U.S. Life-Saving Station at Kitty Hawk, 1902

(Photo LOC ID - LC-DIG-ppprs-00600 DLC, Wilbur and Orville Wright Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.)

Legendary Legacy of Historic Heroes

With the shipwrecks came casualties, but also, many were rescued. Before the U.S. Coast Guard was formed there was the U.S. Life-Saving Service, and before that, on the Outer Banks at any rate, it was strictly a volunteer effort by selfless men who walked the beaches at night and watched for distressed ships. Though the government stepped in after 1844 with funding to provide surfboats and some equipment, the work was still done by community volunteers.

Finally, in 1871, the U.S. Life-Saving Service was established, and full-time paid crews manned new Life-Saving Stations. Then 44 years later, in 1915, the U.S. Life-Saving Service was merged with the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service to form the U.S. Coast Guard. But in those 44 years between 1871 to 1915, these brave men of the U.S. Life-Saving Service rescued over 177,000 people. Not all of them were on the Outer Banks of course, as the U.S.L.S.S. was a national service, as is the U.S. Coast Guard. Still, their record is nothing short of amazing, given the equipment they had at hand, and the often horrendous conditions they had to work under. They patrolled the beaches, sometimes on horseback, but usually on foot, no matter what the weather. In fact, the worst possible weather was their busiest time. Such was the nature of the work.

       "The Blue Book says we've got to go out and it doesn't say a damn thing about having to come back."
Patrick H. Etheridge, Keeper 1891-1909, Cape Hatteras Life-Saving Station
(speaking of the Regulations of the Life-Saving Service)

The thumbnail at left is a tiny clip from an 1879 chart showing Life-Saving Stations from Currituck south to Oregon Inlet. Not only is this an interesting look at the cartographer's craft of the day, but shows much detail of the land. It even marks a "Hotel" just north of Nags Head Life-Saving Station. [Note that the full-length chart is 2146x10,812 pixels (huge), file size 673Kb, even with excess areas cropped off] Easier viewing will be via this web page version. You may also download and view the entire image at once if you wish. .
1879 chart
from the Historical Map & Chart Collection of NOAA

Several of the original and later Life-Saving Station structures survive. Of those that were surplus, purchased and moved, at least two now house popular restaurants and others serve as residences or offices on the Outer Banks. At Cape Lookout, the original 1887 Life-Saving Station structure was rebuilt on its original site in 1916, just after the Life-Saving Service and Revenue Cutter Service were merged into the newly created U.S. Coast Guard. That structure still stands, and now serves as a field station for the N.C. Maritime Museum's Cape Lookout Studies. It is shown in this telephoto view from Cape Lookout Lighthouse at left, and above right, viewed from Cape Lookout Point with its watch tower still standing guard peering over the dunes.

Some did not survive the rage of the Atlantic, as was the case of the 1883 Ocracoke Life-Saving Station on the north end of Ocracoke at Hatteras Inlet. Its name changed when a new station was built in Ocracoke Village in 1904. The new station took the Ocracoke name, and the 1883 station became the Hatteras Inlet station. But in the mid 1950's a hurricane wiped out the 1883 structure. All that remains are the pilings seen in the photo at left. They are visible on the crossing on any Hatteras-Ocracoke Ferry, and from the Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry dock on the north end of Ocracoke Island. The station was replaced by one built on Hatteras Island on the north side of the inlet.

Left: Little Kinnakeet Lifesaving Station, photo circa 1890's.

Right: Little Kinnakeet CG Station, circa 1934.

(Archival photos from the National Park Service.)

Little Kinnakeet Life-Saving Station north of Avon.

Little Kinnakeet Life-Saving Station still stands on Hatteras Island. Both the 1874 and the later building of 1904 remain. Both are shown in black and white archival photos above on this page. The aerial photo at right is a NOAA image of Little Kinnakeet taken right after Hurricane Isabel. Like the better known Chicamacomico station, it was decommissioned by the U.S. Coast Guard in 1954 and transferred to the care of the National Park Service at Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

Little Kinnakeet is located north of Avon on the west side of NC 12, 2/10 mile north of mile marker 52. There is no sign marking the entrance to the dirt drive which accesses it, as is not open to the public while in the process of being restored. The drive is not very suitable for visitor traffic, and all buildings are inside a chain link fence. It is obvious the Park Service is not expecting people to come looking while restoration is underway. These photos show all there is to see until restoration is finished.

The upper right photos shows the 1874 structure with scaffolding, and work is obviously underway. Three views of the 1904 building are shown at the left. The lower left image shows the stacks of materials and a storage shed inside the fenced area. At right the name is still visible in the faded paint below the watch tower.

Update: December, 2009

Restoration work seems to be coming along very slowly, but visible evidence of progress could be seen in December, 2009. These photos tell the story of six years work, though it is not known what might have been accomplished on the interior of the structures.

Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station in Rodanthe

Chicamacomico Life-Saving
Station, 2004
The restored Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station is located 4/10 mile north of the Chicamacomico water tower in Rodanthe (at GPS coordinates N 35.59581   W 075.46657). The 1973 photo at right shows it at that time, abandoned and derelict more than one hundred years after Congress formed the U.S. Life-Saving Service. It was one of the first seven Life-Saving Stations built in North Carolina, along with Little Kinnakeet, Nags Head, Kitty Hawk, Bodie Island, Caffey's Inlet and Currituck Beach (then known as Jones Hill).

The restored site is now open to the public, shown in these photos as it appears in 2004. The original 1874 station building, and the later 1911 building with associated structures are all intact, making it one of the few, if not the only complete station of its era. The 1874 structure was used for a boathouse after the 1911 station was built, but the 1874 station is being restored to its original "gingerbread" glory. When finished, it should be the only one of its type in original configuration.

Restoration is being done through the efforts of The Chicamacomico Historical Association, who took on the task after the U.S. Coast Guard decommissioned the station in 1954 and turned it over to the National Park Service. The 1911 structure now serves as a museum, which the historical association opened in 1982. Many hands-on activities and interpretive sessions are regularly scheduled for visitors.

Inside the "museum" is a gift shop, but most of the space houses nice displays, many of which are pictured below. The second floor is full of exhibits, including a large display of photos and information about Chicamacomico and the life-saving service (pictured below). One of the first floor exhibits, also shown below, displays work by the women associated with the life-saving stations, wives and daughters of keepers, who provided an important support role.

Left: The stairway leading to the second floor of the "museum" (1911 structure), and a view from the second floor.

Top & center right: Two panoramic images showing a first floor display and a second floor display mentioned above.

Right: The rightmost heaviest) cannon is a line-throwing gun, and the left two cannons are Lyle guns.

Right: Second floor display room and ladder leading to the observation tower.
Above center: Two flare guns. The long barrel flare gun is for "color-coded sparks" for signaling, and the short barrel gun is for parachute flares.
Above far right: A "Faking Box" to pay out rope line from a Lyle gun, and a Breeches Buoy.

Visitors can climb the ladder to the observation tower of the 1911 station for a great view of the station and the surrounding area. The tower interior is pictured in the six photos below.
Right: Four views inside the observation tower, including a view of the 1874 station from the tower's east window.

Left: Upper & lower ladders to the observation tower, and a view from the tower looking down at the ladder through the floor hatch.
Restoration is nearing completion on the original Chicamacomico Station building from 1874, seen in the four photos at right and upper right. Inside are the restored surfboat used in the famous Mirlo rescue, a rescue cart, faking box, breeches buoy, Lyle gun, a one man rescue boat and other equipment which brings the restoration to life, as shown in the series of photos below.

Click any thumbnail for a larger view.
The Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station gives a wonderful view into the life and times of the surfmen whose hard work saved so many lives from the watery clutches of the Graveyard of the Atlantic. But you need to hear the stories of the rescues to understand what sort of bravery and commitment these gritty souls possessed. Daily life at the life-saving stations was not easy, and the work was even harder.

New Addition - October, 2009

Oregon Inlet Lifesaving Station on Pea Island at Oregon Inlet

The Oregon Inlet Lifesaving Station has received a long overdue facelift. In the Fall/Winter of 2008 there were signs of work being done on the seriously deteriorating historic structure that long lanquished in disrepair at the south end of the Herbert Bonner (Oregon Inlet) bridge. A subsequent visit in October, 2009 found the exterior of the structure beautifully restored to its previous wooden-shingled glory. It was removed from its original concrete foundation and raised by ten feet onto pilings. This will allow the shifting sands that threatened to swallow it to now flow under it instead of piling up against it as had been the case for many years.

The paved access drive leading to the building is 5-6 feet below present "ground" level of the structure, a consequence of these shifting sand dunes that is well illustrated in the left photo taken from the entrance drive level. With the inlet's relentless shift southward and the beach's continual march westward, the very ground the lifesaving station sits on is in jeopardy. (Read more on Oregon Inlet's historic southward shift here)

Though the exterior is reclaimed for now, nothing further will be done at the present. Use plans by the North Carolina Aquariums, to whom the site was given for administration, are on hold. They are awaiting the final decision of the state on what will happen with routing of the planned replacement for the Bonner Bridge. The building may even have to be moved, depending on the final bridge plans.

True stories of rescues, and the tale of a ghost ship are next.
Continue to Folklore and History - Page Six >

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Related Links -

Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station, National Park Service

Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station, official web site

Chicamacomico Life-Saving Drill Team

Little Kinnakeet Lifesaving Station, National Park Service

Little Kinnakeet Coast Guard Station, U.S. Coast Guard

Pea Island Life-Saving Service, circa 1890, U.S. Coast Guard

List of Historic Life-Saving Stations, U.S. Coast Guard

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