Rescue at Sea

In Maps101 by mapsbecky

Richard Etheridge, far left, and the Pea Island Life-Saving crew in front of their station, circa 1890.

Captain Richard Etheridge, far left, and the Pea Island surfmen in front of their station in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Etheridge was the first African American to head a U.S. Coast Guard Life-Saving Station.

The E.S. Newman was in trouble.

The large sailing vessel, a schooner, was traveling from Providence, Rhode Island, to Norfolk, Virginia, in October of 1896, when she was caught in a hurricane. Violent winds ripped the sails from her masts. The ship was blown 100 miles off course into an area off the coast of North Carolina called the Graveyard of the Atlantic. The area earned that nickname because of the many of shipwrecks there. Now the E.S. Newman was stranded off of Pea Island in North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

Surfman Theodore Meekins was on watch during the storm. In the distance, he saw a red distress flare light the sky. This meant a ship was in trouble!

The day’s weather was so bad that Captain Richard Etheridge, the keeper of the Pea Island Life-Saving Station, had halted routine beach patrols. Extremely high tides made walking along the beach dangerous. However, Meekins knew that in order to survive, the ship’s passengers and crew needed to be rescued—and quickly. He reported the distress signal to Captain Etheridge.

Luckily, the victims of the wreck were in the hands of one of the best rescue crews. The Pea Island Life-Saving Station had been transformed from a weak unit into a crack team under the leadership of Captain Richard Etheridge.

In the late 1800s, racial laws in the South were in place to keep blacks out of positions of power. Etheridge’s skill was so great, however, that in 1880 he was the first African American to be appointed commander of a Coast Guard Life-Saving Station.

An Expert Leader

Because Captain Etheridge was African American, the racial standards of his time meant that everyone under his command had to be African American, too.

Etheridge knew that many whites didn’t approve of a black man in a position of power. He was certain that any mistakes he or his team made, no matter how small, would be judged harshly. As a result, Etheridge led the station under strict military discipline. His crew were regularly drilled in lifesaving techniques. First Lieutenant Charles F. Shoemaker, the officer who appointed Etheridge to his post, said that Etheridge was “one of the best surfmen on this part of the coast of North Carolina.”

Etheridge’s focus on excellence saved lives that stormy October day.

Dangerous Rescue

After being alerted to the distress signal, Etheridge gathered his crew. They fastened a rescue cart to a team of mules and started down the wave-washed beach. Unfortunately, the hurricane made it impossible for the team to continue. “The storm was raging fearfully,” Etheridge reported. “The storm tide was sweeping across the beach and the team was often brought to a standstill by the sweeping current.”

The mules were unable to continue. The men had no choice but to pull the cart themselves. Loaded with rescue supplies, it was difficult to pull over the wet sand. Determined, the team made their way three miles to the stranded schooner.

When they arrived, the crew and passengers clung desperately to the wreckage of their vessel. In addition to the captain and seven crewmen, the wreck included the captain’s wife and three-year-old child.

Normally, the rescuers, called surfmen, used a device called a Lyle Gun to shoot a rescue line over the water to reach a stranded crew. However, on that day, high water and dangerous waves made this impossible. With his usual procedures rendered useless, Etheridge had to find another way to help the people from the E.S. Newman.

Etheridge soon had another plan in operation.  He decided to send two of his  men out into the surf, but he did not want to command anyone  to risk their life in this way.  Two men quickly accepted the challenge without hesitation. The Captain fastened the two surfmen together with an eight-foot-long rope. They secured another line between a cart on the shore and the men. Slowly the men managed to make their way over the shifting sandbars, half-swimming and half-wading, toward the wreckage, hauling a third line to toss on board for the rescue.

Although the captain, passengers, and crew were in great danger, the rescue couldn’t be rushed. Only one person could be rescued at a time. The first was the captain’s three-year-old child, followed by his wife. Next came the crew. The captain was last. As the team worked through the stormy night, Etheridge replaced exhausted surfmen with those who had rested. Finally, after nine trips, everyone on the E.S. Newman was safe. No lives were lost.

After the Storm

Back at the rescue station, the surfmen cared for the rescued. Once the hurricane had passed, the surfmen returned to the schooner to see if there was anything that could be salvaged.

