information inside and we sell a book and DVD on it. I became interested in finding out more about this group.

Richard Etheridge and the Pea Island Lifesavers painting by James Melvin - from Internet

The North Carolina Life-Saver Stations were started up in the 1870's.  The area was extremely hazardous to shipping and many ships wrecked  off the Outer Banks. The Pea Island Station was built in 1878 as part of a string of stations along the Outer Banks. The lifesavers on them were mostly local watermen.  But others of them got their jobs through political cronies and many had little or no waterman skills. In a review of all the life stations,  many men were found to not be able to perform their duties. and several lifesavers were removed from duty, including the keeper, or head man, at Pea Island after he and his crew were cited for losing 17 lives when they failed to perform a relatively standard rescue of the British bark Henderson.

The Head of the service started looking for the men with the best reputations. The man considered the most respected and skilled was Richard Etheridge. He also was a known leader and could read and write. The only negative attribute was that he was black and was working at the number 6 position at Bodie Island, with no chance to rise through the ranks to number 1 and then keeper.  He had grown up as a slave on Roanoke Island but had been taught to read and write by his master (and probable father). He worked alongside his brothers and other relatives as a waterman and knew the waterways intimately.

 At 21, he had joined the Union Army in the colored 36th infantry soon after Roanoke Island fell, and shortly after became a sergeant.  He finished the war in Texas as one of the Buffalo soldiers.  He was respected by blacks and whites alike, but in those years just after the war, blacks were only allowed to perform the most menial of tasks. But even in his lowest position on the Bodie Island life-saving team, he strove to be the best life-saver possible and learned the life-saving regulations and procedures while practicing his skills.

So, probably with a lot of trepidation, he was appointed keeper of Pea Island Station, also known as Station 17. As soon as he was appointed to the Pea Island Lifesaving Station, the white men who still worked there quit. So the inspectors decided to have an all Negro station and pulled them from checkerboard crews at other Outer Banks Life-Stations.  His first crew included, Benjamin Bowser, Louis Wescott, William Irving, George Prude, Maxie Berry, and Herbert Collins. Richard Etheridge was the Keeper at Station 17 for twenty years and died on the job.

A picture of the crew hand hauling the lifeboat for practice

Five months after his appointment, the station was burned down by an arsonist who was suspected to have been a person who wanted the job of Keeper at Pea Island Station. Richard and his crew built a new station a few miles further south. His team was considered the most disciplined and rescue-ready team due to his military discipline and constant practice, in all kinds of weather. Each man knew his exact job and could perform it in all conditions.

When a ship wrecked, the life-boat was hauled to the closest spot on the coast from a wreck and then launched to collect people off the boat.  It was pulled with horses and or men

Richard Etheridge and his six man crew

A picture of the reenactment of how the Lyle gun was hauled - this was used to fire a line to the ship

The Lyle Gun - weight 150 - 250, pounds - was used to shoot a line out to the ship in distress

The deep and often wet sands made it hard to pull the cart and boat.

In 1896, the crew of Pea Island Lifesavers performed their most dangerous rescue, saving all hands on the E. S. Newman. During a hurricane, the watcher saw a flare offshore.  The men sent back their own flare and discovered a ship foundering about 50 yards off shore, about two miles down the beach from the station. Richard Etheridge tried to call for extra help, put the storm had taken down the telephone wires.

The beach was flooded (this was before the Corp of Engineers made the artificial dune system), the winds were over 90 mph, and the men knew they would never be able to launch the lifeboat. They dragged  and pushed the beach cart containing the ropes and Lyle gun, first aid equipment shovels, and other items and which, together,  weighed a half a ton. They struggled two hours helping the two mules move the cart the two miles,  in water up to their knees or higher and with waves sometimes knocking them down.

 When they attempted to use the gun,  it was almost washed away by the high surf,  and they couldn't find any high ground from which to fire it.  They attempted to dig sand and make a mound but the sand immediately washed away. Etheridge, then asked for two volunteers to swim a rope out to the wreck. Meekins was the best swimmer and he and Wise volunteered.  They were tied together and then had a throwing stick and the long line attached to their connecting rope. The first wave to hit Wise, knocked the wind out of him and the line tying them together dug in Meekins ribs. Somehow they managed to wade, then swim, missing the pieces of the breaking up ship and diving under the waves.

