When Life Saving Was its Own Service

Long ago, solitary figures walked deserted American beaches at night, scanning the horizon looking for signs of a ship in distress and examining the beach closely for evidence of a ship wreck. Regardless of weather, they continued on their paths, undeterred, for these were not just any men. Indeed, they were the surfmen of the United States Life-Saving Service (LSS). 

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the LSS had stations along all three coasts has well as the shores of the Great Lakes. North Carolina would eventually have a total of 29 stations.  

A visit to the Chicamacomico (chi-ki-ma-COM-i-co) Life-Saving Station in the beachside community of Rodanthe, North Carolina provides an insightful introduction to the brave men of the LSS and the times in which they lived. Established in 1874, Chicamacomico is one of the few remaining stations still largely intact and open to the public.

Organized maritime lifesaving in the U.S. began in Massachusetts in the 1780s, but would remain a largely private, voluntary activity for almost a century. It was not until after the Civil War, as commercial shipping grew along with the U.S. post-war economy that Congress established the LSS in 1871. Lifesaving crews would be now paid and equipped by the Federal government. 

LSS Surfmen’s dress jackets, still ready for service, hang in the 1911 Life-Saving Station Building.

The new service was placed under the jurisdiction of the Revenue Marine Service, within the Department of the Treasury. Officers from the Revenue Marine Service began building the new organization, establishing a personnel system, writing procedures, developing training, and procuring equipment. The first lifesaving stations were established in New Jersey, but by 1874, lifesaving stations were being built all along the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf coasts. At the end of that year, seven life-saving stations, including Chicamacomico, would be built on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where they were very much needed.  

The Outer Banks, a string of sandy islands running along the state’s Atlantic coast, are near the confluence of two strong ocean currents. The warm Gulf Stream runs to the north and intersects with the colder, south running Labrador Current. The churning waters where the currents meet create shoals or sandbars which are constantly changing size and shape. The mixing of the warm and cold waters also contributes to sudden and violent storms. The storms and shoals are hazardous by themselves. Together they have ensnared unsuspecting ships for centuries.  There are an estimated 600 ship wrecks beneath the waters today, some dating back to the 1500s.

The original Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station building, built in 1874.

These first live saving stations consisted of a single building, roughly the size of a small barn. The 1874 Station building at Chicamacomico is a rare example of these original Life-Saving Station buildings still in existence today. These buildings were constructed by local builders in accordance with an LSS-wide standard plan and designed for exposure to the harsh surf conditions. Weather resistant materials such as cedar shingles, pine weatherboards, and cypress or locust wood posts were used. While the station building design was simple, the buildings themselves were embellished with ornate carved wood trimmings in the cottage style.

The station building ground floor included two rooms. There was a day room, used by the crew for meetings, training and recreational activities and a large room where rescue equipment was stored. The upper floor contained additional equipment storage space, crew quarters and offices. Capping the building was an open watchtower where surf conditions and maritime traffic were carefully monitored by the station crew.

A shot cannon and “faking” box used for sending rescue lines to damaged or marooned ships. The intricate wrapping of the rope around the prongs of the faking box kept it from getting tangled.

Like other life-saving stations, the Chicamacomico station was staffed by a crew of seven: six surfmen and a commander known as a keeper. The keeper assumed overall command during the rescue operation, determining the overall plan, designating which apparatus would be used and directing the distressed ship’s captain and crew. Surfmen were numbered, with each position given proscribed duties during a rescue. The Number 1 Surfman acted as a deputy to the keeper. Keepers and surfmen came from the local community. As residents, they would have the best knowledge of local tides, channels and currents. Crews were expected to have experience working on the water and be in good physical condition.

A beach cart marked with the abbreviation for the United States Life-Saving Service. The cart would be loaded with equipment and pulled by surfmen (later by horses) from the station across the beach to the rescue site, which could be several miles away.

Examining some of the lifesaving equipment on display in the 1874 Station, it is clear why surf men needed to be in good shape. There is a blue beach apparatus cart which would be fully loaded with a wide range of equipment, a small canon to fire “shotlines” or rescue lines toward the ship in distress, additional ropes, pulleys, a sand anchor to steady the cart once parked at the rescue site, a ‘faking box’ which kept the rescue lines free of tangles, shovels, and additional buoys as well as a variety of other gear. During a rescue mission, this cart loaded full of equipment would be pulled along the beach by the surfmen, who would then set up the equipment and begin their rescue mission.

