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Fire on the Beach: Recovering the Lost Story of Richard Etheridge and the Pea Island Lifesavers

Fire on the Beach: Recovering the Lost Story of Richard Etheridge and the Pea Island Lifesavers

by David Wright

Fire on the Beach recovers a lost gem of American history. It tells the story of the U.S. Life-Saving Service, formed in 1871 to assure the



Fire on the Beach recovers a lost gem of American history. It tells the story of the U.S. Life-Saving Service, formed in 1871 to assure the safe passage of American and international shipping and to save lives and salvage cargo. A century ago, the adventures of the now-forgotten "surfmen" who, in crews of seven, bore the brunt of this dangerous but vital duty filled the pages of popular reading material, from Harper's to the Baltimore Sun and New York Herald. Station 17, located on the desolate beaches of Pea Island, North Carolina, housed one such unit, and Richard Etheridge -- the only black man to lead a lifesaving crew -- was its captain.
A former slave and Civil War veteran, Etheridge recruited and trained a crew of African- Americans, forming the only all-black station in the nation. Although civilian attitudes toward Etheridge and his men ranged from curiosity to outrage, they figured among the most courageous surfmen in the service, performing many daring rescues. From 1880 to the closing of the station in 1947, the Pea Island crew saved scores of men, women, and children who, under other circumstances, would have considered the hands of those reaching out to help them to be of the wrong race. In 1896, when the three-masted schooner E. S. Newman beached during a hurricane, Etheridge and his men accomplished one of the most daring rescues in the annals of the Life-Saving Service. The violent conditions had rendered their equipment useless. Undaunted, the surfmen swam out to the wreck, making nine trips in all, and saved the entire crew. This incredible feat went unrecognized until 1996, when the Coast Guard posthumously awarded the crew the Gold Life-Saving Medal.
The authors depict the lives of Etheridge and his crew against the backdrop of late-nineteenth-century America -- the horrors of the Civil War, the hopefulness of Reconstruction, and the long slide toward Plessy v. Ferguson that followed. Full of exploits and heroics, Fire on the Beach, like the movie Glory, illustrates yet another example of the little-known but outstanding contributions of a remarkable group of African-Americans to our country's history.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
This true-life story is akin to Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm (LJ 5/15/97), except that the storm here is on shore as well. The story roils with the terrifying racism of slavery's aftermath, as Wright (English, Univ. of Illinois) and Zoby (Caspar Coll.) indicate in this story of the life and times of Richard Etheridge (1842-1900). Born a slave, Etheridge served in the U.S. Colored Troops in the Civil War and in 1880 became captain of Station 17 and the only black man to lead a crew in the U.S. Life-Saving Service (LSS), the forerunner of the Coast Guard. Based at Pea Island, NC, Etheridge and his all-black crew braved the terrors of post-Reconstruction white supremacy and segregation to do rescue duty that, not until 1996, 100 years after the fact, brought them a Gold Life-Saving Medal, the Coast Guard's highest peacetime honor. More than one man's story, this mix of personal and institutional biography brings to life the daily challenges and triumphs of blacks pushed aside, but no less valuable, in a New South. For collections on maritime, local, and African American history. Thomas J. Davis, Arizona State Univ., Tempe Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A jumbled and speculative—but also affecting—biography of the leader of the only all-black unit of the US Life-Saving Service, stationed at Pea Island, North Carolina, in the final decades of the 19th century. Wright (English/Univ. of Illinois) and Zoby (English/Caspar Coll.) faced a daunting task—to chart the life of Etheridge, born a slave on January 16, 1842. As the authors note, the documentary record for slaves is slender even in the best of circumstances, and so they were forced to paint much historical background and give Etheridge's story a colorful context, if not a sharp focus. And so they provide 100 pages of Civil War history, chronicling the exploits of Etheridge's "African Brigade" (he enlisted in August 1863) but not of Etheridge himself, for his personal experiences are largely unknown. At times this material (published elsewhere in much detail) is superfluous. Once the war ends, however, and Etheridge returns to the Outer Banks, the authors are on firmer historical ground. The characteristic stormy weather in the region caused many shipwrecks, so between 1873 and 1874 the federal government established stations for the Life-Saving Service (or LSS—the agency that would one day be replaced by the Coast Guard). Etheridge, who had distinguished himself as an LSS surfman, earned an appointment as keeper of Station 17 in 1880. The whites on the crew promptly quit, so (with approval from his superiors) he appointed an all-black crew that became exemplary—largely due to Etheridge's devotion to duty, his strict schedule of drills, and the enormous respect he enjoyed along the coast. Wright and Zoby are at their best when narrating some the excitingrescues—the one in the prologue is a gem of adventure-writing. But the story lacks a compelling organization, and the narrative occasionally drifts like flotsam. And the lack of end- or footnotes will retard subsequent scholarship. At times clumsy, but nonetheless an important story of perseverance in the face of natural disasters and unspeakable racism.
From the Publisher
"The riveting, previously untold story of the extraordinary heroism of former slaves and freedmen who became lifesavers on the Outer Banks of North Carolina... battling prejudice as well as the great storms that made these barrier islands 'The Graveyard of the Atlantic.'"—St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Best Books of 2001

"Far more than the story of heroic surfmen....A rich social history of 19th century race relations mirrored in the life of a remarkable African American....A compelling read about heroes and scoundrels, seafarers and soldiers...and prejudice towards those who strove to prove themselves equals."—The Virginian-Pilot

"Explore[s] not only the life-saving record of the Pea Island crew, but also the discrimination that burdened the crew members' lives and the social history of those times."—The Richmond Times-Dispatch

"Adds significantly to our understanding of the many essential ways in which African-Americans have served their country."—The Washington Post Book World

"Reads more like a novel than a work of history."—The News and Observer

"Readers who enjoy true-life adventures like Isaac's Storm should find it enthralling."—Wilmington Star-News

"Social history at its readable best."—The Memphis Flyer

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In the early-morning hours of October 5, 1881, William B. Daniel, the number three surfman from Life-Saving Station 17, on Pea Island, North Carolina, passed the cragged shapes of several old shipwrecks as he walked the south patrol. Just over the dunes from the station, broken seas ripped across the odd, cylindrical boilers of the sunken federal transport Oriental, a bearing Daniel took each night before setting off into darkness.

This stretch of coast was a graveyard for many ships and their crews. One-half mile away, the brig Star. Two hundred yards farther, an unknown wreck that had been ashore here as long as anyone could remember. Another one hundred fifty yards, the brig Parry. And a little farther still, where the rough surf washed over the beach, the schooner M&E Henderson. Surfman Daniel knew these and many more. Since his boyhood, he had heard the stories about this coast and its ghost fleet.

While most of the nation mourned President Garfield's death, surfmen along the Sand Banks of North Carolina were monitoring a rainy front with severe surf and fresh northeast winds. William Daniel had been assigned the 3 A.M. to sunrise beat, the final patrol of the night. Patrolling the beach was exhausting, a cryptic combination of darkness and sound, an often frightening trek, though no surfman worth his salt would admit it. A year before, directives had come down from headquarters in Washington that surfmen could not carry lighted lanterns on patrol, as ships at sea might mistake the beam for one of a ship in deep water and be drawn into the breakers. Using only their knowledge of beaches and storms and their sense of duty to illuminate the way, surfmen went each night into the darkness.

