Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Pea Island Lifesavers

Background: Pea Island lifesaver surfman Lonnie Gray (rowing), Captain Richard Etheridge and crew

There are times I often think of this painting in terms of Playboy - the images may draw you in, but it's the articles that keep you engrossed - ;-)  In other words - to hell with the art, this painting is all about the stories. And this story of the Pea Island lifesavers is definitely one for the books. For those that are unaware of these legendary fella's, here's a brief synopsis of why the SOG wanted them included in the painting.

The Pea Island Life-Saving Station was a life-saving station on Pea Island, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It was the first life-saving station in the country to have an all-black crew, and it was the first in the nation to have a black man, Richard Etheridge, as commanding officer.

Richard Etheridge was born a slave on January 16, 1842, and like most Outer Bankers, learned to work the sea, fishing, piloting boats and combing the beach for the refuse of wrecks. Even though it was illegal to do so, his master also taught him to read and write.

During the Civil War, Richard Etheridge enlisted on August 28 and was assigned to the 36th United States Colored Troop. The 36th distinguished itself during the September, 1864 Battle of New Market Heights, Virginia when Union forces overran Lee's strong position and won an important victory on the road to taking the Confederate capital at Richmond. Etheridge was promoted to sergeant two days after the battle. At the War's close, Etheridge, now a Regimental Commissary Sergeant, and the black troops of the Army of the James were regrouped into the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry and sent to Texas. These units would become known as the “Buffalo Soldiers.” 
In December 1866, Etheridge left the service and returned to the Outer Banks, where he married. Etheridge made his living fishing and serving in the newly-formed Life-Saving Service, first at Oregon Inlet in 1875, then at Bodies Island. A series of highly publicized maritime disasters off the North Carolina coast lead to the annexation of the LSS into the Navy. In two months, 188 lives and more than a half million dollars in property was lost off the Outer Banks, within sight and with little or inexpert assistance from the lifesavers on shore. In 1879, the commander of the Pea Island station (called a “keeper”) was a white man and he had a crew of both white and black men. A rescue effort in November 1879 was bungled, and the keeper and some of the crew were held responsible. The white keeper was fired, and Richard Etheridge, one of the best surfmen on the North Carolina coast was appointed in his place.

Richard Etheridge was the first African American to hold the rank of keeper of a life-saving station. This meant that, under the racial standards of the times, the entire crew under his command would have to be black. Although other black men had served as surfmen at Pea Island and other stations, Pea Island Station came to be manned entirely by a black keeper and crew. The other LSS stations, in North Carolina as well as throughout the nation, would be manned and run by whites. Five months after Etheridge took charge, arsonists burnt the station to the ground.
Given the scrutiny he and his men were under, Etheridge knew that the slightest error could result in his or one of his crewmen's dismissal, that inadequacies, no matter how small, could result in the reinstatement of a white keeper and crew. So he ran the station with military ardor. All of his vigorous and exacting preparation paid off on the terrible night of October 11, 1896 when the schooner "E.S. Newman" grounded south of the station.

The captain of the vessel had his wife and three-year old daughter on board when it was driven ashore during a hurricane on October 11, 1896. The storm was so bad that Keeper Etheridge had suspended beach patrols. Still, from the station, a surfman, Theodore Meekins, thought he saw a distress signal, and fired off a Coston flare to see if there would be a response. Meekins and Etheridge watched carefully, then saw the schooner acknowledge with a flare of her own.

The Pea Island crew with the help of a mule team then pulled the beach card with the rescue equipment and surfboat along the beach towards where the distress signal had been seen. Huge waves washing ashore made this especially difficult. Finally, when the crew arrived at the scene of the wreck, they found that the wave conditions were so great that the surfboat could not be launched, nor could a breaches buoy be used because the beach was so inundated by waves that the anchor for the buoy line could not be placed in the sand. Two surfmen volunteered to swim out in the waves to attempt to reach the wreck. They eventually did reach the schooner and managed to heave a line aboard. Nine times the surfmen went into the water and one by one the passengers and crew were all rescued, starting with the captain’s three-year old son. According to local lore, Meekins, who was reputedly the best swimmer of the group, made every voyage out to the Newman.
In the following days, the Newman’s captain searched for and found the piece of the side that held the vessel's name and donated it to the crew as an offering of his thanks. For a century, this would be the only award the Pea Island crew received for their efforts. The 1896 Pea Island crew voted to give the wooden sideboard of the Newman to Theodore Meekins, the young surfman who first spotted the distress signal and who swam out to the wreck several times during the rescue. (Fifth from left) Meekins took the board to his farm on Roanoke Island and nailed it to the top of his barn. He served at Pea Island for 21 more years, until his death in 1917, when, while boating home on leave, a storm came up at Oregon Inlet, and he drowned trying to swim to shore.

Etheridge served as the keeper at Pea Island for twenty years until his death In January 1900. Pea Island continued to be manned by an all-black crew through the Second World War. After the war, the station was decommissioned. One of the last surviving surfmen to serve at the station, William Charles Bowser, died at age 91 on June 28, 2006. Herbert Collins, who served in the 1940s and put the locks on the station when it was closed, died Sunday, March 14, 2010. In 1996, the Coast Guard awarded the Gold Life-Saving Medal posthumously to the keeper and crew of the Pea Island station for the rescue of the people of the E.S. Newman.

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