When they finally arrived at the groaning ship, the Captain untied himself from the mizzenmast and handed his three-year old son to Meekins. He took the boy, wrapped him up in his cork life jacket, and they started back to shore, with Wise finding a path through the pieces of lumber from the ship. They were now able to pull themselves along the line attached to the ship but still had terrible difficulty reaching the shore. Etheridge rushed up to help them while the rest of the crew pulled on the rope to keep it taunt in the undertow attempting to carry it and the men back to sea.

It took nine more of these dangerous trips to unload all the crew. The actual water part of the rescue took only an hour, but the time from leaving the station to returning, lasted from 9:00 P. M. to 1:00 A. M.

Etheridge wrote up the incident in his log, only stating "Although it seemed impossible to render assistance in such Conditions, the ship wreck crew were all safely landed."  After the storm receeded,  Captain Gardiner and his crew scoured the beaches for any salvage, but found none. They did find the nameplate for the ship and awarded it to Richard Etheridge. He gave it to Theodore Meekins, who had spotted the distress signal and, according to lore, made all nine trips out to the ship. Today it hangs in the Pea Island Cookhouse Museum in Manteo.

Although the crew was had many important and difficult saves to their credit,  probably saving over 200 people and losing only thirteen, they never received any awards.  Finally almost 100 years later, they all posthumously received the Gold Life-Saving Medal, the service's highest peacetime award, for the saving of the crew of the E.S. Newman.

Forty years after it's inception, the Lifesavers were incorporated into the Coast Guard.  Today a few Life-Saving Stations still stand along the Outer Banks and some of them are museums or are being used for other purposes.

On August 18, 2011, the coast guard cutter, Richard Etheridge was launched. So his name does live on.  This cutter was the first one where the crew was both male and female.

Richard Etheridge is buried on the grounds at the Roanoke Island Aquarium, on land he used to own. His gravestone just says Born Jan. 16, 1842 - Died May 8, 1980". It gives no clue about his remarkable life and place in history.

Visitors to the Outer Banks can visit the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station and watch reenactments of the drills the Life-Savers practiced. They can also visit the Pea Island Cookhouse, which was moved to Manteo and restored,  and is now a museum in memory of the Pea Island Life-Saving Station.

I called the number for the Pea Island Cookhouse Museum to see if it was open. The phone was answered by Frank Berry, a descendent of both Maxie Berry and another Pea Island Life-Saver.  He offered to give me a tour of the museum so I came and met both him and his wife, both of whom are retired from the Coast Guard. Many of the stories in the museum film came from his relatives. The Berry family has served in the Life-Savers/Coastguard since the 1880s until, I think, 2008. His Grandfather, Chief Boatswain's Mate Maxie Berry, Sr, was the last keeper at the station. The Berry family has 22 members who served either in the Life-Savers or the Coast Guard.

Both Frank and his wife are passionate about the Life-Savers and in keeping their memory alive. It was the best museum visit I've had since I went to the Lewis and Clark Interpretative Center (click link for that blog) several years ago, in Great Falls, Montana. This was due to all the family stories Frank could tell and what he know about the artifacts in the small museum.

The Pea Island Cookhouse all restored

Frank allowed me to take a picture of a picture of the station that was built
by Richard Etheridge and his crew 

I was particularly interested in the lifeboat and in understanding how it worked. The crew rowed backwards into the high surf with ten foot oars, while Richard Etheredge manned the 12 foot rudder oar. His crew had to trust him to take them on a safe path as they could not see where they were going.  And if the boat turned over, the men had to be able to get it back upright and get back in. Some of these boats had built in bailers but this one does not.

The Pea Island Lifeboat 

If you are interested in learning more about Richard Etheridge and his crew, check out the book, Fire on the Beach or the DVD, Rescue Men.  As always, feel free to share this story.  Our history is so much richer and nuanced with the addition of stories from those of us who are not just male and white.