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Saviors of the Sea: The Indian River Life Saving Station

The Sea Taketh Away...

October 27, 1891.Evening was setting in on the south patrolman of the Indian River Life-Saving Station as he struck his patrol clock at the keypost on the north side of the inlet. His patrol ending, he began his final leg back to the warmth of the stoked fire of the station house. A northwest gale had crept in hours before and as he stretched into the winds, he walked backwards to prevent the blinding rain and assault of the sand from stinging his soaked flesh.

With an eye to the sea, he pressed on slowly making his way along the beach. Suddenly, as though spit from the sea, he caught sight of a torch far to the south. Stopping in his tracks, the wind whipped and bullied his body as he examined the location intently. The feeble light appeared again before flickering out. The patrolman knew it was a distressed vessel and the unforgiving sea had picked new prey to claim as it own.

Running to the highest dune in sight, he fired his Coston flare to signal to the seamen that they had been spotted. It would also alert the remaining crew at the station that there was trouble. Squinting through the sheets of rain, he estimates the bearings of the vessel to be just three miles south near Cotton Path Hill and pouring all of his energy into one final sprint, trudged his way to the station.

Upon arriving, the men were already hurrying about having seen the flare. Rockets had been fired to recall the north patrolman who would round out the six man rescue team that would have to cross the inlet to reach the vessel. The inlet consisted of gullies and sandbars that had swollen to several times its normal size and attempting to cross it, along with all the necessary gear in tow, could prove too time consuming to perform the rescue. Their only chance was to make their way through the marsh meadows to a cove just north of Cotton Path Hill.

The 3,000 pound surfboat was mounted on its carriage and pulled a half mile through mud. Also in tow, was the beach apparatus cart which was weighed down with over a thousand pounds of equipment, including the Lyle gun and rope line needed to make contact with the boat. All this would need to be unloaded once at the cove in order to cross and then re assembled on the other side.

They fought the gale and rowed into the fury of the storm for more than half mile; two men constantly emptying buckets of sea water that threatened to sink them along the way. The tides and winds feverishly pushed them away from the landing area they had chosen and precious time was being lost as they battled the turbulent conditions. The keeper-in-charge gave the order to land where they were so as to not increase the growing gap between them and the shipwrecked crew.

Once ashore, half the crew rushed along the beach to search for the wreckage while the remaining crew stayed behind to assemble the gear. The searchers pushed for two miles south until they came upon what they all had feared would greet them.

Five days before, the Red Wing, a 28-ton schooner from Fort Monroe, Virginia and her Jersey crew had been bluefishing off the banks of Cape Henlopen and was on her way back to port when she ran headlong into the gale. Seeking safer waters along Fenwick Island, she became caught in the currents and was unable to breach the breakwaters back out into deeper territory. Now, amidst a jumbled mass of rigging, sails and timber, her lifeless remains and belongings were being pounded against an unforgiving shoreline. She was completely capsized and worst- without her crew. Under the light of lanterns, they searched both the surfbreak and dunes straight into the morning but with no sign of any survivors.

At dawn's first light, the gale had made its leave and the sea had exchanged its gnashing teeth for lamenting waves, giving up the first of 6 bodies it claimed that evening before. All were broken and battered, having not died from drowning, but the terrible battery of the wreckage they had been trapped within. An investigation into the Red Wing judged that the six men of the Indian River Life-Saving Station had exhausted all possible efforts to rescue the crew and had the boat not been destroyed, would have made a successful rescue.

The unmarked graves of the crew of the Red Wing are in the Ocean View Presbyterian Church cemetery, of which only two of the bodies were ever identified. A thing of note - All records record a total of 6 bodies removed from the wreckage and autopsied that day. However there is a mysterious seventh grave stone that is unaccounted for to this day.

Building a Legacy The US Life-Saving Service has witnessed countless events such as this during it's existence. Shipwrecks occurred with a regular frequency on the Delaware coastline. And while the tale of the Red Wing is one of despair, the service has rescued over 175,000 lives between 1871 and 1915. Of these lives, the Indian River Life-Saving Station is responsible for over 419 pulled from over 62 shipwrecks. The station bridges the gap between the history of the US Life-Saving Service and what we know as the US Coast Guard.

Built in 1876, it is the oldest of these stations on the east coast still in its original location and the only one of 6 in Delaware to survive. The station originally sat 400 feet closer to the ocean, but was pulled back to address shifting sands and erosion. Located near the Indian River Inlet, it is part of the Delaware Seashore State Park and stands as a testament to a very perilous time in Delaware's maritime history.

The station became active on January 1st, 1877 and remained active until 1915, when the US Revenue Cutter Service and the USLSS merged to create the US Coast Guard. Some of the very procedures created by these stations are still instituted today including Section 252 of the Coast Guard regulations which was copied word for word from the USLSS operations for "Action at Wrecks" , 1899.

