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Saturday, February 7, 2015

The History of the U.S. Lifesaving Service : an African American History Story

The January 2000 Vol IX Number 1 issue of the Carolina Trees and Branches publication  had an article that sent me researching into a subject of which I had no knowledge.....until now.  I kept this copy since I  picked it up on the White Elephant table at a conference sometime....somewhere.  It stayed in my "to look at later" file, until I decided to clean my home office.  You see, there was upwards of 19 inches of snow outside my door, and this prompted me to do a little housecleaning.

Browsing the articles, published by the Family Research Society of Northeastern North Carolina, I came upon an article, The United States Lifesaving Service, (with Emphasis on the Pea Island Lifesaving Station). I had never read about the terrible problem with shipwrecks off the coast of North Carolina.  Evidently, in the eighteenth century, there was no organized way of dealing with this type of tragedy.  Many ships grounded and were washed ashore, and those persons, Bankers, as they were called, tried their best to save maritime refugees.

The article mentions a newspaper notice in 1812, which was written about the schooner, Independence, which sailed from New Jersey to St. Domingo, having a cargo of sugar and coffee.  It met with a fierce storm and lost nearly all of its cargo, and only one man of the eight person crew had survived.  At that time, wreck commissioners were allowed to handle maritime disasters.  They gathered their own groups to rescue ships, and whatever cargo they could.  The ship owners were responsible to the wreck rescuers to reimburse them for their trouble.
U.S. Lifesaving Service Emblem,

The North Carolina General Assembly had put this type of rescue service in place, but it depended solely on the integrity of those wreck commissioners to do the right thing.  The U.S. Congress appropriated funds to sponsor a new lifesaving station idea.  In 1852, funding paid for surf boats to be stationed along the coast, at Wilmington, Ocracoke, and Bodie Island. It worked a little better than the wreck commissioner idea, but was not perfect.  Later, in 1871, the government decided that a better idea was needed, as the shipwrecks became more numerous with the increase of shipping imports and exports.  The Revenue Marine Bureau was founded, which provided the construction of seven lifesaving stations along the coast.  These were built in 1873 and 1874.  Great idea.  But the stations were not sufficiently staffed.  And, these were all located on the northern shores of the Carolinas, leaving little patrol for the southern shores.

In 1877, the wreck of the ship, Huron,  which had a loss of 103 lives, and the ship, Metropolis, where 85 persons lost their lives,  prompted the government to revise its plans for ship safety and rescue.  The U. S. Lifesaving Service (USLSS) came unto its own, overseen by the Treasury Department.

Pea Island station, built in 1878, was staffed with an all white crew.  Their first mistake was to completely miss a grounded ship.  Four men were killed.  Two of the high ranking officers had to resign from the station.  The first black station keeper, Richard Etheridge, was assigned and placed at Pea Island in 1880.  Mr. Etheridge hired an all black crew for Pea Island., probably because no white man would have taken orders from a black man at that point in history.   The station was burned to the ground in May of that year.  It was thought that the damage was due to arson, although no one was ever charged.  Captain Etheridge commanded his crew to rebuild the station.  He was hard on his crew, making them drill ever more than what was expected.  He wanted his crew to be the best.
Richard Etheridge and his crew,

The Pea Island group performed their duties very well for many years, assisting in the rescue of ships and schooners through storms and hurricanes.  Captain Etheridge ran a very professional unit at this station for over 20 years.  He passed away at the station in 1900, at the age of 58.  Another black man was assigned in his place, and the station continued to run until it deactivated in 1947.
Pea Island crew, 1942,

Twenty-nine more lifesaving stations were built along the Carolina coast. In 1915, the U.S. Lifesaving Service was merged with the Revenue Cutter Service, and was called the United States Coast Guard.  The Lighthouse Service was incorporated into the USCG in 1939.  And now you know the rest of the story....the Coast Guard today not only performs rescues, but it also oversees customs violations, and national maritime regulations.

Memorial Plaque,

Grave site of Capt. Etheridge and his family at Pea Island,

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