(19) Life Saving

The Outer Banks of North Carolina rightfully merits the title “Graveyard of the Atlantic” because of treacherous and shifting shoals and dangerous storms that have claimed innumerable vessels since recorded history. Lighthouses have been important beacons to guide mariners along the northern coast of North Carolina since completion by the federal government of the Shell Island Lighthouse near Ocracoke in 1800. Additional lighthouses were soon erected along the northern coast: Hatteras (1802), Ocracoke (1823 and still standing; built to replace the Shell Island light destroyed by lightning in 1818), Bodie Island (1848), Beacon Island near Ocracoke (1852), and a second Bodie Island Lighthouse in 1858 to replace the seriously flawed 1848 structure. 


Along with the need to better mark the North Carolina coast for navigation was the need for rescue services for passengers and crew on vessels in danger. Although there was no state effort to recruit coastal residents to assist in the rescue of shipwrecked persons until 1801, the resourceful and self-reliant residents of the coastal islands often risked their lives to assist those endangered. Still, to them the call of “Ship on beach” also meant the opportunity to salvage much-needed materials. The keepers of lighthouses also provided assistance and refuge when possible. 


1870 was when the United States Lifesaving Service was established. Stations were not created in North Carolina until 1873 and the next year District 6, composed of North Carolina and southern Virginia. By the end of 1874, the first seven stations were completed: Jones Hills (later renamed Whales Head then Currituck Beach), Caffeys Inlet, Kitty Hawk, Nags Head, Bodie Island (later renamed Oregon Inlet), Chicamacomico, and Little Kinnakeet. While the station keeper resided there all year, the “surf men” were present only during the “active” season—December through March---although they could be summoned otherwise in event of a wreck. 


The use of submarines by Germany during World War I brought a new chapter to Outer Banks lifesaving. The first German Unterseeboot or “u-boat” to appear off the Outer Banks was U-151 in June 1918, torpedoing the British steamer Harpathian off Knotts Island. It sank four more foreign ships in the region, and later four vessels were sunk by U-140 in addition to the Diamond Shoals Lightship No. 71. The most famous submarine sinking during World War I was the Mirlo, a British oil tanker sunk on August 16, 1918, by U-117.