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Caught in one of the longest-lived and deadliest Atlantic hurricanes ever recorded, the schooner Aaron Reppard was splintered in the surf along Hatteras Island on August 16, 1899. One passenger

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Caught in one of the longest-lived and deadliest Atlantic hurricanes ever recorded, the schooner Aaron Reppard was splintered in the surf along Hatteras Island on August 16, 1899. One passenger

Caught in one of the longest-lived and deadliest Atlantic hurricanes ever recorded, the schooner Aaron Reppard was splintered in the surf along Hatteras Island on August 16, 1899. One passenger was battered to death after getting tangled in the rigging, his body hurled overboard when the mast fell. The ship’s captain leapt into the sea in a vain attempt to swim to shore.

Heavy rains and fierce winds made launching a rescue boat impossible, and attempts to use a Lyle gun to fire a line to within reach of the three surviving crew members failed. As the turbulent waters pushed heavy pieces of wreckage toward them, seven members of the United States Life-Saving Service strapped on cork life vests and tied shot line around their bodies. While fellow surfmen on the beach held fast to the line, the lifesavers waded out into the churning ocean until they reached the survivors, who were clinging to the wreckage, and pulled them to safety. The only body recovered, that of the steward, was buried on the bank just north of the Gull Shoal Station.

Illustration of the Aaron Reppard shipwreck off of Hatteras Island

  illustration by Erwin Sherman

Lt. C.E. Johnston of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service investigated the wreck, concluding that the surfmen from the Gull Shoal, Little Kinnakeet, and Chicamacomico life-saving stations had done everything possible to keep all on board from dying. “The storm was the worst in the recollection of any one now living on the Carolina Banks,” Johnston wrote, “and it is little short of a miracle that any one now lives to tell the tale of the wreck.”

In the late 1700s and for most of the 1800s, the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service was responsible for aiding offshore ships in distress. Life-saving stations were established in 1871 to offer shore-based assistance. That role had previously been assumed by lighthouse keepers and people living along the sparsely populated coastline, though they weren’t trained for it. From 1874 to 1905, more than two dozen life-saving stations were added to the state’s treacherous shores, bringing more rescuers to within reach of ships that ran aground.

• • •

Nearly 125 years after the wreck of the Aaron Reppard, historian James D. Charlet recounts the harrowing events as if he were there. Known to many as Keeper James, Charlet dresses in period garb — a brass-button vest and navy-blue jacket paired with a matching hat displaying an embroidered USLSS emblem. He sometimes even slips into first person while telling tales of his heroes, who were referred to in the headlines of their day as “storm warriors” or “soldiers of the surf.”

“People are always saying, ‘You’re so passionate!’” Charlet marvels. “How can you not be? It still brings me to tears sometimes.” Charlet is the author of Shipwrecks of the Outer Banks: Dramatic Rescues and Fantastic Wrecks in the Graveyard of the Atlantic. From 2005 to 2015, he served as the site manager at the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station Historic Site and Museum in Rodanthe. “In my opinion, America has never had a more heroic or more successful group of people ever,” Charlet says, “and I don’t think there ever will be anything like it again. It’s remarkable.”

“In my opinion, America has never had a more heroic or more successful group of people.”

Over a span of 43 years, the United States Life-Saving Service responded to 28,121 vessels transporting more than 178,000 people, with fewer than 1,500 lives lost. The service operated nearly 300 stations along America’s coastlines, including 29 in North Carolina, before merging with the Cutter Service to become the U.S. Coast Guard in 1915. But in the more than a century that’s passed since then, the memory of the Life-Saving Service has been largely swept away by tides and time.

Benjamin Wunderly, education curator for the NC Maritime Museum in Beaufort, says that about a quarter of the 131 medals that the Life-Saving Service awarded before 1900 went to North Carolina surfmen, a noteworthy statistic since the state was home to fewer than a tenth of the nation’s life-saving stations at the time. The stations, located five to seven miles from each other along the Outer Banks, were centers of their communities, many of them having the first telephones along the string of barrier islands.

During the stations’ heyday, folks from nearby towns and villages would come out to watch the surfmen practice their drills. The first of seven stations built in North Carolina in 1874, the still-standing Chicamacomico (pronounced chick-uh-muh-CAH-mih-co) still stages drills weekly during tourist season. “Other than that, you kind of have to look pretty hard to find the remnants of this service,” Wunderly says, adding that a few of the old sites remain on National Park Service land but are not open to the public, and others have been converted into vacation homes. Two are now restaurants: Black Pelican in Kitty Hawk and Lifesaving Station in Duck.