The Indian River Life-Saving Station served Sussex County and was operated by six surfmen and a keeper from September through May. They would call the station home, often for months at a time, and spend their days drilling and honing their skills until the need arose to put them into action. During the summer months the station was not regularly manned as ships statistically didn't run into much trouble.

The patrolmen would enter the station to the warmth of the Mess room. Table was always set to welcome them back from patrol as well as remind them of what awaited their return when out in the elements. They would gather here when not on duty to keep warm by the stove.

A telephone was in the room used to communicate with the other Delaware stations. These were among the first telephone lines ever ran in the state.

The adjacent pantry was stocked and included medicinal supplies.

Connected to the Mess Room was the Boat Room which accounted for most of the station. It housed the surfboat, Lyle gun, ropes, flares, beach cart and all gear necessary to perform their duties. The far wall was the doors which opened to the beach where the boat would be transported to the waters and then rowed out to the wrecks.

The 3,000 pound boat would need to be loaded on a massive wooden cart with large wheels and then dragged to the beach by hand. The beach cart would follow with the gear. Fully loaded at nearly a ton, this was also hand pulled to the beach.

The "Life Line": Anatomy of a Rescue

If weather cooperated a boat rescue would suffice. But if the sea was determined to keep her prey, the breeches buoy would need to be deployed. The surfmen would fire a projectile from the Lyle Gun to the stranded vessel that had rope attached to it. A pulley system was then setup that carried heavier lines to the ship created a continuous loop. The breeches buoy, a harness device including sewn in pants, would be attached much like a modern day zip line and sent out to the ship to retrieve the sailors. The lines could carry sailors, but were also used to safely reclaim cargo as well.

The rescues were documented by the governor-appointed Keeper who would record the events at this desk, similar to the one used by Washington Vickers, the station's keeper from 1883-1907.

The keeper lived with the men at the station and in addition to keeping the logs, he was responsible for executing the rescues as well as running drills.

The entire crew and keeper lived in the upper floor of the station in meager quarters. The upstairs was split between their living space and a locker area as well as Sick Room. The Sick Room held donations, primarily from the Women's National Relief Association, which supplied survivors with dry clothes and blankets.

At the very top of the station was the cupola where the crew watched the beach for 24 hours a day. From this vantage point, the guard on duty was able to keep watch of the patrolmen and signal the rest of the crew in the event that he saw a flare so they could begin rescue preparations.

For nearly 90 years, these brave men would scan the Atlantic and pluck souls from the grasp of a watery death at the risk of their own lives. They preserved commerce and fisherman alike in some of the most frigid and dangerous conditions without the use of modern day safety or technological advancements. They navigated angry waters that were constantly unpredictable and unforgiving.

It would remain active as a Coast Guard station until 1962 when the Ash Wednesday Storm claimed it, causing catastrophic damage and burying it in over 7 feet of sand. Left to the elements, it was eventually abandoned.


Years would pass and the remnants of the station would fade into obscurity. The grounds served as a storage location for the State Highway Administration for a period of time, but otherwise was simply a broken landmark seen by travelers in passing along the Route 1 corridor.Several times a year, the station becomes open for special public events that are highlighted by a breeches buoy demonstration. Members of the public can actually handle some of the lifesaving equipment and see firsthand the difficulties the men of the station faced when attempting to rescue a stranded craft and/or people. There are also lantern tours held throughout the year when you can tour the facility the way people did before electricity was commonplace in coastal Delaware. Walking through the station, as well as along the beach, with lantern in hand is definitely an experience worth having, and sharing. Keep an eye on their website for information on when these tours will be taking place. Then in the late 1990's, after a near century of saving lives, the station would finally be rescued itself by the Delaware Seashore Preservation Foundation. the organization would restore the building and eventually hand it over to the Delaware Seashore State Park in 2004. The building now appears much as it did in 1905, but to walk within its walls is to be transported back to earlier age when all that stood between sailors and certain death was a crew of heroic men and their skilled determination.

"You have to go out, but you do not have to come back" This was the motto of the USLSS and the pledge honored by all who served the Indian River Life-Saving Station during its existence. This unofficial creed is not only recognized by the US Coast Guard today, but many would say serves as the very inspiration that fuels its purpose. Their skills would become legendary and their legacy served as the foundation for maritime rescue efforts. The title of "Surfman" is reserved for the service's most highly trained boat handlers. They are the only coxswains qualified to operate rescue boats in breaking surf conditions and of the 188 Coast Guard Stations, 20 require Surfmen. 1 out of 25 trainees ever earn the title in today's Guard.

It begs the question - How many of those chosen today would have been up to snuff in the era's Golden Age?


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