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Unsung Hero of the Coast Guard/Life-Saving ServiceJohn Etheridge

When I was very young (~5-6 years), there was a very elderly gentleman living with his daughters family in a home across the street from Ballentine School (next door to Lassiters Store): John Etheridges Last Residence: At that tine, John Etheridge was about 90 years old, blind, or almost so. I dont remember how I came to know that Mr. Etheridge had been employed in the Life-Saving Service on the Atlantic, in the 1880s, or that he had been involved in a life-saving attempt that ended in disaster--but I do remember knowing about it. We kids would visit him. from time-to-time, but he never spoke about his experiences as a young man in the LifeSaving Service, or that day when he almost died trying to save the lives of others, so long ago. The AtlanticA Very Dangerous Place To Be During A Storm Its very hard to think about Norfolk and not think about the Chesapeake Bay, the Atlantic Ocean, and all of the experiences that Virginians, and North Carolinians, had living/working on these waters--and as well as the shores where the land started and the waters stopped. While most of us might think about the men who sailed the ships that plied these waters, other men lived, and worked, quietly on shore to help the ships that failed to make it safely to port, becoming distressed, often within sight of land. The Federal Government had early on funded the creation of a light-house service, to provide or the safe passage of sailing ships, but it wasnt until the early 1870s that a LifeSaving Service was founded, to help save the crew/passengers of ships that become distressed, so that the crews/passengers needed to abandon the ship for their safety. A Heavy Sea Running: The Formation of the U.S. Life-Saving Service, 1846 1878: Hull Life-Saving Museum: Fire Island Life Saving Station Pictures: Along the Virginia/North Carolina shore, a small number of Life-saving stations were build, as described in the following links: Pictures of Coastal Virginia Life-Saving Stations:

Its hard to believe that everyone hasnt at least walked by the Virginia Beach LifeSaving Station, that is now part of the boardwalk attractions at Virginia Beach: Old Life-Saving Service Stations: The following link provides a fairly complete overview of a Life-Saving Stations operation: This link provides a description of the duties of a Surfman: As a young child, I remember my family motoring down to Sandbridge, letting the air out of the tires a little, and driving down the beach for several miles. There was then, if memory serves, at least one of those Life-Saving Stations still around, although it was deserted and in terrible condition. It is on this stretch of Sand Bridge shoreline, where John Etheridge enters the picture, back in January, 1887-The Wreck of the German Ship Elizabeth Our story of John Ethridge starts in 1878, when a German ship by the name of the Elizabeth, foundered near Dam Neck (VA). John Ethridge, working as a Surfman, was a member of a crew that attempted to save the twenty-two crew of the Elizabeth, but the storm was so intense, that all of crew perished, as well as most of the Life-Savers in the boat that was launched into the storm to bring the helpless sailors to shore: Dam Neck Mills: The 1850s and 1860s were a period of severe storms on the East Coast, causing many shipwrecks. In order to aid victims of these shipwrecks, a Life Saving Service was started in 1874, and in the following decade, life saving stations were constructed along the coast. Stations were built at Cape Henry and Dam Neck Mills. A "keepers house" is believed to have existed at Dam Neck Mills as far back as 1850. In 1878, the Seatack Station was placed between these two at the present 24th Street at Virginia Beach. The property on which the Dam Neck Station stood was purchased in 1881 from the State of Virginia. The stations were numbered from north to south, starting with Cape Henry. The Dam Neck Mills Station was therefore number 3. The next station to the south was at Little Island and is now a beach house at the far southern end of Sandbridge. The original station, built about 1874, was moved back from the ocean some time during the first 20 years.