While the nearby lighthouses were made from cement and concrete, the life-saving stations were simple wooden structures, some of which were lost to fire. “They were really just glorified sheds,” Wunderly says. “Blown away with the wind, washed away by the waves — that’s what happened to some of the stations. It’s not well known that the Life-Saving Service even existed.”

Keeper James Charlet photograph by Daniel Pullen

Charlet, a native of Louisiana and a graduate of Duke University, initially knew nothing of the existence of these stations, even though he’d taught public school for nearly 25 years and was the author of a state-adopted textbook on North Carolina history. While traveling to Ocracoke in the late 1980s to interview for a principal’s job, he happened upon the old Chicamacomico station in Rodanthe. “Something just drew me to it,” Charlet says. “When I realized that it was a predecessor to the Coast Guard, I thought, ‘How could we have not heard of this?’ There’s this huge chunk of American history that’s so positive and so heroic, and hardly anybody’s ever heard of it.”

For members of the Chicamacomico Historical Association, including descendants of the surfmen and station keepers, ignorance of this part of North Carolina’s coastal history is unthinkable. But Executive Director John Griffin sees it regularly among visitors to the museum. Griffin, a Boston native who moved to the Outer Banks in 2006, has found that while most tourists are familiar with the riders of the Pony Express, relatively few know the story of these brave surfmen.

“They rescued 177,000 people, and we know more about kids who delivered mail for 18 months,” he scoffs. “I don’t know why that is. It just got lost.”

Keeper James Charlet spins tales of brave surfmen, like the crew that manned the Little Kinnakeet Life-Saving Station in 1899. Photography courtesy of National Parks Service Photographs Collection (AV5178 ), Outer Banks History Center, Manteo, NC

Chicamacomico, the most complete of all the remaining life-saving sites in the state, revisits history in its original 1874 setting, displaying period equipment including a Lyle gun (a small cannon), breeches buoy, and life-car rescue apparatus. Visitors to Chicamacomico, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year, can climb a watchtower where life-savers stood scanning the horizon for ships in distress. They can view a replica of the tokens that surfmen exchanged on their nightly foot patrols between stations to ensure that the entire coastline was covered. The station houses the original surfboat used in its famous rescue of the Mirlo in 1918, when life-savers rowed through the fiery Atlantic to save 42 sailors of a British tanker that had been torpedoed by a German U-boat.

Charlet learned the saga of the Mirlo by heart before his retirement from Chicamacomico, where he got his nickname from a former Coast Guard commander who routinely addressed him as “Keeper” during visits to the museum. “I learned the story very well and I’ve told it a thousand times,” Charlet says. “But the more research I did, the more I found out there are not hundreds of these stories — there are thousands.”

“These guys did it all and they’re not recognized for what they did. That became my mission.”

Having developed a persona around his “Keeper James” name, Charlet continues to tell these tales at meetings of civic clubs and historical societies, recounting rescues from lesser-known vessels like the Priscilla, E.S. Newman, and Ephraim Williams. He talks about a friendship that developed between the Kill Devil Hills life-savers and brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright, who are believed to have involved the station’s crew members in hauling gliders up Big Kill Devil Hill for test runs. A bronze sculpture at the Wright Brothers Memorial depicts Surfman John T. Daniels capturing a photograph of the first powered flight on December 17, 1903.

“These guys did everything,” Charlet says of the life-savers. “They’re risking their lives to make the rescue. They’ll bring all these people back to their station, give them food, a free place to stay. And the ones that didn’t make it, they buried them on the beach. They did it all and they’re not really recognized for what they did. That became my mission.”

• • •

Today, Charlet’s taken on a new mission: to save the 125-year-old Oregon Inlet Life-Saving Station. Located on the southeast side of the inlet along part of Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, the structure, decommissioned by the Coast Guard in 1988, was renovated 15 years ago. North Carolina Aquariums, which owns the building, plans to move it to Manteo. Charlet has formed the nonprofit Outer Banks Coast Guard History Preservation Group to try to keep the station in place as a visitor center, event venue, and history museum.

“I call myself the keeper of the Outer Banks’ history,” Charlet says. “That’s a very bold statement. I don’t mean that I’m an expert or authority. I’m just a keeper.” He points to a painting depicting surfmen rowing across churning waves toward a shipwreck illuminated by a lighthouse beam. “These are heroes,” he says. “People were different then. They were able to do things we couldn’t do, to survive things we couldn’t survive. These are good stories and they should be told and retold.”

U.S. Life-Saving Station
Chicamacomico Historic Site
23645 NC Highway 12
Rodanthe, NC 27968

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This story was published on May 27, 2024

Kim Grizzard

Kim Grizzard is an O. Henry Award-winning features reporter at The Daily Reflector in Greenville.