The station’s log book noted that the rescued “were taken to the station and furnished with food and clothing, and during the next three days the surfmen aided in saving baggage and other stores from the wreck.” The E.S. Newman was, sadly, “a total loss.”

Neither Etheridge nor his surfmen received special recognition for their courage. However, the schooner’s grateful captain gave the Pea Island team his ship’s nameplate to honor their brave efforts. It wasn’t until 1996 that the Coast Guard awarded the men a Gold Lifesaving Medal.

The Pea Island Life-Saving Station continued to have an all-black crew starting with Richard Etheridge's appointment as keeper in 1880 until it closed in 1947. Pictured is a crew of surfmen working at the station in 1942.

The Pea Island Life-Saving Station had an all-black crew from Richard Etheridge’s appointment as keeper in 1880, until it closed in 1947. Pictured are surfmen working at the station in 1942.

From Slavery to Leadership

Richard Etheridge was born into slavery in 1842 in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Unlike much of the U.S. South, the Outer Banks had no large plantations. This meant that there was little need for enslaved people for farm labor. Instead of learning about farming, young Richard learned about fishing and boating. Although it was illegal at the time, Richard’s slaveholder taught him to read and write.

During the U.S. Civil War, the Outer Banks was one of the first areas of the South to be invaded by Northern troops. These troops found assistance from local blacks wanting to escape slavery. The Union realized that enlisting Southern blacks would both increase the size of their army and reduce the size of the Confederacy’s labor force. Richard Etheridge took advantage of this opportunity in 1863, and he enlisted with the Union army.

Etheridge was a talented soldier. By the war’s end in 1865, he had reached the rank of Regimental Commissary Sergeant. In 1866, Etheridge, who had been serving in Texas, left the army. He returned to the Outer Banks. There, he served in the newly-formed U.S. Life-Saving Service.

Unfortunately, many people in the Life-Saving Service knew little about ocean rescue. People frequently received positions just because they were the friends or family of the people hiring. Because of nepotism, many employed by the Life-Saving Stations did not understand lifesaving techniques. For example, during a single two-month period, almost 200 lives and thousands of dollars in valuable cargo were lost off of the Outer Banks, even though this area was patrolled by the Life-Saving Service.

In order the improve the quality of the Life-Saving Service, the U.S. Navy took control of it. They hoped that under their leadership, the effectiveness of the rescue teams would improve.

Under the Navy, people were chosen to lead rescue stations because of their ability and not because of who they knew. Richard Etheridge had a reputation as one of the best surfmen. Even though he was the lowest-ranking member of another local station, he was placed in charge of the Pea Island Station. Before his arrival, the station had a reputation as one of the worst.

Etheridge managed to transform the Pea Island team into to one the best lifesaving teams anywhere. Etheridge expertly led the station for 20 years. On March 14, 1900, Etheridge died while on duty at Pea Island.

As surfman Benjamin Bowser, who was one the members of the E. S. Newman rescue, wrote in the station’s log for that day, “Keeper Richard Etheridge died at this station at 10 minutes to 7 a.m. today. Disease, likely carried by the mosquitoes from the sound, did what no war, rescue attempt, or human hostility could.”

Currently, the town of Manteo, North Carolina, is working to preserve the legacy of the Pea Island Station, which finally closed in 1947. The town is raising money to build a replica of the Pea Island Station’s living quarters. Today, a replica of the Pea Island Cookhouse is available for tours. The town of Manteo plans to add other buildings that will teach visitors about the African American heritage of the area.

Additional Resources

Read more about Richard Etheridge and the Pea Island surfmen at East Carolina University and Our State magazine.

Take a closer look at the daily lives of nineteenth century surfmen like those stationed at Pea Island at the National Park Service.

Learn about other important rescues in U.S. Coast Guard history at the Coast Guard Foundation.

Images and Sources

Pea Island Life-Saving Team photo: U.S. Coast Guard
Pea Island Life-Saving Team photo license: Public domain

Pea Island Surfmen 1942 photo: U.S. Coast Guard
Pea Island Surfmen 1942 photo license: Public domain