Probably the most tragic story in the history of Dam Neck Mills Station is the valiant attempt to rescue the crew of the German ship Elisabeth. James E. Belanga of Dam Neck Mills was patrolling the beach in a heavy snow storm during the mid-watch on January 8, 1887. He and the surfman patrolling from Little Island discovered a ship aground at Sand-bridge, 4 miles south of the Dam Neck Mills Station (Latitude 36o44.6N). It quickly settled on its side in the sand. Both stations sent rescue teams to the scene. The 22-man crew of the ship were discovered to be in a life boat in the water, sheltered by the lee of the wreck. They could not attempt to reach the shore because of a north-east gale and the surf which it produced. The conventional rescue by breeches buoy could not be carried out and the only means of rescue was to reach them by boat. Abel Belanga, James brother, was the Keeper of the Little Island Station and in charge of the rescue. He returned briefly to his station to pick up some equipment and to his home for a bite of breakfast and remarked to his wife how difficult it would be to reach the lifeboat. This was the last time she saw him alive. Back at the scene of the wreck, he launched the surfboat with a crew made up of his brother, James, his brother-in-law, Joseph Spratley of Dam Neck Mills, and four other Little Island surfmen. As the shipwrecked crew was being transferred to the rescue boat, a wave overturned both boats, throwing all 29 men into the sea. All except two were drowned or died soon after from exposure. George W. stone and John H. Land were the two other Little Island surfmen lost. The survivors were Little Island surfmen John Ethridge and Frank Tedford, who was another brother-in-law of the Belangas. Also mentioned as being present was "Ogelsby the miller". In appreciation of the heroic actions of these men who gave their lives, the German government gave funds to their families. The German crew was given a Christian funeral and buried at Norfolk. Abel and James Belanga and Joseph Spratley are buried in a fenced section of the Tabernacle Church Cemetery on Sandbridge Road. Abels tombstone gives a brief account of the tragedy. D. Gregory Claiborne Butts, the minister of the Tabernacle Church on the road to Sandbridge describes this rescue in his book "From Saddle to City by Buggy, Boat and Railway". Mrs. W. H. Belanga, remembers these wrecks in which her father, Captain Barco, participated. After one of these rescues, one of their neighbors took a wagon to the beach to take Captain Barco home. However, the surfmen insisted that he walk home because he was so nearly frozen that had he relaxed in the wagon, he would probably have gone to sleep and never awakened. She remembers that when he arrived home his scarf and hat were frozen to his face, and he could riot talk for a long time until he thawed out. Tabernacle Church: ---

The story made the New York Times at the time: Jan 9th/1887: Twenty People Drowned: res=FA0C1FFC3D5D17738DDDA00894D9405B8784F0D3 The Times reported in this first article Etheridge is so badly injured that it is thought he can not survive. However, the next day, it seems that John Etheridge did survive Jan 10,1887/Twenty-seven Lives Lost/The Wreck of the German Ship Elizabeth: res=F50D14FD3D5D17738DDDA90994D9405B8784F0D3 John Etheridge, and Frank Tedford, the two life-savers who were washed ashore are doing well, and are in a fair way to entirely recover. --Local Minister D. Gregory Claiborne Butts Remembers The Tragedy There are also additional details of this days tragedy to be found in a book written by D. Gregory Claiborne Butts, the minister of the Tabernacle Church at the time, about the significant events in his life-From Saddle to City/by Buggy, Boat and Railway:
My intercourse with the Life Savers and their families brought me into contact with as true and faithful a body of men and women as I have ever known anywhere. In many respects they were men above the average in courage, patience, intelligence, and, in many instances, reverence for holy things. Some were godless, without hope, reckless, profane, but these were few. I have seen them in the prayer-meeting, at public worship, at the bedside of the sick ; I have walked the lonely beach with them at night, getting up from a warm bed at midnight, or two A. M. to go; I have witnessed their daring in time of danger, when a cool head and consummate skill in snatching success from the raging ocean; and nothing but these qualities could have brought victory. They have taught me the lesson of perseverance in the hard school of practical "doing for the other fellow," never stopping to ask the nationality or the color of the unfortunate out yonder where Death is shaking his white fist from every wave crest.

The wreck of the German merchant ship "Elizabeth" at Sand Bridge, eight miles south of Virginia Beach, and five miles east of the parsonage, at Nimmo's church on Saturday, Jan. 8, 1887, burned itself into my soul as one of the most distressing events that has ever occurred on that dangerous coast. A great snow-storm set in on Friday morning the 7th, from the northeast, and increased in fury until night-fall when the wind attained the velocity of a gale. Early Saturday morning the patrol on the beach reported a large full rigged ship aground on the inner bar. Her crew had taken refuge in the yawl boat under the stern, and were in comparative safety. The Captains of No. 3, "Dam Neck" station, and No. 4, "Little Island," got out their apparatus, and were on the spot opposite the stranded vessel ready to render any assistance the high wind and sea would allow them to give. But going out to the wreck in the Life Boat was deemed too dangerous to attempt just then, so more than two hours were spent trying to shoot a Life Line across the deck; but even this was impossible. Then Captain Webb Balangee, of "Little Island" station, determined to man the Life boat with a volunteer crew from both stations, and go out to the rescue of the strangers. Besides Captain Balangee, there were Jas. E., (his brother) Joe Spratley, (his brother-in-law) of the "Dam Neck" station, and John Etheridge, (another brother-in-law,) Frank Tedford, George Stone and John Land from the "Little Island" station. On reaching the ship at about 10:30 A. M., twenty-two Germans including the Captain, whose name was Hulberstadt, were found in the yawl boat. A transfer of eight Germans to the Life boat made fifteen men in that boat, leaving fourteen in the yawl. Then the perilous return trip to the beach began. The sea was still running very high, and hardly had the boats cleared the protecting stern of the great ship when a big wave upset both, leaving twenty-nine struggling men in the icy waters of the Atlantic. Every German lost his life by freezing or drowning, and of the Life-savers, only two, Frank Tedford and John Etheridge reached the shore alive, and these on the very verge of collapse. I heard nothing of the disaster, on account of the dreadful weather prevailing, which broke up all travel in that section, till Sunday morning: then in company with my friend, Mr. George Bowden, I went to the sea-shore more to be with the bereaved families of the men than to satisfy "turiosity ; for these families had been members of my congregation at Tabernacle. Rev. Mr. Savage, of the Episcopal Church, (an Evangelical preacher

