The Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station, located in Rodanthe, was originally built in 1874 as part of the United States Life Saving Service established by Congress in 1873. The mission of the service was to aid ships in distress along the treacherous North Carolina coast. The original twelve lifesaving stations were established in seven mile increments and had a crew of five to ten that patrolled the beaches either on foot or horseback.
The history of the Life Saving Service actually began with the U.S. Treasury Department in 1853. The department felt it was paying too much for government buildings and decided to start building post offices, Pony Express buildings and other government buildings. In 1848 the Revenue Marine Division, a division in the Treasury Department, was made responsible for the Life Saving Service. The initial crews for the life saving stations doubled as postal employees and had no real life saving training. This had disastrous results with numerous lives lost due to lack of or no training. This was rectified.
The most famous rescue occurred in 1918, when the crew from the Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station saved 47 of the 57 crew of the British tanker Mirlo, which was torpedoed and had caused a sea of flames. The six men were awarded in 1921 by the British government the Gold Life Saving Medals and in 1930, the U.S. government awarded them the Grand Crosses of the American Cross of Honor.
The United States Lifesaving Service evolved into the Coast Guard. In 1954, due to newer technology and equipment, the Coast Guard decommissioned the Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station. The main building, built in 1911, and the Fearing Shipwreck Exhibit are now museums. The original 1874 building now houses the lifeboat from the Mirlo rescue.
The men of the United States Life Saving Service lived under a very stringent code:
“In attempting a rescue the keeper will select either the boat, breeches buoy, or life car, as in his judgment is best suited to effectively cope with the existing conditions. If the device first selected fails after such trial as satisfies him that no further attempt with it is feasible, he will resort to one of the others, and if that fails, then to the remaining one, and he will not desist from his efforts until by actual trial the impossibility of affecting a rescue is demonstrated. The statement of the keeper that he did not try to use the boat because the sea or surf was too heavy will not be acceptable unless attempts to launch it were actually made and failed, or unless the conformation of the coast – as bluffs, precipitous banks, etc. – is such as to unquestionable preclude the use of a boat.”
- The Regulation of the Life-Saving Service of 1899, Article VI “Action at Wrecks,” section 252, page 58
Or as the men of the Service simplified it:
“The book says you have to go out. It don’t say nothing about coming back!”
And so these duty bound men risked their lives in securing the lives of those stranded and in trouble.
The Chicamacomico Historical Association now owns the Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station. The 1911 station has been restored, while the 1874 and other out-buildings have been stabilized. More restoration work is under way. The surfboat (#1046) used in the Mirlo rescue is currently stored in the 1874 station, along with a beach drill cart and rescue equipment, a Lyle gun, and a few other items. You will also find some pieces of some of the ships whose crew the station rescued.