When a surfman returned from his six-mile march, he got whatever sleep he could, then a day of exhaustive drilling and hard work waited. Such was the life of a surfman. Daniel, with two years' experience, knew what to expect. But on this night in early October, the weather was out of the ordinary. Even from within the station's walls, the men could hear the terrific breakers detonating offshore, roaring up the slope of the beach, then hissing as they retreated back into the sea. Winds blazed across the sands, lifting bits of shell and grit into the air and giving the entire beachfront a fuzzy appearance. Through the wind and waves the crews of the ghost ships seemed to be crying their tales of doom to the living.

Not one month before, Surfman Daniel had drawn the same patrol in a storm. In the station's log, Keeper Etheridge had called the weather "smoky" and observed the dramatic shift as a strong low-pressure system had descended on the Banks. A rainy front with southeast winds had persisted for several days, then changed over to rough surf and fresh northeast winds. Surfman Daniel had trekked southward to New Inlet, where he found great breakers burying under a torrent of seawater the old wrecks he used for reference. The waves rushing over the beach had nearly knocked him off his feet. This storm was turning out to be equally frightening.

With winds blasting at his back, almost shepherding him down the coast, Daniel reached New Inlet, just over two miles away, by 4:30 A.M. He looked south, but could only see the tide racing up the beach and the wind-whipped spindrift rolling into the dunes like tumbleweed. The inlet had been shoaling up for years, and he wondered if this storm would close it for good or open a deeper passage like the one at Hatteras. Through the sheets of rain and banks of fog, he did not see anyone on the opposite shore.

Normally, a patrolman would meet his neighbor from the adjacent station and exchange a stamped badge to prove to the keeper that the entire beat had been covered. Because the Outer Banks were broken by several inlets, many stations were cut off from their neighbors. To the north of Station 17, surfmen from Station 16 were cut off from their northern counterparts by swift, deep currents of Oregon Inlet. The two stations, Pea Island and Oregon Inlet, were stranded together on a tiny strip of barrier island. Men from each met halfway on patrols, worked in unison during shipwrecks, and shared rides back and forth to Roanoke Island. On the other end of the patrol, a time clock stood at the tip of the sandy bight separating them from the opposite shore. Men would turn a key in the clock, the keeper checking it daily to guarantee fastidiousness.

The southern patrol from Pea Island wasn't always a solitary march. Some nights, the man from Chicamacomico, Station 18, would arrive at New Inlet at about the same time. Though the sound of the breakers made it too noisy to communicate, Daniel might raise an arm to let the other man know all was well. Then each man would turn his key in the clock and head back, eyes fixed on the sea. Yet much more than the waters of New Inlet separated the men from those on the opposite bank. On this night, nobody appeared on the far bank of New Inlet. It was worth noting, but probably nothing out of the ordinary.

Over a hundred years later, it's difficult for present-day readers to visualize the patrolmen of the Life-Saving Service (LSS), the forerunner of the modern Coast Guard, setting off to cover the beaches under a wash of stars. Their methods of launching light boats into hurricane-driven seas or using stout cannons to fire rescue lines out to stranded schooners seem, today, a manifestation of Victorian romanticism. Yet in the late nineteenth century, keepers and surfmen were the guardians of thousands of miles of shoreline and hundreds of coastwise ships. Like clockwork, surfmen walked our coasts each night and in the foulest weather, trekking north or south to meet the patrolman from the neighboring station. These men were the only hope a stranded crew had when their ship struck the shoals.

The Life-Saving Service was set up in the maritime tradition of nightly watches, rotating duty, and adherence to strict codes. The men who worked in the stations that dotted the coasts experienced a fellowship with their seagoing counterparts that has all but vanished today. A system of coded flags allowed surfmen to communicate with passing ships. In this manner, each station could relay important information from shore -- such as latitude and longitude coordinates and storm warnings -- to the bridge of a cruising vessel. Each station was under the supervision of a station keeper, usually referred to as "Cap'n" by his crew of six surfmen. The keeper, recommended and reviewed by a government inspector, hired and trained crews, which, without exception, were local men, men who could keep stroke with an oar, knew the local currents, and had the sort of disposition that allowed for high risks at low pay. The stations were organized into regional districts, with North Carolina and three outposts in Virginia composing the Sixth District.

As in duty aboard a schooner or whaling vessel, each crewman was assigned a nightly watch, but instead of walking the decks and peering over the railings into the dark sea, coastal surfmen trudged over the dark beaches and looked seaward for ships in distress. While most of the nation slept, the service boasted in its annual reports, these men faced "all natural vicissitudes, all hardships, all exposure known between the autumnal and vernal equinoxes, bitter cold, rain in torrents, cutting sleet, blinding flights of sand and spray..." Over the LSS's history, coastal lifesavers often went beyond duty and performed rescues that, today, are hardly fathomable. However, in its early years, incompetence, particularly in its North Carolina stations, marred the efficacy and reputation of the Life-Saving Service -- to the degree that its future was imperiled.

In January of 1880, African-American Richard Etheridge was appointed to replace the ousted keeper of Station 17, who, like many Outer Banks keepers, had failed to respond to a ship in distress. Etheridge recruited and trained a crew of black surfmen, forming the only all-black station in the entire LSS. But vestiges of the Civil War still very much influenced daily life. Already, veterans from the North were traveling to battlegrounds in North Carolina where they could reflect on the war and pay tribute to their fallen friends. For Southerners, memories of the war brought pain -- lost comrades, fallen heroes, a vanquished way of life. The postbellum South was a place where previous animosities died slowly. To some Outer Bankers, the Pea Island crew echoed all of those losses.

Depending on who was asked along the Banks, Richard Etheridge and his "colored crew" were a curiosity, a lark, or an outrage. Before Etheridge had hired them on at Pea Island, the best a black surfman could hope for, whatever his experience with the sea, was the lowest-ranking position at a station, as the number six man or as a substitute. Isolated from the rest of the crew, he'd be expected to cook, to do menial tasks such as cleaning the galley or tending the station's ponies, if they had any -- that is, except when a ship came ashore. Then, the black surfmen would be right there in the surfboat with the others, stroking out to a wreck in mast-high seas. They wanted to be there, despite the daily humiliations. It was the reason that they, like all good lifesavers, joined the service. Now, at Pea Island, African-American surfmen could aspire to more.

On the same night in October 1881, Benjamin O'Neal watched the storm take shape from the window of the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station, seven miles south of Pea Island. He saw the stars vanish one by one from the heavens and a thick bank of clouds sweep up from Hatteras. As a substitute, filling in for number one surfman Israel B. Midgett, who was at home sick, O'Neal had drawn the last watch of the night, from 3 A.M. to sunrise. O'Neal had grown up on this stretch of North Carolina coast, fishing when the immense schools of mullet, blues, and shad blackened the waters, and "wrecking" when heaps of lumber and cargo tumbled ashore after storms. In small spritsail skiffs, he trapped terrapin and gathered shellfish with his uncles, always keeping a watchful eye on the long horizon. He was all too familiar with the sea's sudden changes, and he could tell by the way the clouds assembled in the south that the storm would soon be over the beaches of Chicamacomico. Just his luck.

In heavy oilskins and weatherproof boots, O'Neal stepped out into the storm. On the winding footpath that led to the sea, O'Neal met an approaching figure: Surfman James Meekins, returning from the northern beat. Meekins slipped his leather satchel from his shoulder and handed it to O'Neal, then continued slack-shouldered toward the station.