and a faithful pastor, besides honoring me with his friendship) ministered to the widows and orphans at "Dam Neck." He conducted the funeral service over the remains of Spratley and the Balangee brothers at "Sam Neck," whilst I performed the same service over the remains of Stone and Land at Tabernacle on Monday the 10th, after which the first three were interred in the old Cemetery at Tabernacle, and the bodies of Stone and Land in the family burying ground near Capp's Shop on Pungo Ridge. Here, also, was a double bereavement. Brother Andrew Land, the father of John, the dead surfman, had married Mrs. Stone, the mother of George, the other surfman. So the tragic event assumed the proportions of a tremendous family disaster, in which kin wept with kin, or stood in silent awe in the presence of an appalling calarnity that came near engulfing all they held dear in the pitiless depths of the ocean. The remains of Capt. Hulberstadt were taken to Baltimore by one of the Masonic Lodges of that city. The bodies of nineteen Germans were carrid to Norfolk, and the funeral obsequies conducted by Rev. J. B. Merritt, at that time Chaplain of the Seaman's Bethel. The body of the twentieth victim came ashore about a month later, and was interred by the side of his unfortunate comrades in Norfolk. The body of the last of this unfortunate crew had not been found when last I heard from that section. The wrecks on that beach are not so numerous in these years as formerly. The crews are better organized, are supplied with improved apparatus, and the service all along the coast is more efficient. But the men of this day are no braver, nor more skillful in their work than the men of that day. The service has never had truer men, nor have there been more examples of deliberate and unselfish sacrifice than the surfmen made in the days of Barco, Balangee, Neal and Corbell. I obtained many a valuable lesson out of the lives of these men, and of the sturdy crews that served under them, on that storm-swept beach.

--- And then there is this article from the Virginian-Pilot, published back in 2005 ----

Home / FindArticles / News / The Virginian-Pilot and The Ledger-Star, Norfolk, VA / Aug 14, 2005

LOOKING BACK: Failed surf rescue attempt lives on in local lore

Between Sandbridge and False Cape, on five acres of sand and dunes that tenuously separate the Atlantic Ocean from Back Bay, sits proud and proper Little Island City Park. Purchased by the city of Virginia Beach in 1965, it has become a beachy summer place of great and varied family fun. Along with its fishing pier and a variety of recreation and picnicking facilities, the park includes the site and several remaining buildings from the Coast Guards historic Little Island Station. For almost 100 years, the station served as one of a regional string of five Virginia Beach coastal rescue facilities, or one of 11 such stations in Virginia. Stretching from Cape Henry to North Carolina, surfmen from Little Island Station No. 4 dutifully patrolled the Atlantic coast between Dam Neck and False Cape, responding to hundreds of storms and at-sea emergencies during its period of duty and service. Properly called a desolate outpost by historians, the very characteristics that made these mens duty at Little Island so solitary and isolated in the 1800s are the virtues that modern people seek a quiet beach, lonely dunes, soaring birds, the pounding surf and, often, a sense of history. At 1 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 8, 1887, young George Stone, keeping his beach watch during gale winds and drifting snow, identified a ship aground in low water about a quarter mile off the coast at Sandbridge. It was the Elizabeth, a full-rigged, German sailing vessel out of Bremen, bound for Baltimore with a cargo of several hundred tons of salt, fertilizer chemicals and empty petroleum barrels. Piled up broadside on a sandbar, she was taking a merciless pounding from a noreaster with heavy waves breaking over her entire length. Surfman Stone hurried back to Little Island Station No. 4, sounded the alarm and alerted the crew. Immediately, Capt. Abel Belanga led his men two miles up the beach to the place of the sighting. Along with Capt. Bailey T. Barcos crew from Life-Saving Station No. 3 at Dam Neck, they worked together through the dawn, desperately trying to reach the stricken vessel with lines fired from the Lyle Gun. However, the winds were too strong, and the Elizabeth lay just beyond the reach of their eight varied attempts. The helpless, frost-bitten German crew, 22 of them, including their captain, had become visible in the morning light. Their ship was in danger of breaking up, and their distress was readily apparent.

