Family Traditions of Service: Cape Hatteras Lifesaving Station, ca. 1900

[This blog post was written by Matthew Peek, Military Collection Archivist for the State Archives of North Carolina.]

In 1848, U.S. federal government funds were committed to limited lifesaving operations along America’s coastline. Volunteers staffed scattered facilities for over twenty years before a professional lifesaving service was created in 1871, as a unit within the U.S. Treasury’s Revenue Marine Bureau. In June 1878, the U.S. Lifesaving Service was made an independent unit of the U.S. Treasury Department. It went on to build an extraordinary history of service and heroism before becoming part of the new U.S. Coast Guard in 1915.

This photograph speaks to the early role of North Carolina families’ military service in coastal operations and rescue services prior to World War I. Construction of a lighthouse at Cape Hatteras was first authorized in 1794 when Congress recognized the danger posed to Atlantic shipping. Construction did not start until 1799. The first lighthouse went into operation in October 1803. This liCapeHatteras_LifesavingStationghthouse was not tall enough to effectively warn ships of the dangerous Diamond Shoals along the North Carolina coast, and in 1853, 60 feet was added to the height of the lighthouse to make it more visible to ships. By the 1860s, Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was in dire need of extensive repairs. Instead of repairing the failing structure, a new lighthouse was opened on December 1, 1870. The 1803 lighthouse was demolished in February 1871. The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse received its black and white stripe day-mark pattern in 1873. The United States Lifesaving Service established a lifesaving station just one mile south of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, near Cape Point, North Carolina, in 1882.

The following description of the operation of a life-saving station comes from the National Park Service:

“When a new station was established, the head lifesaver, called the ‘Keeper,’ was selected first and given charge of the station. He would then seek out appropriate candidates, often from the local community, for the other lifesaving positions. These men, called ‘surfmen,’ were given a numerical ranking based on experience, which assigned them specific duties. Surfman #1, for example, was usually a veteran lifesaver and the Keeper’s second in command, while Surfman #8 was often the newest man and given more menial duties. This pecking order was essential to the station’s smooth operation. Training was, by necessity, the lifeblood of the service. Each day of the week was set aside for a particular drill. Without the proper knowledge and skills, the lifesavers would have little control over a rescue attempt and could endanger everyone involved, including themselves. A shipwreck was often a chaotic scene requiring immediate action in severe conditions. Men were better prepared to deal with the merciless ocean, raging storms, and their own fears if they were well-trained.” (

Pictured here around 1900 at the Cape Hatteras Lifesaving Station are: (left to right) Urias Williams, Edward Midgett, Baxter Miller, John Howard Midgett, Issac [should this be Isaac?] Jennette, Ed Stowe, Dave Barnett, their dog Rover, and Keeper Capt. Pat Etheridge. The two men standing on the porch are Dr. Josh J. Davis and Theodore Meekins. In the background in front of the small outbuilding is the cook, Charlie Olsen.

Credit line: United States Coast Guard and United States Lifesaving Service Portraits Collection, Sarah Owens Collection, Outer Banks History Center.


This blog post is one in two-week series of posts sharing the items used in the exhibit titled “The Family Traditions of Service:  A Historical Tribute to Veterans.” This exhibit, on display from November 3 to November 13, 2015, at the Dare County Arts Council building in Manteo, N.C., is sponsored by the Friends of the Outer Banks History Center, the exhibit serves as a historical tribute to over 100 years of military service of North Carolina residents and their families, with particular emphasis on coastal North Carolina. The goal of the exhibit is to honor the role of North Carolina veterans and their families during peacetime and war. The items from this exhibit come from the holdings of the Military Collection at the State Archives of North Carolina and the Outer Banks History Center.