With a rising wind in his face, O'Neal crossed a few hummocks and paused to survey the Atlantic. Great walls of white surge were rolling onto shore, backlashing and kicking up spray as they struck the beachfront. The thick and misty weather made it impossible for the patrolman to see the breakers, but he could hear them rumbling, building out in the darkness. A scent accompanies a coming gale, and O'Neal had known it since childhood: the briny odor of fresh seas mingling with the hint of seaweed, wet wood, and sweet sea grass.

He walked along the high-water mark, slogging over driftwood, windrows of seaweed, and nests of spindrift that had blown in from the raging ocean. Occasionally, the seas would catch him off guard, racing up past the wrackline, dousing his pants and sluicing into his boots. He soon found himself walking up near the cliffed dunes, the storm surge intensifying with each oncoming wave. From the north, the winds continued to whip the surf into a frenzy. Salt water and blowing sand stung his eyes and forced him to walk with his head down, chin tucked into his jacket. As it passed over the hummocks and dunes, the wind began an eerie chorus of moans or whistled through old shipwrecks abandoned on the beach.

He counted the minutes remaining in his patrol, anxious to be back in his bunk at the station. Just then, a wave rushed up his leg and he felt something collide sharply against his shin. Expecting to find a length of driftwood, he reached down and, to his astonishment, found a piece of ice the size of a dinner plate. The Banks, owing to its proximity to the warm Gulf Stream, rarely experience a freeze, and the fall of 1881 had yet to see temperatures even approaching the freezing mark. In fact, the water temperature usually stood above fifty degrees at that time of the year.

His mind raced. He looked out into the breakers, but saw nothing. Stumbling north, he continued to come across more and more fragments of ice, then fresh planking, a bucket, and several broken barrels. Soon, out on the outer bar, approximately three hundred yards from where he stood, O'Neal made out the faint outline of a schooner grounded head-on toward the beach. Beneath the roar of the sea, he could hear her bell ringing and ringing. She was still together, but swaying and pounding in the gale.

Before dashing back to his station for help, the shaken patrolman rummaged through his satchel for a Coston flare. The first refused to burn. He hurried to find another. Once lit, its red bloom illuminated the surf. From the deck of the schooner, a faint light flickered in response. He turned and fled headlong toward the station. Ship ashore! There was a ship ashore!

During the Age of Sail, the ocean off the Outer Banks was known throughout the world as both beautiful and unforgiving. Still today, the dark, looming shapes below the surface are testimony to the hundreds of vessels that have wrecked off North Carolina, many taking entire crews with them. Some 650 ships are known to have been lost off the Outer Banks, and mariners rightly came to call the area "the Graveyard of the Atlantic."

Modern maps that depict the location of shipwrecks are busy with information. The entire 180-mile stretch of windswept barrier islands as it arches away from the mainland like an arm bent at the elbow is littered with sunkers. While it is hard to find a single location where shipwrecks did not occur on the Tar Heel coast, it's clear that the forty-five-mile span from Oregon Inlet to the horn at Cape Hatteras claimed the most vessels. Here, the frigid, southward-flowing Labrador currents collide with the tepid, north-flowing Gulf Stream, forming hidden shoals where depths can go from 125 fathoms to 2 in just a few yards.

Since Colonial times, mariners have taken advantage of the prevailing currents to dramatically reduce their travel time, and the shipping lanes off the Outer Banks became the supply lines for the United States. In the heyday of American shipping, a spectator could watch from the beaches as many as one hundred vessels tacking about, maintaining a holding pattern until conditions permitted them to clear Cape Hatteras. The area became the most dreaded on the Atlantic coast.

Weather forecasting in the 1800s was a vague and mysterious science, and most shellbacks thought of storms as unavoidable hazards that, like salted beef and sea biscuits, came with the profession. Hurricanes and nor'easters could rise up from the Atlantic with no warning, stunning and destroying whole fleets at once. To the north, mariners could anchor

and ride out the gales in the relative safety of Chesapeake Bay. Likewise, to the south, sea-battered ships could limp into the deepwater ports of Charleston and Savannah for a certain degree of safety.

Ships caught off the Outer Banks had few alternatives. Captains would just reef their sails and hunker down or drop both anchors and hope they wouldn't drag or part lines -- the idea being simply to outlast the storm. Many failed to do so. Adrift in these enormous seas, ships would be driven ashore and dashed to bits on the shoals. Like iron shavings to a magnet, vessels seemed to stack up on this coast in each storm. In October 1806, surveyor and scientist William Tatham reported the macabre effects of a single hurricane. "Such was the scene of distress," he wrote, "that we lay on the oars and counted." The wrecked hulls and twisted masts of no less than thirty-one ships lay foundered off Hatteras and Ocracoke Inlets.

The federal government constructed four lighthouses to beacon this coast and aid navigation -- inadequate protection for the volume of maritime traffic. With so much destruction, the government was relatively slow to create a system of coastal lifesaving. The outbreak of the Civil War delayed efforts, but as lives and valuable cargoes continued to be lost in staggering numbers, Congress finally understood that the nation couldn't prosper with its fleet grounded on shoals and pitched on beaches. A slow trickle of funds became available, and from them emerged the United States Life-Saving Service. By drawing keepers and crews from local communities, the LSS had the appearance and luster of communal pride, not just another gaffe and abuse of the Reconstruction Era.

On October 5, 1881, at the time of Daniel's and O'Neal's patrols, 189 Life-Saving Stations dotted the American coastline. These lonely outposts were situated on the most wretched stretches of shore from Maine to Florida, as well as along the Great Lakes. Even as far away as the Pacific coast, lifesaving stations kept watch over the busy sea. Organized in 1871, the LSS began as a tiny, underfunded branch of the already existing Revenue Marine Service, in the Treasury Department.

During these first years, a scent of doom tainted the service, with its keepers and surfmen known more for their foibles and follies than their rescues. The Huron and Metropolis disasters, two of the worst in maritime history, occurred off the Outer Banks in the 1870s, making headlines that horrified Americans from coast to coast. There were tales of stations being padlocked and off-limits to fishermen just yards from a ship in distress, of surfmen capsizing their lifeboat and drowning along with the mariners they had come to rescue, of lifesavers rifling through the pockets of victims washed ashore.

Popular magazines such as Harper's and Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper blasted the Life-Saving Service, using the North Carolina incompetence to lobby that the entire operation be turned over to the navy. "[T]he lifesaving stations there [in North Carolina] are scarcely able to rescue the crew of a fishing smack. Let this service be divorced from politics, let it be placed under the Navy...," cried one editorialist.

For the captains who sailed along America's storm-battered coasts, the stories from the Outer Banks were unnerving. If their vessel struck the shoals at Hatteras or grounded off Kitty Hawk, would the lifesavers respond?

Built in Seaford, Delaware, in 1874, crafted of oak and held together with thousands of galvanized rivets, the three-masted schooner Thomas J. Lancaster of Philadelphia was a solid 653 tons. Her captain, George L. Hunter, was also her owner. The Lancaster departed from Boston on September 22, 1881, bound for Savannah with a cargo of one thousand tons of ice. Thirteen people were on board. Captain Hunter had employed a crew of eight men, and as was often the case in the 1800s, his family -- his wife and their three young daughters -- had joined him.