At 11 a.m., Capt. Belanga selected six of the ablest and most trusted men to launch the stations 21-foot rescue boat into the roaring surf. Chosen were John Land, John Etheridge, James Belanga (his brother), Frank Tedford and Joseph Spratley (his brothers-in-law) and George Stone, the patrolman, who had made the sighting. They fought their way through fierce waves, rowing dead ahead, responding to the captains cheery, Drive her, boys! Drive her! Keeping the bow well up and into the wind, which was approaching 35 mph, they secured next to the tethered ships boat of the Elizabeth. After verifying a critical shortage of cork life preservers, they began the treacherous transfer of 22 shivering crewmen into the two small crafts. Fourteen entered the yawl, and eight joined Capt. Belanga and his six oarsmen in the rescue boat. Just as the last German crewman had safely boarded, a huge sea suddenly swept across the rear of the ship, and an immense wave over- washed both boats, swamping and turning them over. Instantly, all 29 men were plunged into the freezing waters. The yawl, half submerged, hung on its tether; the overturned rescue boat drifted in the churning sea. Every man struggled for his life. Some were able to cling to the yawl or gain purchase on the bottom of the rescue boat, but only until exposure and hypothermia weakened their grip. One by one they disappeared from view. Some were carried seaward beyond the breakers. A courageous few tried to swim in, hoping to reach shore before the icy cold closed them down. Surfman Etheridge, one of only two survivors, told of Capt. Belanga exhorting him to hold on while he worked beneath the water to successfully remove Etheridges long, heavy boots. But, alas, the captains boots were held up by leather straps under his life preserver and oil-skin coat and could not be removed. Though he was a strong swimmer and made it to shore, the captain died within minutes beside a beach fire the crew had built. It was quickly apparent that only surfman John Etheridge and Frank Tedford had survived. By mid-afternoon, a miles-long string of frozen bodies had washed up along Sandbridge beach. After being collected in horse-drawn wagons, they were carried back to the boat house at Station No. 4, wrapped in blankets and placed in neat rows across the floor.

Except for the Elizabeths captain, Frederick Halberstadt, who would be interred in Baltimore, all of the German crew members, save five who were never found, were given Christian burial in Norfolk, under the auspices of the former mayor, Col. William Land. At the beach, both rescue station communities were devastated by the losses, for many of the surviving families were connected by either birth or marriage. Two families suffered multiple losses; George Stone was John Lands stepson; Abel and James Belanga were brothers; Joseph Spratley was Abels brother-in-law. Tragically, they had given their lives for the lives of men they could not save. Joint funeral services were held on Jan. 10, 1887, at Dam Neck and Sandbridges Tabernacle Church. The Rev. D.G.C. Butts wrote in his memoirs, It was the saddest, most heart-wrenching day of my entire ministry. John Land and his stepson, George Stone, were buried on family ground on Pungo Ridge, while Abel Belanga, his son-in-law, Joseph Spratley, and his brother, James Belanga, were buried side by side at Willow Wood Cemetery on Sandbridge Road. A wrought-iron fence marks their plot, beneath the expansive arms of a perfect magnolia tree. Today, a half mile down the road, Marshall Belanga tends his vegetable gardens and works on his woodcarvings. A fourth-generation descendent of James and Abel, he has spent his long, proud life, for the most part, in five square miles around Sandbridge, Little Island and the Atlantic Ocean. Hes very proud of his family and the Belanga name. Its painted on the side of his shop. John F. Waldron * Fielding Tyler , executive director of The Old Coast Guard Station, and Julie J. Pouliot , co-author of Shipwrecks on the Virginia Coast and the Men of the United States Life-Saving Service, assisted with this feature. Copyright 2005 Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved. ----Etheridge, like so many of his colleagues, risked death every time they launched their small boats into the churning waters of the Atlantic, to save the lives of sailors, and passengers, of ships that had foundered near the shore, or were in imminent danger of doing so. Salaries for these sorts of jobs were not particularly large, given that death was a constant companion with these men, each time they were called out in a storm. If asked, no doubt John Etheridge would probably not see himself as a hero; he would probably say: I was just doing my job. Whatever the truth on that point might be, he, and thousands of men like him, helped to build this country by doing their job--no

