Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station Historic Site

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Posted 2022-06-24 by Gail Clifford MDfollow

During our recent trip to the Outer Banks, we stopped at the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station's Historic Site & Museum. The museum was closed but the grounds were available for exploring and allowing our imaginations to soar.

Tasked to restore and preserve the history of the U.S. Life-Saving Service, this site is one of many on the Historic Albemarle Tour. North Carolina travelers will recognize this as one of the oldest self-guided Heritage Trails.

Their literature describes the history of water rescue and resuscitation of apparent drowning victims. In 1784 Boston, British physician, Dr. Hayes demonstrated revival and built a program within the Houses of Refuge in Massachusetts, originally manned during "storm months" December through March and then along the entire East Coast year-round.

One of the most highly awarded events in maritime history happened right here in Chicamacomico (pronounced chik-a-ma-COM-i-co) with the December rescue of 42 of 51 British sailors aboard the SS Mirlo on August 16, 1918, after being torpedoed by a German U-boat about 5 miles offshore. Nine were lost when their lifeboat capsized."After launching through heavy seas, surfboat number 1046 navigated its way around walls of flames so intense that they blistered the boat's paint to reach Mirlo's remaining lifeboats, tow them out of danger, and bring the survivors ashore."

The surfboat's 6-member crew (John Allen Midgett, Arthur Midgett, Leroy Midgett, Zion Midgett, Clarence Midgett, and Lee O'Neal) was later awarded gold medals by the United States and British King George V and the Grand Cross of the American Cross of Honor for their efforts.

Perhaps one of the most heart-wrenching comments is a quote from Hatteras island lifesaving station keeper: "The book says you gotta go out. It don't say nothin' 'bout coming back."

It made me consider the potential sacrifice of this Midgett family that day. Over two centuries, more than 200 members of the Midgett family served in U.S. Lifesaving services, more than any other family in all four other military branches combined.

This Life-Saving Station (LSS) is the most complete one remaining in the United States. It's also the only one designated as a teaching museum. It covers seven acres and contains eight original buildings, including "the 1874 station and its cookhouse and water tank, the 1911 station and its four outbuildings, cistern and two water tanks, and a 1907 home that is filled with artifacts in period pieces depicting early 20th-century life on Hatteras Island."

In 1871, the US lifesaving service restructured to rescue those in peril from the sea. In December 1874, North Carolina's first lifesaving station was completed in Chicamacomico, the Eastern-most point in North Carolina. In 1915, Lifesaving Services merged with the US Revenue Cutter Service to form the U.S. Coast Guard.

In 1874, the U.S. Post Office changed the name Chicamacomico to Rodanthe, thought due to the postmaster's preference that day for a name easier to say and spell.

While Chicamacomico was decommissioned in 1954 (Levine Midgett was the last Keeper), and temporarily under the management of the National Park Service, in 1968 the property was purchased by local citizens and the local historical association.

Today's programs include reenactments, storytelling, and guest speakers. Highlights of the lives of the men who participated in some of the most daring rescues of the last century are described, especially from the Midgett family. Had we been there on the "right" day, we could have witnessed the historic beach apparatus drill reenactments "Breeches Buoy Drill" performed by active-duty Coast Guard personnel.

The Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station 's Historic Site & Museum is open Monday through Friday from mid-April through the day after Thanksgiving. All building restoration, exhibit development, and historical research is funded by donors and private grants. No regular state or federal funding is received. All contributions are tax-deductible.

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