On the night of October 4, 1881, the Lancaster pushed south past Bodie Island Light off the coast of North Carolina. The beacon, with its distinctive black and white bands, marked the beginning of a hundred-mile stretch of nearly uninhabited beach. The schooner would keep a southeastern course following the arch of barrier islands to Cape Hatteras. Then, after clearing Diamond Shoals, she would continue south and fold in toward the South Carolina coast. Hunter observed moderate conditions: "the wind was light from the north-west, and the sea smooth." The first mate took over at midnight, and the captain joined his wife and family in their cabin.

During the early hours of the morning, something went terribly wrong. A heavy squall came up and broadsided the schooner from the northeast. While the crew was busy taking in the sails, the first mate sighted breakers, long-cresting lines of them, directly starboard -- they were over shallow water. The Lancaster jolted, pitching violently, and her masts whined and shook. Hunter immediately appeared topside and began barking orders.

The ship had been eight miles off the coast as it passed Bodie Light, but a mistake in navigation had brought her in toward shore sometime between three and four o'clock that morning. The sea built and crashed over the railing. Then, the ship's hull rose massively in the air and fell upon the sandbar. Surrounded by total darkness, the captain had no choice but to assume they were stuck on the treacherous Diamond Shoals, where, as the seafaring world well knew, few ships ever survived once grounded. Even with her heavy oak construction, the Lancaster would soon break apart under the murderous pounding waves.

On board the Lancaster was a booklet published by the United States Department of the Treasury. Mass-produced and copiously distributed through the nation's customhouses so that every ship's captain would own one, it contained instructions in both English and French that could mean the difference between life and death for a shipwrecked crew. Aside from basic navigational information, the booklet directed mariners on the proper actions to take in an emergency. "Often when comparatively smooth at sea a dangerous surf is running which is not perceptible four hundred yards off shore, and the surf when viewed from a vessel never appears as dangerous as it is," the book read. "Many lives have unnecessarily been lost by the crews of stranded vessels being thus deceived and attempting to land in the ship's boats."

Outer Banks history is full of accounts of mariners, inexperienced in handling small boats in heavy surf, who lost their lives when they tried to reach the shore by their own devices. Lifesavers on the beach would use flags, flares, whistles, and pantomime to warn the shipwrecked not to launch their boats. Mariners who ignored them usually drowned or had to be wrenched out "by desperate and dangerous grapples in the surf and undertow." Lifesaving crews were much more experienced at getting their narrow surfboats through the steep breakers. They called it "the art of surfing."

If the station keeper judged the surf too heavy, instead of risking capsizing his boat, he would order that a line be fired out to the wreck. The booklet instructed: "Get hold of the line as soon as possible and haul on board until you get the tail-block with a whip or endless line rove through it." Setting up the rescue lines and lifesaving apparatus required the assistance of able-bodied sailors on board the vessel as well as competent lifesavers onshore.

Hunter knew the book. He also knew the reputation of the Life-Saving Service.

In North Carolina, the first lifesavers were fishermen and inlet pilots, chosen for their lifelong association with the sea. Hurricanes were mysterious forces with supernatural strength, and predicting their arrival was, to some degree, an exercise in clairvoyance. Outer Bankers watched the sea while they worked, especially at the end of summer when bands of dense, gray clouds might appear in the south. "June, too soon. November, all over" was a common saying along the coast. They watched the way shorebirds gathered on the beach and livestock became nervous and began wandering haphazardly over the dunes. Some looked to the heavens, claiming a "blazing planet" was a portent of things to come.

Hurricanes packing winds of up to 140 miles an hour and inundating the beaches with a dome of storm surge raked the Carolina coast in unpredictable patterns. In 1842, 1846, 1856, 1861,1876, and 1879, hurricanes swept up the Banks, leveling dwellings, drowning livestock, and uprooting trees. Between storms, Outer Bankers lived in a state of suspended anticipation.

The Outer Banks was a frontier, and only industrious, hardworking men and women lived there. In the heat of the summer, the white sands danced with mirages of ponds, though there was usually no freshwater to be had. All along the sounds, swarms of mosquitoes and deerflies rose from the stagnant pools of brackish water. Winter brought flocks of migrating geese and ducks so immense that it was said they could completely darken the sky as they passed between the earth and the low, white winter sun. Freezes, though rare, might drop temperatures to the basement of the thermometer, raising squalls of blowing snow over the slate-gray Atlantic, and leaving a rime of new ice across the sound.

Boats designed on the Outer Banks, with its shallow channels and tight spaces, had a distinct character. Not only could Bankers recognize local boats at a glance, but in many cases, they could tell the maker and when it was made.

Although industrious and self-sustaining, Bankers were also reputedly unruly and ungovernable. Folklore casts an infamous picture of these coastal inhabitants using various means to trick captains into beaching their ships. Many claim that the name Nags Head originated in an era when malicious wreckers would tie a lantern around an old horse's neck and lead it up and down the dunes. From the sea, the rising and falling light would give the impression of a ship safely moored in a harbor, taunting unsuspecting ship captains to sail to their destruction.

In these coastal communities, the cry "Ship ashore!" was followed by a frenzy of salvaging activities. Wrecking was a tradition woven into the culture from its earliest days. "Your loss, our gain" might best describe the local attitude. In the villages along the Sand Banks and on Roanoke Island, "progging" -- walking about after a storm in search of valuables -- was viewed as a viable occupation. At one time, the beaches were strewn with a wreck every mile, each with its own story of disaster and doom. From the deck of a wrecked schooner, the Outer Banks must have seemed a barbarous no-man's-land.

* * *

Over the centuries, the Outer Banks has been a racial hodgepodge, largely white, but speckled with blacks, both free and slave. Little arable land, a treacherous coast, undependable inlets, and a lack of deepwater harbors made the region ill-suited for the proliferation of the "peculiar institution," and only in certain areas were enough slaves kept to constitute small communities of blacks: in the southern reaches of the Banks, on Portsmouth Island, where they served as "lighters," loading and unloading the cargo of ships as they passed through Ocracoke Inlet; and on Roanoke Island, where small farms were maintained and a few families accumulated relative wealth by wrecking, fishing, and piloting ships. Here, about a quarter of the population were bondsmen.

Slavery accounted for the majority of African-Americans on the Banks, but free blacks had also long populated the coast. Mostly the descendants of slaves who had drifted down from the settlements in Virginia, they presented little economic threat and, so, shared the limited resources on more or less equal footing with their white counterparts. Naturally, when push came to shove, they were usually left out.

While whites may have tolerated blacks in some roles, they were, when threatened, likely to use power and influence to bar them from economic endeavors. During the Colonial era, pilots at Ocracoke, the main point of entry to the settlements along the Neuse and Pamlico Rivers, protested to Governor Josiah Martin in 1773 against the competition "sundry Negroes as well as free men as slaves" were creating for their businesses, "to the great prejudice and injury of your petitioners contrary to law and again the policy of this country and to trade in general." Apparently, Governor Martin did not act on the pilots' complaint.

