The Life-Saving Stations are tangible evidence of the influence of the U.S. Life-Saving Service, and later the U.S. Coast Guard, on the history of the Outer Banks. But none of it would have been possible without the people, the men who performed heroic, and sometimes super-human feats to save sailors and passengers from certain death. These are the true legends, and their stories are the true fabric that makes the folklore of this place so special.

Two Tales of Bravery from the U.S. Life-Saving Service

A barkentine of the era
Library of Congress (LC-D4-5568,
Detroit Publishing Co. Photograph Collection)
December 22, 1884, the barkentine Ephraim Williams
(gleaned from a U.S. Coast Guard narrative)
      The Ephraim Williams out of Providence, RI, had become waterlogged and damaged in heavy weather on Dec.18, 1884, north of Frying Pan Shoals off Cape Fear. She drifted helplessly north until Dec. 21, when she tried to anchor near Cape Hatteras to avoid drifting into the shoals. The ship's anchor dragged until near dark, when it finally caught bottom. Though she had been spotted by three stations - Cape Hatteras, Creed's Hill and Durant's, conditions were too bad for a surfboat. The ship was not sinking, and had not signaled for help, so the three stations, along with the Big Kinnakeet crew kept vigil all that night, still with no signs from the ship. At daybreak on the 22nd they discovered the ship had drifted northward to near Big Kinnakeet station. In spite of a sleepless night of vigil they prepared for a rescue should the ship send signal.
      About 10:30 a.m. the ship ran up a signal flag, and the Cape Hatteras station crew, assisted by Keeper Etheridge from Creed's Hill station, set out in their surfboat, with only cork belts and their own grit to save them from drowning should their surfboat capsize. The other crews knew it was hopeless, sure the surfboat could not make it over the treacherous outer sandbar with the sea conditions that existed that day. But luck and skill prevailed, and the small boat somehow made it across. Still they had several miles to row to reach the ship. Encouraged by the success of the Cape Hatteras crew, the Big Kinnakeet crew set out in their surfboat, but could not manage the crossing of the outer sandbar. Disheartened, they could only turn back and hope the Cape Hatteras crew could manage alone.
     Two exhausting hours later they reached the Ephraim Williams, but could not pull along side because of the seas. By means of a rope, they eventually managed to move close enough to rescue the ship's crew of nine, who had been battered for over ninety hours. The surfboat, with its sixteen cold, wet and exhausted passengers was finally rowed back to shore. For their skill and bravery, the crew was awarded the Gold Life-Saving medal.
      The honored Cape Hatteras crew list reads: Keeper Benjamin B. Dailey, Keeper Patrick H. Ethridge (keeper of the Creed's Hill station, filling in for an absent crewman), Isasc L. Jennett, Thomas Gray, John H. Midgett, Jabez B. Jennett, and Charles Fulcher.

February 10, 1905, the three-masted schooner Sarah D. J. Rawson
(gleaned from a U.S. Coast Guard narrative)
     When the Sarah D. J. Rawson stranded on Lookout Shoals in a gale on the 9th of February, 1905, she immediately began breaking apart. Battered by waves breaking over the ship lying on her side, the crew could only cling to the highest parts and wait, hoping to be discovered and saved. The ocean was sheathed in fog that day, and even though the watch at Cape Lookout Life-Saving Station kept a keen eye to the sea, the ship was hidden from view. As fate would have it, Keeper William H.Gaskill took the glasses during the noon watch change, and spotted only the tip of the spars through the thick soup, some nine miles away. Knowing nearly from the bearing that the ship must be on the shoals, he called up the surfmen to man the boat. Most of the crew had been ill with the flu, but every man turned out for his duty in the icy wet chill that would be their company for longer than they could have imagined.
     By 4:00 p.m. the rescuers reached the wreckage, and found the ship ringed with debris. Parts of the ship and its deck-cargo of lumber lunged and crashed all about it on the waves like a gauntlet of battering rams. The surfboat could not get near enough to be of any use, or to even heave a line. They could do nothing as darkness set in, so they anchored the surfboat and kept vigil, in hopes they could pull survivors from the sea should the ship come completely apart in the night. They fended off ship's debris that threatened to batter their surfboat, but kept station. The weather worsened about midnight, and turned colder. Though wet, cold, hungry and exhausted, the crew waited out the night tossed about in the raging storm in the little surfboat.
     At daybreak of the 10th they could see the ship's crew still clinging to their pitiful wreckage. But the seas had not subsided, and they still could not get close enough to affect a rescue. Keeper Gaskill determined to wait for the tide to change, hoping to find a better sea. His judgment proved right, and they were finally able to skillfully dodge the flotsam to get within range to throw a line to the wreck. One by one the survivors were pulled through the sea to the lifeboat at the end of a rope. In spite of vicious winter wind, being ill and soaked to the bone, and without food or rest for some 28 hours in an open boat, the unflinching surfmen of Cape Lookout Life-Saving Station successfully saved the six crewmen of that doomed ship.
      The honored crew receiving the Gold Life-Saving Medal for this rescue were: Keeper William H. Gaskill, Kilby Guthrie, Walter M. Yeomans, Joseph L. Lewis, John E. Kirkman, Tyre Moore, John A. Guthrie, Calupt T. Jarvis, and James W. Fulcher.