matter how dangerous each of these jobs might have been. To that endhe certainly was an unsung hero of Life-Saving Service. This short article is a very small tribute to John Etheridge, a resident of Ballentine Place at the time of his passing. I dont know how long he lived with his daughters family, or even what he did with the rest of his life after surviving this fatal event. No doubt the National Archives, or the Coast Guard Archives would provide some additional details. No doubt there is some information in his obituary, if anyone were interested to chase do the microfilm of the Virginian Pilot. Or perhaps one of his extant family will read this posting, and add some of their own memories of their grandfather (or great-grandfather), John Etheridge. John Etheridge cheated death that fateful day back in January, 1887, living until 1950, or 1951. Hopefully, this posting will be a small tribute to John, and his long-forgotten crewmates, and the many evidences of heroism of the US Life-Saving Service. If there were ever to be a history of Ballentine Place written, it would be a shame to not make mention of John Etheridge, and his story of the events around the wreck of the Elizabeth. I was wondering if there were any more to John Etheridges story, so I spent a little time trying to locate his grandson, who still lives in the Tidewater area. At the time we were all living together in Ballentine Place, the grandson, who was a teenager at the time, regretted that he wasnt too interested in those sorts of things (nor was I), and couldnt provide too much detailed information. He did seem to think that John Etheridge had moved into Ballentine Place, built the family home, and ran the store next door before the Lassiter husband and wife team took over. Perhaps someone else will do some more research on John Etheridge one of these days, and track him back through the US Census, and see where he was living, and what he was doing, from the time he was a surfman in the Lifesaving Service to e time he moved into Ballentine Place. Oh .. and I suppose there is one last point to make heretalk to your grandparents and record the stories of their lives. One of these days they will be gone, and unless you make the effort to learn about them, those memories will be gone too. Wayne res=F50D14FD3D5D17738DDDA90994D9405B8784F0D3

Hi .. my name is Wayne Martin. I grew up in Norfolk (in Ballentine Place) and my mothers family has lived on Knotts Island since 1715but I live in Palo Alto, CA, now. When I was a young child, there was a very elderly gentleman on the block, who had been in the Atlantic Life-Saving Service back in the 1880s. This fellow, John Etheridge, survived a disastrous attempt to save the lives of twenty-two crewmen of the doomed German Ship Elizabeth, back in 1887. Five of his crewmates were also drowned, in the attempt to save the German sailors. The event is described on this Coast Guard web-page: -- Abel and James Belanga and Joseph Spratley are buried in a fenced section of the Tabernacle Church Cemetery on Sandbridge Road. Abels tombstone gives a brief account of the tragedy. D. Gregory Claiborne Butts, the minister of the Tabernacle Church on the road to Sandbridge describes this rescue in his book "From Saddle to City by Buggy, Boat and Railway". ---Was wondering if you were aware of these events, and knew where the grave sites of these men are in your cemetery? I was also wondering if perhaps someone in the Church might be able to help me out by taking a few pictures with a digital camera of these tombstones and sending them along so that I can post them on-line, to help add a little detail to the short essay I am writing on John Etheridge, one of the survivors? Would appreciate any help you can provide. Oh, and heres a link to an e_form copy of Minister Butts book. If you are unaware of it, it seems like it might have some interesting background for your Church today .. From Saddle to City by Buggy, Boat and Railway: Wayne Martin Growing Up In Ballentine Place
Last Address of Record Last Benefit
11 Jul 1914

Issued By



Order Record?


06 Aug 2003 (V)


23455 (Virginia 226(none Beach,Virginia Virginia 14specified) Beach City, 5127 VA)

1 of 2 articles found. Published: August 8, 2003 in LOCAL section, page B6 Length: 170 words

Story excerpt: VIRGINIA BEACH - Dorothy E. James, 89, of the 5300 block of Hickory Ridge, passed away Aug. 6, 2003 in her home.

A native of Norfolk, Mrs. James was a former member of the King's Daughters, former resident of Ballentine Place in Norfolk and was voting precinct judge there for many years. She was preceded in death by her husband of 53 years, Samuel F. James Sr. and her son, David A. James. She is survived by her son, Samuel F. James Jr. and his wife Dale of Chesapeake; and daughter, ...
Sandra J James

6 0

Calvin Stroud Newby Samuel F James Dorothy E James Johnnie Herbert Chandler Barry G Chandler


22 Dec 1912

Apr 1986


23509 (Norfolk, Norfolk City, VA)

(none specified)



Samuel F James, Jr.

3305 Hemlock Dr Chesapeake, VA 23321-5431 (757) 484-0232