Richard Etheridge was born a slave on the beaches north of Pea Island on January 16, 1842. He grew up knowing the tides and currents, the channels and shoals, and early on, he learned the savage power of storms. The hurricane of September 7, 1846, blew so strongly that winds and flood waters from the Pamlico Sound burst through Bodie Island and opened an inlet near Richard's childhood home. The storm caused the tide to rise nine feet higher than normal. Farther north, it carried away the market house and destroyed the warehouse of the Nags Head Hotel, littering its stores for a half mile along the beach. Beach dwellers had to climb to safety in the attics of their homes, hoping the houses would stay moored to their foundations. Household property, cooking utensils, and clothes were all destroyed. According to lore, Jonathan Williams's ship, the Oregon, on a return trip from Bermuda to its home dock of Edenton, on the Albemarle Sound, was caught in the storm surge -- thousands of metric tons of rushing water -- that cut the inlet open through Bodie Island, leaving the ship stranded but intact on a sandbar in the newly opened channel. Area residents began calling it Oregon Inlet. The same hurricane opened Hatteras Inlet the next day.

From the prow of the Lancaster, no land could be seen. The ship's heavy oak moaned and shuddered. She was in the grasp of other forces now and would soon be just another victim of the sea. Hunter had mistakenly put his location on Diamond Shoals off Cape Hatteras. Given his knowledge of the dangers of these shoals, he thought their best chance to save themselves was in the lifeboat, instructions from the Treasury Department be damned.

Hunter decided that at daylight, he, his family, and crew would board the boat and make a run for shore. Though daunting, it seemed to be their only course. At around four o'clock in the morning, Hunter ordered the men to lower the lifeboat on the leeward side of the wreck. Dawn was still hours away, but the captain wanted to be ready should the pounding sea snap the hull in two and the Lancaster come apart.

The lifeboat seemed wholly insignificant against the backdrop of crosshatched breakers. As if impatient, the sea began to buck the small boat against the hull of the schooner. To prevent it from being dashed to pieces, the second mate and three seamen boarded her and attempted to hold it away from the ship. They used their arms, legs, and a couple of oars -- anything to keep the boat from striking the thick oak hull.

O'Neal's Coston flare was a sudden surprise against the dark night, a brilliant red glow surrounded by a halo of bright light. The sight of the flare relieved all on board, for it meant land was close by.

In fact, the Lancaster was much closer to shore than Hunter had previously thought -- just three hundred yards. And the lifesavers on shore knew they were there. Perhaps this revelation, had it come sooner, might have changed the captain's decision to launch the boat. Perhaps he might have been able to call his shipmates back on board. But already the crew of the Lancaster had sealed their fate.

As Surfman Daniel worked back toward Pea Island, the storm reached its greatest intensity. The Signal Service stations at Hatteras and Kitty Hawk recorded wind gusts up to sixty-seven miles an hour, with sustained winds around forty. At times, the downpour made it impossible for Daniel to see even ten feet in front of him. When he arrived at the station, he was soaked to the bone, runnels of water streaming from his jacket. He stopped at the window and looked back to the south.

A heavy bank of fog lifted. The sun must have risen just above the horizon, for a faint, pearlescent glow inhabited the fog, giving it body and form. This first suggestion of sunrise revealed tremendous surf, miles and miles of broken, white seas. To the south Daniel saw an interruption in the fury of the white breakers, a black spot that, from a distance, resembled a lump of coal. Far to the south, more than five miles away, he could make out the masts and spars of a ship; the black shape in the surf was a grounded schooner. He notified the keeper.

Keeper Etheridge wasted no time rousing the crew, his voice booming through the wooden station as the first strokes of daylight painted the eastern skies. "Ship ashore! Ship ashore to the south! Put on your oilskins!" The floorboards thumped and creaked as the surfmen dashed for their jackets and boots.

While they hustled into their foul-weather gear, Etheridge surveyed the wreck from the crow's nest atop the station. Through the viewing glass he could see the masts, three in all, still standing -- a good sign that the ship was holding together. He estimated the distance to be no less than five miles, probably no more than three north of Chicamacomico. That put the vessel directly on the sandbars at Loggerhead Inlet, a passageway that had recently shoaled up and closed. Keeper L. B. Midgett's Chicamacomico crewmen would probably be at the scene by then.

Crossing New Inlet with the beach cart would be impossible. The cart, which housed the half-ton beach apparatus containing the heavy mortar and shot, sand anchor and hawsers, would get swamped and lost. Instead, the Pea Islanders traveled light that morning, hauling only what they would be able to ford across the coarse waters of the inlet. Etheridge ordered his men to load the boat wagon with the medicine chest, cork lifesaving jackets, a Merriman suit (an 1881 version of a wet suit), and the heaving lines and sticks. The Chicamacomico crew would bring their beach cart or boat, whichever Keeper Midgett judged most expedient.

The Pea Island surfmen wasted no time. In their excitement, they did not pause to eat anything. Two men slid the boatroom door open and the crew burst forward with the boat wagon. They were six crewmen: Lewis Wescott, Robert Tolar, William Daniel, William Davis, William Bowser, and Benjamin Golden. Wescott, the number one man, was young and promising, a leader who could fill in for Etheridge in a pinch. Tolar, known to take a drink now and again, had entered lifesaving with Etheridge at the Bodie Island station in the LSS's first years. William Bowser was a talented boatbuilder; William Davis, a decorated soldier of the U.S. Colored Troops during the war. William Daniel and his brother Henry, who was absent from the station delivering the mail to Manteo, were skilled watermen from Roanoke Island. Benjamin Golden, a reliable substitute, filled in for Henry. Bowser, Henry Daniel, and Davis had been surfmen under the white keeper at Pea Island when the M&E Henderson had come ashore and had witnessed the shakedown and the firing of the white crewmen that had ensued from it.

With a steady gale at their backs, the Pea Island crew started south, passing by the charred foundation of their old station, then over a series of hummocks and through pools of tidal wash. This would be the first major test for Etheridge and the all-black crew -- the previous spring's troubles aside. Each of the men understood that the tenuous balance of circumstances that had gotten a black keeper and crew put in charge at Pea Island could just as quickly split them up, return them to their positions as cooks -- or, worse still, drum them out of the service altogether.

They also recognized this as a test for the Life-Saving Service as a whole. Scores of lives had already been lost along this coast because of shady hiring practices, neglect, and a lack of leadership. Another failure might mean disbandment and annexation into the navy.

* * *

Down the coast, Keeper Little Bannister Midgett, a tall, intimidating man with a temper like the riptides of a winter storm, drove his crew from Chicamacomico with equal determination. Keeper Midgett -- "L.B." to most -- cut a curious figure along the Outer Banks, his biography the stuff of tall tales. Midgett, on a dare, was said to have once eaten a duck raw, just to prove it could be done. His quirky reputation aside, L.B. was a surfman through and through. He was appointed about the same time as Richard Etheridge, another of the men hired with the idea that the best leaders would shape the Tar Heel LSS into a first-rate organization.

Upon first seeing the foundered schooner, lying head-on to the beach, her masts swaying amid acres and acres of cross seas and cresting breakers, Midgett judged her close enough to shore to use the mortar and shot, and he ordered his men to prepare the beach cart. With the three horses they'd commandeered from local citizens hitched to the wagon, they started off.

The work of hauling the beach cart was tremendous. The crew bogged down in the gale and surf-swept beach, the cart's spoked wheels sinking into a beachfront that Midgett deemed "very Bad and overflown." Pieces of wreck-stuff -- fresh planking, tackle, slabs of ice -- crashed against the wheels of the wagon. Stanley Midgett, a nearby resident who was hauling wood to the station, pitched in, but progress was slow, even with the three ponies.