Also on display is a rare example of a life car, a torpedo-shaped metal device that could hold up to seven passengers. The life car would be deployed using a heavy tow line and pulley. Once full, the life car would then be pulled back to shore. Because of their size and weight, life cars were not often used in North Carolina. A more commonly used lifesaving apparatus was the breeches buoy which consisted of a ring buoy with a trouser legs attached and connected to a system of ropes and pulleys. The person being rescued would put their legs through the trouser legs and keep the ring around their waste. The surfmen would then pull the person toward safety.

One of the few remaining life cars in existence today. After the widespread adoption of the breeches buoy for ship to shore rescues, life cars were still used to bring seriously injured sailors or small children to safety.

The most prominent item in the room is the 1911 Beebe-McClellan surfboat. The boat is made of white cedar wood and has special hatches to drain water from the inside. Surfboats were used when wrecks were beyond the reach of the shotlines and the surf cooperated. At 3,800 pounds empty, the surfboats also tested the physical strength and endurance of the surfmen. Like the beach apparatus carts, surfboats were pulled across the beach on carts by the surfmen, then manually rowed in high winds, heavy rains and pounding surf.

A simple quote from a long ago LSS Station keeper sums up the service’s mission very well. Displayed in slighltly different versions around the station exhibits, it simply says: “The book says ya gotta go out; it don’t say nothin’ ‘bout coming back”. 

To keep surfmen ready for this mission at all times, the LSS had a proscribed daily schedule for drills, equipment cleaning, maintenance, station upkeep, signaling practice and first aid training. The schedule was in effect when stations were staffed, which was originally from December through March. In the eastern U.S., stations would eventually be staffed for ten months, from August through May.

In this vintage photo, a U.S. Coast Guardsman wears a breeches buoy during a training drill. The breeches buoy was a very commonly used by surfmen during rescue operations. Photo: U.S. Coast Guard

Adjoining the 1874 station building is the Cook House, built in 1892. As was often the case at the time, kitchens were kept separate from the main living and working areas to mitigate the risk of fire. Today, the 1892 Cook House has displays on life saving station construction material and methods.

The LSS was never a stagnant organization as organizational change and technical innovation continued through the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Congress continued to expand the LSS’s budget, more stations were built, new rescue apparatus was fielded. Stations began receiving horses to pull the rescue equipment across the beaches and new surfboats equipped with motors.  

In 1911, a new and larger station building was erected at Chicamacomico, along with an expanded cook house. The new station layout had expanded space for the keeper’s office, sleeping quarters, and supply storage. Indoor plumbing and steam heating would later be installed (surely to the delight of the crew) along with a bathroom and a shower room. Today, most of these rooms house additional displays on the equipment, daily life, and daring rescues at Chicamacomico. 

The original main entrance to the 1911 Life-Saving Station building.

Climbing the ladder in the Surfmen’s Quarters Room leads to the third story watch tower where crew members kept a constant lookout over the ocean and the sound, tracking vessels plying the waterways and looking for signs of distress. From here, Surfman Leroy Midgett was standing watch on the afternoon of August 16, 1918, when he observed a large plume of water, followed by explosions about six miles to the southeast. He immediately notified the keeper, John Allen Midgett. The crew at Chicamacomico were about to embark on one of the greatest lifesaving rescues in United States history.

Surfman Midgett had spotted the British Tanker Mirlo, en route from New Orleans to England with 5,000 tons of gasoline and a crew of 51. At about 3:30 pm she was torpedoed by the German submarine U-117. Since America’s entry into World War I, German submarines patrolled the eastern seaboard to intercept Allied shipping bound for Europe. The North Carolina coast was especially favorable for submarine patrols as the Outer Banks were a natural maritime “intersection”. Ships traveling north would ride the Gulf Stream up the coast until the Outer Banks, before turning to the east for European ports.

Today’s view from the watch tower of the 1911 Life-Saving Station building, looking east toward the Atlantic Ocean, is different from what LSS Surfman Midgett saw while on watch the afternoon of August 18, 1918. Note the 1874 station building, cook house and cistern on the left.

The torpedo hit the Mirlo amidships. A series of resulting explosions eventually broke the ship apart. Gasoline poured into the water then ignited, trapping the wreckage in an inferno. The captain issued an order to abandon ship and the three available lifeboats were launched. Two lifeboats made it safely away from the Mirlo, but one overturned and six sailors clung to it for their lives.

