“And now the Storm-blast came, and he
Was tyrannous and strong;
He struck with his o’ertaking wings,
And chased us south along.”
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel T. Coleridge
Two powerful currents come together off the Outer Banks: the northbound Gulf Stream and the Labrador Current flowing south from the Artic. The warm and cold water of these two currents meet powerfully at the area in Buxton known as the Point. This collision of water formed the Diamond Shoals, underwater sand bars that shift and change, creating dangerous conditions for ships. This region is known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic”.
The US Lifesaving Service expanded operations in 1874 to include the North Carolina coast. Little Kinnakeet Lifesaving Station was constructed in 1874, one of 7 stations built along the NC coast that year. The US Lifesaving Service existed for 44 years (1871-1915).
The original station was designed by Francis Ward Chandler, and built in the Gothic/Stick style. The station was set on cedar piering and built of pine beams and boards. It was 45 by 20 feet with two levels. The front of the building had a sliding door entrance 11 feet wide for the boat room. At the rear of the boat room was the mess room. On the second floor were the crew’s quarters, a store room, and the station keeper’s room. A lookout platform was centered on top of the gable roof with entrance via a trap door. The interior walls were covered with vertical board and batten (small strips of wood). Many of the older homes on the island had walls covered in this manner. The windows had louvered shutters.
A cookhouse was built in 1892 to keep the kitchen heat away from the living quarters. It was 18 by 12 feet and had a dining area. The old mess room was then used as a sitting room for the surfmen.
The land that the station was on was leased for 20 years. As time came for the lease to expire, a decision was made that a new site be chosen. It had become customary to build lifesaving stations further from the ocean side to protect them from ocean damage. A site was chosen about a quarter mile southwest of the old location. The 14.5 acre site was purchased from local land owner C. T. Williams.
In 1904, the old structure was lifted onto rails and rollers and moved over a period of about 7 days to the new site. It was then raised onto blocks to be used as a boathouse. This boathouse was used to store beach rescue apparatus.
A new station was built in 1904. It was built in the Bungalow style, with hipped roofs, long, protruding eaves and a verandah around the building. It is 50 by 47 feet with two stories. The first floor has a crew bedroom, an assembly room, an office keeper’s room and a storage room. The top floor is an open loft with a watch tower and the watchman’s room.
There were no major changes made to the building until 1935 when indoor plumbing was installed. In 1945, an addition was built to house a lighting and heating plant.
The lifesaving stations brought new jobs to the Outer Banks and provided steady incomes to men who had previously been self-employed. After the active season, the men would return home to fish their nets until it was time to report back to their duty station.
Each lifesaving station had a keeper, who earned $200 a year, and a crew of six surfmen. The work schedule for the surfmen was four months long – December through March. They were paid $40 per month and lived at the station during those months. If the station assisted at a shipwreck, each of the surfmen were paid a bonus of $3.
Seven stations did not provide adequate coverage along the NC coastline. By 1881, there were a total of 29 stations. Employment months expanded to September 1 through April. In 1883, a 7th surfman was added and the crews were eventually employed year round.
Each lifesaving station was assigned a stretch of coastline to patrol for ships in distress. During the day the watchtower was used and at night or low-visibility days the men took shifts patrolling either on foot or by horseback. The crews patrolled the beach on each side of their station four times between sunset and sunrise. The closest stations to Little Kinnakeet were Big Kinnakeet Station to the south and Gull Shoal station to the north. While on patrol, the surfmen carried signals. If they discovered an endangered vessel a signal was lit to warn the vessel off or, if the ship was aground, to let the crew know assistance was on its way.
The surfmen had other duties as well. Each man had to cook one day a week. The crew had a weekly training schedule: Monday the equipment was inspected, Tuesday was lifeboat practice, Wednesday was for signal training, Thursday was the beach apparatus drill, Friday they practiced resuscitation, and Saturday they cleaned the station. This routine was broken only by shipwreck rescues or district inspections.
This routine kept all Lifesaving Stations at the same level of proficiency according to US Lifesaving Service rescue procedures. There were two main types of rescues. The most dangerous was when the lifesavers rowed to the wreck in surfboats. These boats were pulled to the shore by horse and wagon and then launched directly into the surf. If the ocean was too rough or if the vessel was close enough to shore, they used the beach apparatus method. A small cannon was used to fire a line to the wreck that the crew could attach to their ship. They used the secured line to attach a breeches buoy, a life ring with trouser legs. One person at a time climbed in and was pulled to shore.
On January 18, 1915, the Lifesaving Service combined with the Revenue Cutter Service to form the U.S. Coast Guard. During World War I, station crews, under the Coast Guard, went on year-round duty. This practice continued until the station was decommissioned in 1954. At that time, it became part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
Little Kinnakeet Station can be seen on the sound side near Ramp 32. The buildings have been stabilized, but restoration has not been completed due to lack of funding for the project.
Testimonial letters of captains and crews attest to the fact that the lifesaving stations and their crews saved many lives in selfless acts of heroism. It is said that many of the original settlers of the Outer Banks were shipwreck survivors who decided that the barrier islands were close enough to sound and shore to satisfy their desire to be at sea. They were reputed to be strong-willed and independent. These traits can still be found in their offspring as well as in many who decide to make Hatteras Island their home.
(Photo courtesy of NPS)