Other Tales of the Sea and Sand

These were but two of the many enthralling tales of true courage played out by the brave men of the U.S. Life-Saving Service, and later, the U.S. Coast Guard life-saving stations. But these were not the only stories that came from the dire consequences of tangling with the "Graveyard of the Atlantic", or with piratical crews.

Take for instance the tale of the flaming ship of Ocracoke, as relayed in the book of the same name by Charles Harry Whedbee. The tale is set more than two hundred years past, when Portsmouth Village on Core Banks was a thriving town across Ocracoke Inlet from the current Ocracoke Village, which was in that day known as Pilot Town. This inlet was then the main passage for sailing ships entering the sounds of North Carolina to reach the mainland river ports.

As the tale goes, a shipload of immigrants arrived from Europe, and their ship anchored outside the inlet so the tired passengers could come ashore at Portsmouth Village for the day. Later they were to transfer to smaller vessels for their trip inland to their destination ports. Fearful of leaving their valuables aboard ship unguarded, they chose to bring them along. But when the captain saw what they carried as they waited on deck to board the shore boats, his larcenous nature took the better of him. He quickly hatched a plan with his mates and told the passengers there was a problem and they would have to wait until the next day to go ashore.

That night, which happened to be the first new moon in September, the crew murdered every passenger, ransacked their belongings, and stole all their valuables. Then they set the ships sails, turned her out to sea, and set the deck afire to add credence to their woeful tale of disaster aboard ship to cover their crime. But as the captain and crew fled to shore in their longboat, they were aghast to discover the ship had turned and was bearing down on them at full speed amidst mournful wails coming from below decks. Their efforts to flee failed, and they and their boat were rolled beneath the ships keel. Then it is told the crewless ship turned and sailed back out to sea, sails still aflame, and eerie voices still crying out from the ships hold.

To this day it is said that every September, with the new moon, the ghost ship returns to make its flaming run outside Ocracoke Inlet. Thus goes but one of the tales you can find and read about based on the folklore of the Outer Banks.

Some books by Charles H. Whedbee
  • The Flaming Ship of Ocracoke and Other Tales of the Outer Banks
  • Blackbeard's Cup and Stories of the Outer Banks
  • Legends of the Outer Banks and Tar Heel Tidewater
  • Outer Banks Tales to Remember

Indeed there are many tales told about the Outer Banks, and not all of them ghostly in nature. There are tales of great fish, and tales of lost love, and a bit of everything in between. The Outer Banks certainly has more than its share. Where did the name "Jockey's Ridge" originate, or the name "Nag's Head"? What is the true origin of the wild ponies along the Outer Banks? How did the "Mother Vineyard" of Roanoke Island get its name?

The Lost Colony and Fort Raleigh

One of the most researched, yet still unanswered mysteries from the beginnings of written history of the Outer Banks begs to this very day for an answer. What happened to the "Lost Colony" of settlers on Roanoke Island? The Fort Raleigh National Historic Site is located on the northern tip of Roanoke Island. The site features what is said to be the remains of the earthen fortification used by the doomed colonists.

Adjacent to the site is the Lost Colony Outdoor Drama amphitheater. Jockey's Ridge is visible across the sound from the amphitheater, and from any place along the shore which can be reached through the trees at the Fort Raleigh site. One might wonder what the colonists though of the huge sand dune across the water from the lush green island where they were attempting to make a new settlement. Were they curious about it? Did they take a canoe or rowboat across to see it? We will likely never know.

Wild Horses of the Outer Banks

Wild horses have always been a part of the Outer Banks and its folklore. At one time there were thousands of wild horses roaming freely all along the Outer Banks, from Shackleford Banks and Core Banks all the way up to Currituck Banks. In the 18th and 19th centuries, and on into the early and mid 20th century, those who lived on the Outer Banks often rounded up these wild horses and tamed or sold them. One legend says that Jockey's Ridge was named such because people used the sand dune as a vantage point to watch horse races which circled the dune.

Another legend says the name Nags Head supposedly came from scoundrels that in the 1700's would tie a lantern to a horses neck and walk it up and down the beach at night. Merchant ships would mistake the light as coming from another ship and change course toward it, unwittingly running aground and providing "pirated" cargo, or perhaps "salvaged" cargo, depending upon your perspective. Sometimes the lifesaving station beach patrols would ride horses on their watch rounds. In the 1950's, Ocracoke had the first mounted Boy Scout Troop in the country. They rode tamed "Ocracoke Ponies", as the wild horses on Ocracoke were popularly called.

The horses themselves are believed to be descended from Spanish mustangs which swam ashore when early Spanish explorers shipwrecked, or had to abandon their cargo and release their animals in order to repair damaged ships. This very scenario is part of a tale which says that Sir Richard Grenville, on a supply expedition for the "Lost Colony" at Roanoke Island, ran aground near Ocracoke, and may have released livestock he was carrying for the colony, including Spanish horses, in order to facilitate repairs. There were hundreds of opportunities for this to happen all along the "Graveyard of the Atlantic" for at least 400 years.

For more about these wild horses, which still run wild on Shackleford Banks, and north of Corolla, go to Wild Horses of the Outer Banks.

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Related Links -

Rescue of the three-masted schooner Sarah D. J. Rawson

Rescue of the barkentine Ephraim Williams

Fort Raleigh National Historic Site

Has Fort Raleigh Been Found?

Learn all about the
Wild Horses of Corolla


of the
Wild Horses of Corolla in the
Wild Horses Gallery

Copyright © 2003 Fred Hurteau           * Copyright information and image use policy *

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