The Pea Island crew's march was equally arduous, and they had New Inlet to cross.

Surfmen Davis and Daniel had both been on patrol when the Lancaster had struck the strand and had had almost no sleep since the night before. Like most crews up and down the coast that fall, many of the Pea Islanders, Keeper Etheridge included, were fighting off bouts of what they called the ague -- that is, malaria. The storm of the previous month had flattened yaupon bushes and left acres of standing water, breeding grounds for illness. Etheridge and Tolar had each spent the better part of September first stricken with, then recovering from, sickness. Just the week before, in fact, Etheridge had been so severely ill that Surfman Bowser had had to carry him home to Manteo for treatment. The keeper could still feel behind his eyes the throbbing heat of his most recent spell of fevers, not yet quite gone. But he, like the rest, knew himself to be up to the task at hand. When a ship came ashore, there was no other choice.

The men trudged on. Forty-five minutes. An hour. New Inlet still before them. Occasionally, Etheridge would break from the ranks and dash up a dune to peer at the wreck through his viewing glass. She was still holding together.

It is possible that no one aboard the Lancaster knew how to swim. Sailors of the era, who often harbored deep superstitions, typically thought it bad luck to learn. Swimming, they believed, would only prolong the agony of drowning. If they went down thirty miles offshore, this logic made a twisted sort of sense. As the sun began to draw the outline of dunes and bushy hummocks in plain view of the crewmen -- not three hundred yards distance -- those who didn't swim now rued their ignorance.

Even had they had the knowledge, long odds favored death over any of the mariners' ever reaching shore. Rip currents and undertows would hold swimmers in the "horse markets" while the steep, heavy faces of breakers fell upon them again and again. Floating debris, full of sharp rivets and jagged edges, churned in the surf, cracking bones and ripping the flesh of those caught in its path. And there was the risk of hypothermia. No, the more prudent plan was to run the surf in the boat when it was light enough to see. With the coming dawn, they were ready to go, with or without aid from shore. They would not wait on the lifesavers.

Before first light, however, breaking waves began to dump water into the lifeboat. The four men aboard bailed like mad. Suddenly, the painter snapped and the small craft was sucked under an enormous sea. Two of the men immediately drowned, while the second mate and another struggled frantically to hold on to a line tied to the schooner. The second mate's leg snapped when, tangled in the rope, his body was dashed against the hull. Those on board the Lancaster hauled the two exhausted and injured men in.

There was no time to tend to them, though. A huge sea broke over the vessel, shattering the windows of the cabin. As water poured into the hold, thousands of tons of ice came alive and began to bang and crash about below. The combination of water and ice caused the vessel's decks to rend, breaking up the hull at an alarming rate. The sound was incredible.

With the lifeboat gone, the survivors clung to the wreckage and peered toward shore. Far down the beach they could see a knot of men pulling a cart, coming slowly but coming nonetheless. The lifesavers were now their only chance.

New Inlet, located just eight miles south of Oregon Inlet, where Etheridge had grown up, was unpredictable: open one season, shoaled up the next. Keeper Etheridge maneuvered his crew to where he supposed they could wade across: on the sound side, where the water should be at its most shallow.

The Pea Islanders hauled the boat cart past fish houses on the backside of the island and into the inlet. Often chest-deep in water, the men formed a tight group and pushed forward. Once across, they headed southeast. As they pulled their wagon over the hummocks, they could see the masts of the wreck rising up above the beach.

With the ice battering the hull from within and powerful seas breaking on her sides, the Lancaster didn't stand a chance. In the early hours of October 5, her solid-oak decks began to split and tear away aft, so Hunter, his wife, the three young girls, and his crew scrambled toward the front of the ship. They lashed themselves to the fore-rigging, an adult helping each of the girls to hold on. Mrs. Hunter, lashed to the bitts, held her youngest child, only eighteen months old, in her arms. The survivors huddled on what was left of the bowsprit and jib, but even then they were not safe from the breaking seas.

Rising out of the darkness, a huge swell swept the forecastle, wrenching one of the girls from the steward's arms. She fell to leeward and vanished under the jib. Hunter immediately dove after and was able to grab her. But crashing waves never travel alone, and the next broke upon the captain, snatching his daughter from his grasp. He reached for her, but this time could not find her.

The same sea struck the wreck with enough violence to rip the baby from its mother's arms. Two children were now lost.

Frantically searching for his girls, the captain was dashed against the capstan by passing swells. Hunter, with a terrible head wound, was then swept overboard. He caught hold of the bobstay hanging from the bowsprit and was able to pull himself back onto the Lancaster. Dazed and injured, he just rested there awhile. Eventually, he dragged himself over the bow to his wife in the fore-rigging and huddled with her on what was left of his ship. Their last daughter was passed down to her, and to try to keep this child from slipping away with the next crashing sea, she tied her fast in the lines of the rigging.

This was the situation that greeted the crew of Chicamacomico as they came abreast of the disaster. Keeper Midgett surmised that the ship could come apart at any moment. He ordered his men to set up the beach apparatus and prepare the mortar to fire a rescue line to the wreck. Each man knew his task. Like a team of well-trained firefighters, they leapt into motion, but instead of ladders, buckets, and hoses, the lifesavers used a network of ropes, pulleys, and cross-beams.

To the untrained eye, the drill would look more like a circus act, though countless mariners had been rescued this way. The keeper chose a spot for the numbers five and six surfmen to bury the sand anchor. With long-handled shovels, these men sprinted to the position and buried the wooden cross-beam deep down in the beach. Numbers one and two unloaded the heavy cannon from the cart, placed the shot in the muzzle, and sighted the gun to Midgett's call, while numbers three and four unloaded the faking box, which held the lines, and prepared the traveling block that would carry the breeches buoy (a circular float with a pair of canvas trousers sewn in) out to the wreck. All of this took less than two minutes. Somebody on board would need to secure the line to an elevated place on the mast, but within minutes, the lifesavers would be hauling people to shore, one at a time.

With the schooner facing the beach, she made a difficult target. Crosswinds swept over beach and sea, and Keeper Midgett had to adjust his shot to account for their velocity. "Left! Left! Well!" he called as surfmen one and two aimed the cannon. Once set, the men hurriedly cleared away from the muzzle and covered their ears. Midgett called, "Ready!" then pulled the lanyard to ignite the powder, and the barrel blazed forth a white flash of fire. The twenty-pound shot rocketed toward the vessel, peeling line from the faking box, and fell directly into the mizzen rigging.

From shore, they saw one of the survivors attempt to reach the line. He looked feeble. He struggled from handhold to handhold, waves washing over the schooner. The lifesavers could only watch in misery as the current swept the line leeward, away from the broken ship, before he reached it.

The Pea Island crew arrived as Midgett was preparing another shot. It was eight-thirty; it had taken them two and a half hours to travel the five miles to the site. Their ponies jolted in their hobbles at the enormous blast from the gun. Rocketing out and over the wreck, the mortar looked like a hyphen on a blank, gray page. But the line fell just a few yards out into the surf and lay lifeless.

Etheridge knew right away that the muzzle blast had burned the line. Midgett cursed and ordered the men to prepare another shot. Without pause, the Pea Islanders jumped in with the Chicamacomico crew, black and white surfmen working side by side. Two began faking line into its box, winding new rope through the wooden pegs. Others went after another shot and secured it to the line. Keepers Midgett and Etheridge stood off a few paces and discussed the situation.