Back on shore, Keeper John Midgett and his team needed several tries to launch the surfboat past the rough breakers crashing against the shore. Finally, they cleared the waves and headed for the burning remains of the Mirlo. Barrels filled with gasoline continued to explode, shooting burning gas into the sky, before it settled on the ocean surface, still aflame.  

Midgett and his crew encountered the first lifeboat with the British captain and 16 sailors aboard and directed the lifeboat to anchor off shore, rather than attempt to reach the beach on their own, as the breakers were too strong and the lifeboat would likely capsize. Midgett and his crew then continued toward the Mirlo encircling the wreckage in the fiery water.  They found an opening in the flames and were able to reach the capsized lifeboat. Singed by the flames, they rescued the six sailors who stayed alive by bobbing underwater to escape the heat and fires, emerging only for quick breaths of air.

Surfboat Number 1046, built in 1909 by the Bebe-McClellan Surfboat Company. This was the surfboat used by the Chicamacomico life savers during the Mirlo rescue.

Once the six sailors were safely on board, Midgett and his crew found the second, overcrowded lifeboat adrift and heading away from the shore.  They caught up to it, threw a tow line and proceeded to tow it back to the anchorage, where the Mirlo’s captain was still waiting.  Midgett then began relaying sailors into shore in the surfboat, where they were immediately taken by LSS surfmen back to the Chicamacomico station. By 9:00 PM, 42 sailors from the Mirlo had been rescued and safely brought ashore. Captain Midgett and his crew would receive decorations and awards from both the U.S. and British governments for their heroism.

Despite the repeated heroics of the LSS, the service was plagued with allegations of favoritism in the selection of keepers and surfmen.  Various proposals were made in Congress to move the LSS to another agency, such as the U.S. Navy. Ultimately, in 1915, Congress passed legislation merging the LSS with the Revenue Marine Service to form the U.S. Coast Guard. Civilian surfmen and keepers would now become military personnel, subject to military rules and regulations, but also receiving military pensions. In reality, the move changed little in the day to day lives of the lifesaving crew at Chicamacomico. They continued to train, drill, watch the shore and never failed to respond to a ship in distress.

Many members of the Midgett family served at Chicamacomico; a visitor to the area today quickly notices the prominence of the Midgett family name in the station’s history, as well as in the surrounding Outer Banks community. Adjoining the 1911 Station at Chicamacomico is the house of Keeper John Midgett’s brother Cornelius. He and is wife Daisy lived in the home for many years, before passing it on to their niece Wilma and her husband, who was also a Coast Guard officer stationed in the area in the 1940s. The house was moved to its current location in 2005 and is complete with furnished rooms and period pieces of the Midgett family.

The Midgett House provides a first hand look at early 20th Century life on the Outer Banks.

After World War II, the Coast Guard began to close the old life saving stations. The advent of the helicopter and other technologies began to change the nature of maritime rescues. The Chicamacomico station closed in 1954 and the land and buildings turned over to the National Park Service. In 1968, a group of Outer Banks residents purchased the land and buildings. Six years later, the Chicamacomico Historical Association was formed to continue the preservation and restoration of the site. The association continues to own and operate the site today, researching archives, curating displays, interpreting artifacts and preserving the history of the LSS for the 21st Century.

It is a history well worth preserving. In a little more than the 40 years of existence, the surfmen of the LSS, posted some impressive results, rescuing 177,286 imperiled sailors and passengers.  Because of these brave men, countless descendants of those rescued are with us today. But monuments and markers to the LSS are few. A visit to Chicamacomico honors the memory and sacrifices of those who knew they had to go out, also knowing they might not make it back.

* * *

Route Recon

The Chicamocomico Life-Saving Station is located on North Carolina Highway 12 at mile post 39.5 in Rodanthe, North Carolina. The address is 23645 NC Highway 12, Rodanthe, NC 27968.

Mess Call

Unfortunately, the cook’s houses at the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station are no longer serving up hearty fare for hungry surfmen (or visitors for that matter). Fortunately, Lisa’s Pizzeria is! This local favorite is a great stop for pizza, fresh salads, tasty sandwiches and Italian specialities. It is located south of the Chicamocomico Life-Saving Station at 24158 NC Highway 12, Rodanthe, NC 27968.



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