On October 11, 1896, Richard Etheridge, a former slave from Roanoke Island, earned his stripes as a Surfman and the Keeper of the United States Life Saving Station #17 on Pea Island. That night in October, Richard Etheridge convinced his team of men to swim voluntarily into deadly waters during a hurricane to save a distressed ship of eight seamen aboard the E.S. Newman. Under Etheridge’s orders, the endangered crew of the E.S. Newman were brought to shore safely.
Richard Etheridge was a slave who was able to buy his way to freedom after the Civil War, before becoming a valued member of the Second North Carolina Colored Volunteers. After serving in the Union Army for three years, he returned to Roanoke to learn the ways of a shipman. He joined the surfmen in 1874 and was assigned to a “checkerboard” crew on Bodie Island (it was called checkerboard because it included both blacks and whites).
Etheridge knew he had to train twice as hard as any other member of the Station because he was black. By 1880, Etheridge was promoted to Keeper of USLSS #17 upon recommendation. On his first day, many white surfmen walked away from the station. Soon after, racists burned the station down to the ground. This did not stop Etheridge. He pushed his men to train hard, not giving way to the setback of discrimination.
The crew under command of Keeper Etheridge saved many crews during their years at the Pea Island watchtower. Some of them were the J.W. Gaskill and the Rosa Cora in the Pamlico Sound. Many of the ships they rescued were those that were believed to be too dangerous to reach by other nearby stations.
Etheridge died from disease carried by mosquitoes in 1900.
For many years, there was no distinction given to the men of the Pea Island Watchtower and USLSS #17. Then in 1996, the U.S. Coast Guard posthumously awarded Keeper Richard Etheridge and his surfmen the Gold Lifesaving Medal.
Although there is no mention of the surfman’s dedication to his crew or to the U.S. Coast Guard on his tombstone, his life is told in the book “Fire on the Beach” by David Zoby and David Wright.
One of the many Life-Saving Service Stations like that run by Etheridge is now a landmark called the Chicamacomico Life-Saving State Historic Site in Rodanthe, N.C.