Midgett, the first on the scene, had final authority. Both men agreed that the seas were running too high to launch a surfboat. In addition to which, neither crew had brought theirs. The rescue would have to be performed with the mortar and line. Owing to the strong winds, the keepers decided that the cannon must be moved windward of the wreck.

Through his viewing glass, Etheridge counted the survivors. He could see a small group of men huddle around the jibboom. A woman was aboard -- Etheridge saw her clearly. She was holding a child in her arms.

A continuous assault of surge washed over the wreck, upsetting the sailors and causing them to jockey for better holds. Through the lens, the ocean seemed less imposing, a small sphere of restless water. Without the glass, the raging Atlantic was endless.

The fourth shot landed across the jibboom, where it was seized by one of the men. With a line finally secured to the schooner, the two crews prepared to deploy the breeches buoy. As they were sending the necessary tackle out to the wreck, though, the mariners suddenly stopped pulling the line. Tired or wounded or both, they had given up. Without their help, the lifesavers were powerless.

Seeds of panic began to roil in the bellies of the men on the beach. Midgett and Etheridge, away from the rest, discussed what to do next. They decided to send three men with the horses to retrieve the surfboat from Chicamacomico. If the winds changed and the seas dropped off, perhaps they could launch and stroke out to the ship.

Aboard the Lancaster, despair had set in. None of those who remained had the strength to attach the line, and now it appeared that the lifesavers were abandoning them. Seaman John Lilley decided to take his chances. He abandoned ship. Diving away from the wreck, he stroked frantically with his last strength through the blocks of ice, razor-sharp debris, and loose lines. Somehow, Lilley made his way into the breakers.

Seeing him, Midgett donned the Merriman "life-saving dress" a cumbersome, rubberized bodysuit, and lumbered as quickly as he could into the surf. So strong were the waves that they swept him off his feet when he was only waist-deep in water. By a miracle, he was able to reach Lilley and drag him to shore. Etheridge took the sailor from Midgett, wrapped him in blankets, and gave him a dose of brandy to help revive him.

As this was happening, black and white lifesavers frantically signaled for the survivors to remain aboard the wreck. Yet another seaman, seeing Lilley's success, plunged into the drink. Caught in the swift currents of the "cut," he was carried down the beach, flailing but unable to make progress toward shore. After a struggle, he disappeared in the raging undertow.

Midgett once again entered the surf after the sailor. He dove under the waves, the suit pulling him back up; he thrashed about, searching, but could find no one. Richard and others, plunging after him, lifted the exhausted and distraught Midgett to his feet and towed him to shore, where he collapsed with fatigue. They had to carry him back to his station in the cart.

Thomas Midgett, the keeper from the Gull Shoal station, the next one south of Chicamacomico, arrived on horseback, drawn by the bright red halos of flares and the booming of the cannon. By now, it was nearly three o'clock in the afternoon. With six months seniority over Etheridge, Midgett considered himself the ranking officer and began directing men to prepare another shot. Etheridge had already witnessed the futility of this -- no one aboard the wreck had strength enough to secure the line. But Keeper Midgett was determined to show the others it could be done.

Richard Etheridge did not challenge him. Instead, he directed three men to accompany him to Chicamacomico and assist the men already sent after the weighty surfboat.

The schooner had been grounded for nearly twelve hours now. The lifesavers had been toiling on the beach without much success for almost as long. Some of the men Thomas Midgett commanded had been up for nearly twenty-four hours, and none had had a thing to eat.

Midgett succeeded in landing an excellent shot across the jibboom, right in reach of the remaining sailors. At worst, he expected to be able to send cork life jackets out along the line for the survivors to don, but, to Midgett's chagrin, the sailors "tuck it [the line] up and hove it over bord." This surprised none of the surfmen. The sailors had long since lost faith in being taken off by the breeches buoy.

Back at Chicamacomico, Keeper Etheridge and surfmen from both crews strained against the weight of the boat. With its high gunwales and a heavy hull, the surfboat acted as a sail against the gale, which still blasted from the north. The strength of seven men and three ponies hardly moved the boat forward. Progress was agonizingly slow. They spent more than five hours trying to get the boat to the wreck site. Finally, dejected and exhausted, Etheridge and his men left it where it stood and returned without the boat.

As evening set in, the mate of the Lancaster tied a piece of cork fender to his waist and plunged into the ocean in an effort to reach shore. Currents whisked him off. He disappeared below the water, never to be seen again.

At sundown, Captain Hunter, wounded and heartbroken, fell from the bowsprit and drifted away from the wreck. He had one arm through a life preserver, but lost his grip and drowned in plain view of his wife and daughter. Later, this child, exhausted and in shock, slipped from her hold. Tethered to the rigging, she hung head down by one foot beside the bowsprit, semiconscious and unable to cry for help, until one of the remaining seamen, Harry Brien, saw her there. Mrs. Hunter never saw her -- or if she did, she could not move to free her. Brien slid down from his place on the jibboom, wrapped the girl in canvas, and lay her still body on the bowsprit.

* * *

The first corpse to come ashore was one of Hunter's young daughters. The men on the beach had all seen drowned bodies before. But this one was different. So young. So disfigured. Some must have thought of their own daughters. Etheridge probably remembered young Oneida, only eleven years old, playing at home, his wife, Frances, looking on.

Was this death somehow his responsibility?

L. B. Midgett, partly recovered, returned to the beach at sundown. With the wind falling off and the help of a fresh horse, he and his men were at last able to get the surfboat to the scene of the wreck. Pitching over the sandbar, the breakers hollowed out and had become steep and smooth. Some rushed up the beach with blocks of ice the size of woodstoves hidden in their surge. Despite this, Midgett and Etheridge, after a short discussion, concluded that a launch might be possible.

Etheridge ordered some of the men to collect driftwood and wreckage from which to build a fire. The blaze would light the surf and facilitate the attempt. Those who thought they might have to take up an oar in these conditions felt their stomachs rise to their throats. The lifesavers, each one sapped to the core, had been on the beach some fourteen hours.

The moon broke through the clouds, and Etheridge stood away from the fire and looked out through his viewing piece at the Lancaster one final time. He tried to count the survivors. He could see the woman, still huddled near the jibboom. She cradled the child in her arms. The man beside her was now gone. Etheridge's line of sight blurred, perhaps salt water on the lens, but when he wiped it clean and went to look again, his vision was even fuzzier. The horizon tilted, and Etheridge collapsed.

L. B. Midgett launched the surfboat into breakers so steep that men on the beach could see the oarsmen's knees as the boat rode up the crests. The small craft shipped water constantly. Although they were able to reach the wreck, Midgett decided that the surf was too rough to attempt to take the survivors off. The lifesavers waited beside the disintegrating carcass of the ship for a lull in the seas -- a risky proposition -- but strong currents wrenched them away. Unable to regain their position, Midgett directed them back to shore without the survivors.

Night passed. The seas calmed. At eight the next morning, over twenty-four hours since the schooner had grounded, Midgett and his crew were finally able to row out, board the wreck, and take off the remaining six passengers. The survivors, their clothes beaten off their backs, were in such poor condition that the lifesavers had to carry them. Mrs. Hunter clung to consciousness. The child was battered and pale blue, but still breathing.

