National Geographic : 1969 Sep
KODACHROMES BYGEORGEF. MOBLEY(ABOVE)ANDEMORYKRISTOF() N.G .S . One of a million who visited the national seashore last year, a pretty vacationist de lights in the saltbreeze and uncrowded sands. "Estimated. All instruments carried away... ." Other residents told me that the devastating northeast wind of March 7, 1962, was the worst of all. Remembered on the Outer Banks as the Ash Wednesday Storm, the blow stirred the Atlantic until, hurling great heads of water, it severed Hatteras Island, carving out a new 500-foot-wide inlet just north of Bux ton village.* Workers succeeded in closing it months later with sand and a wide variety of junk metal, including many old cars. Mr. Ballance has faced both hurricane and nor'easter in his time, as have most islanders who once were members of the Lifesaving Service. The service began operations on the North Carolina coast in 1874 and functioned until 1915, when it was merged with the old Revenue Cutter Service to form the U. S. Coast Guard. A chain of stations was opened, each staffed by a keeper, or officer in charge, and six surfmen. They patrolled the beach on foot, and sometimes on horseback, always on *See "Our Changing Atlantic Coastline," by Nathaniel T. Kenney, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, December 1962. 406 the alert for a vessel in distress. And when the call came, as it often did, the surfmen pushed their 2,600-pound lifeboats into a wall-like surf, aware that a single wrong move might mean a serious injury. The logs of duty stations in the Lifesaving Service are filled with accounts of heroism by men with the Outer Banks clan names of Ballance and Meekins and the legendary Midgetts. On a winter's day, I sat on the abandoned beach where one of the first stations once stood and thought about Rasmus S. Midgett and the barkentine Priscilla(page 401). I had heard the story many times during my stay on the Outer Banks-how the vessel was strand ed and breaking up as surfman Midgett hap pened by on his horse. He dismounted and ran through the crashing surf to the ship. He carried one crewman to safety on the beach and went back for another. Ten times he did this, somehow managing to survive a strain on his body that few men have known. The official report of the incident, as logged by the station keeper, cuts through the drama to produce an epic of understatement: "R. S. Midgett, Surfman No. 1 on South patrol from 3 a.m. to Sunrise. He found a wreck Broken to Pieces 3 miles South of Station and on the Stern was ten men. He managed to save them all without coming to Station to report." Rasmus Midgett was expected to do what he did, for in putting out to a sea that somer saults to shore, men of the service took guid ance in the pithy departing benediction of their superiors: "The rules say you gotta go, not that you gotta come back." The Lifesaving Service functioned along the coast of the Outer Banks as basically a winter operation. Now, with fleets of pleasure craft moving over the waters, summer is the season for rescue work. Oftentimes the mis sion involves nothing more than restoring a sense of direction. "We stopped one pleasure boat that was 15 Pioneer beach resort of North Carolina, Nags Head sprouted cottages and a hotel in the 1830's, when wealthy planters sought to escape the miasmas of inland swamps and marshes. The first development was on the side away from the ocean; not until the late 1800's did cottages begin to rise here on the Atlantic side. In those days most summer residents came to Nags Head on Memorial Day weekend and stayed until school re opened. Today, with good highways, vaca tionists come and go in a steady stream.