"I give them a little Brandy and Wine to recsute them," Midgett reported. "I then wrapped the Capt's wife and child in Blankets tuck them all to the station And did all in my Power to save them." Midgett's wife and the wives of other lifesavers, already there, pitched in. They offered brandy, sugar, tea, and beef extract. Despite their efforts, the infant died that night, bringing the death count to seven.

They had still been mourning President Garfield in Norfolk when the storm had first struck, tearing the black drapes from their facets, flooding houses, and sending six vessels ashore along the Chesapeake Bay. At Hatteras, two others ran aground. But only at the Lancaster did people die.

The schooner itself was a total loss. In the days following the wreck, salvaging crews were only able to save a few sails and some of the standing rigging. Remorse fell heavy on the men of Chicamacomico as they recovered the bodies of the dead, made coffins, and laid them to rest in unmarked graves among the dunes and sea oats.

Rumors began to emerge. It was said that the captain's corpse was robbed of seventy-five dollars.

Assistant Inspector Frank Newcomb arrived from regional headquarters in Elizabeth City to piece together the story, to find fault, and if necessary, cast blame. Mrs. Hunter, after the physical toll of those hours on the wreck and the anguish from the loss of her family, was unable to give any information as to the cause of the disaster. Newcomb did not ask her. A gentleman in that era knew when not to further encumber a woman. Instead, he arranged for her passage, and she traveled North as soon as she was able. The inspector would have to rely on the testimony of the other survivors, as well as that of the lifesavers.

* * *

The weather stayed foul in the days that followed, the Atlantic, rough and gray. On October 10, the men from Pea Island observed seven schooners and one steamer pass in a brisk wind and cloudy weather. On the thirteenth, they recovered an oar, a whiskey barrel, a small can of oil, planking, and a small jug -- remains from the Lancaster.

With the physical stress of the long day at the site of the disaster and his recent bouts with malaria, Etheridge had finally succumbed. Three Pea Island surfmen had pulled the empty boat wagon to where their keeper lay and lifted him into it. They dragged the cart back over hummocks and sand hills, through large standing pools of rainwater, across the inlet and past the fish houses, all silent as pallbearers. They carried him to his quarters and helped him into bed. Someone among them stoked the woodstove to warm the station house, then, as their code demanded, they went back to work, one man setting off north, another south, both patrolling the beaches. The third man hurried back to Chicamacomico with the box of clothes donated by the Women's National Relief Association to succor the survivors of the wreck.

Later that day, when he'd recovered enough strength to get up from bed, Etheridge must have silently grilled himself, wondering what the outcome would have been had he and his crew acted differently. Could they have done more? Pea Island had been there, right beside Chicamacomico, and neither had seemed able to do anything to save the sailors, the captain, his family.

Soon, the inspecting officer, Newcomb, would arrive at the station, interview each man, question each decision, each action. In recent years, keepers and surfmen were fired for failing. Would it happen again? Would they be disbanded, dispersed along the coast to serve as cooks and lackeys, as before? Was this already the end of Etheridge's career as keeper?

He could not know. He could only report the conclusion he'd drawn from the torturous self-scrutiny that had followed that terrible night. "Had the [Lancaster's] crew all Remained by the wreck," he wrote in his log, "No life need to have been lost."

Inspector Newcomb, too, had thoughts to carry. The Metropolis and the Huron, the Nuova Ottavia and the M&E Henderson. Here was yet another disaster off the Outer Banks, accompanied by the needless loss of life, this one again within plain view of the government lifesavers. Newcomb could only pray he would not find the surfmen at fault. The Life-Saving Service might not survive another hailstorm of criticism.

After sending the Lancaster's second mate to the Marine Hospital in New Bern where his broken leg would receive attention, Newcomb transported the remaining survivors aboard the sloop Saville and sailed north toward Elizabeth City over the now calm waters of the Pamlico Sound. This was a trip Newcomb had made too many times these past two years, working tirelessly to root out the persisting incompetence and inattention to duty that was ruining lifesaving along this shore.

As he traveled past Pea Island, the light from the oil lamps burning in the station were clearly visible. Newcomb had been instrumental in hiring Etheridge the year before. Something about Etheridge had inspired the young officer to stand up and fight for the idea of an all-black crew. Many had opposed the appointment, and with the wreck of the Lancaster, those voices might yet rise again.

Newcomb, with a breeze cupping the sails of the Saville, navigated toward Elizabeth City. A feeling burned inside, a clarity that hiring Richard Etheridge had been right, that Etheridge could be a key piece in solving the puzzle of the problems in North Carolina. The future -- could the black crew but survive as a single unit to see it -- would bear out Newcomb's wisdom.

Copyright © 2000 by David Wright and David Zoby

What People are Saying About This

Marita Golden
David Wright and David Zoby have written a gripping, unforgettable account of a group of forgotten but undeniable American heroes. Meticulously researched and written with power and beauty, Fire on the Beach captures the story of men, the sea, and the dedication and pride of a group of African American 'surfmen' who set the standard for courage and performance in one of the world's most dangerous jobs.
—(Marita Golden, author of The Edge of Heaven)
Sheri Reynolds
In Fire on the Beach, David Wright and David Zoby have woven together a story like none I've read before. I can't combine enough words to describe this enthralling book. It is the best history lesson I've received in years, but it reads like an adventure, with language both clear and poetic. I enjoyed every minute of it. Fire on the Beach is well-researched and well-written, ambitious and admirable. I hope it sells a million copies.
—(Sheri Reynolds, author of The Rapture of Canaan)
Jay Neugeboren
David Wright and David Zoby are splendid guides who takes us through an exciting chapter of our nation's hitherto unheralded history, and into lives made legend by brave black seamen of the 19th century. They have brought to life an amazing story, one scrupulously researched and compellingly rendered, that does honor to Afro-Americans and to brave seamen everywhere. As one who has himself served in the Merchant Marine, I am deeply impressed, both by the wealth of fascinating sea lore, and by the sheer narrative drive of the tale. Fire on the Beach is an inspiring story of heroism on the high seas.
—(Jay Neugeboren, author of Imagining Robert and Big Man)
Stephen O'Connor
Wright and Zoby's tale of the Pea Island surfmen's heroic struggles against racism and the sea is wise, brilliantly crafted and as gripping as any maritime adventure novel. A Fire on the Beach recreates life on the North Carolina coast from the days of slavery to the early twentieth century in novelistic detail, and inspires us with the dignity and determination of Richard Etheridge, the leader of the all African American life saving team. This is history at its best.
—(Stephen O'Connor, author of Orphan Trains: The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed)
Philip Graham
Combining a thrilling narrative pace with meticulous research, David Wright and David Zoby have restored for us all a vibrant chapter of our common history that should never be forgotten. Richard Etheridge and the Pea Island Lifesavers were both ordinary men and heroes of the highest order, and this beautifully written book brings them alive for generations to come.
—(Philip Graham, author of How to Read an Unwritten Language and co-author of Parallel Worlds)
Alyson Hagy
As Richard Etheridge is a 'man among men,' so is this story of the heroic Pea Island life-saving crew a tale among tales. Drama, courage, character, the riches of recovered history Fire on the Beach burns with them all.
—(Alyson Hagy, author of Graveyard of the Atlantic)

Meet the Author

David Wright is an assistant professor of English and African-American Studies at the University of Illinois. The recipient of the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Award, he has published in The Southern Review and African-American Review, among others.

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