Most of us who live in or near coastal Delaware have undoubtedly driven by it hundreds of times, that brightly colored structure on Route 1 near the Indian River Inlet bridge that you just can’t help but notice during your trip up or down the coast.
But have you ever stopped to check it out? Do you know what it is and what its significance is to the history and development of Sussex County?
I’m talking of course of the Indian River Life-Saving Station, that historic structure on northbound Route 1 hugging the Atlantic coastline. If it’s walls could talk, oh the stories it could tell of those early days at the Delaware beaches.
The building harkens back to days when shipwrecks used to occur off the Delaware coastline fairly regularly, when men being pulled from the often-frigid waters of the First State was anything but a rare occurrence.
The building is also a testament to what can be accomplished by a committed group of volunteers when the cause is just and attainable, when the goal of preserving local history is met with a united front and a will that won't be denied.
This is the latest in the Oldfather Group’s historical look at coastal Delaware, this time focusing on the Indian River Life-Saving Station and its importance to the historic preservation of our area. Please read on:
This historic station hugging the Delaware coastline represents a time when shipwrecks were very commonplace in the United States, particularly in the Atlantic Ocean. The men of the United States Life-Saving Service risked their lives on a regular basis and stayed at facilities like the one near the Indian River Inlet for often months at a time.
Constructed about 10 miles apart, most of these old boathouses are long gone today. But the one shining example of this time in American maritime history that still stands in eastern Sussex County is near the inlet, a treasured artifact brought back to life in the late 1990s.
The former Indian River Life-Saving Station was built in 1876 and is the oldest lifesaving station still in its original location on the east coast of the United States.
One of the first stations designed by the federal government, it remained open until the famed nor’easter of 1962 filled it with several feet of sand and the decision was made to close its doors forever.
The photo below of the Indian River Life-Saving Station is believed to have been taken sometime in the 1920s. Photo Credit: Beebe Frazer.
The Delaware Seashore Preservation Foundation took over the task of restoring the station many years later with the goal of restoring it to its 1905 appearance. They accomplished that goal and reopened the historic building as a museum in 1998.
During its nearly nine decades of service to Sussex County, the station was run by a keeper and six surfmen from September through May during its time as part of the Life-Saving Service. The station was not normally manned during the traditional summer months as, statistically, not many ships ran into trouble during that time of the year.
Even after the United States Life-Saving Service merged with the Revenue Cutter Service and formed the U.S. Coast Guard in 1915, the station was still used as a barracks until Mother Nature intervened in 1962.
It’s estimated that the men of the U.S. Life-Saving Service saved more than 175,000 lives during its 44-year existence from 1871 to 1915. It’s unknown exactly how many of those lives were saved by the men stationed at Indian River, but it’s safe to say that it was a substantial amount.
And pulling a man, or a ship, from the waters during a storm was anything but an easy task, especially in the 19th century.
A couple of times a year, the people who run the historic station open it up 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.
If you’ve never had the chance to experience this demonstration, we highly recommend the experience. You’ll never forget it.
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.
But I digress; back to our historical perspective…
The Indian River Life-Saving Station has been witness to countless events throughout history, and the men there have saved dozens, if not hundreds, of lives over the years. But there was one famous event that occurred near the inlet that is remembered today more than any.
And it involves a mystery that still has not been solved to this day.
This tale has been included in many publications over the years, but we touch on it here as well. Perhaps you’ve heard the tale of the Red Wing and perhaps you haven’t; it’s an interesting and head-scratching story to be sure.
Here’s how it happened, as recounted in “Remembering Sussex County: From Zwaanendael to King Chicken,” published by the History Press in 2009:
In October, 1891, a 28-ton fishing schooner from New Jersey named the Red Wing was stranded during a northwest gale about three miles south of the Indian River Inlet. Battling worsening conditions, men from the Indian River Life-Saving Station attempted to reach the distressed vessel, which had become trapped by the storm.
They didn’t make it in time, forced instead to begin a search for survivors some time later. But all they found were belongings and the remains of the ship, which was floating upside down in rough waters with no crewmen in sight.
It was the next morning before the first body rolled onto the shore; by midday, six men had been pulled from the water.
A coroner’s inquest revealed that none of the men drowned, but were instead killed as a result of injuries sustained when the Red Wing broke apart in the storm, likely after striking one of the shoals just offshore. A broken neck and broken legs were two injuries reported at the time.
The fact that the Red Wing and her crew died off the coast of the Delaware seashore on Oct. 22, 1891, has never been questioned. The ship’s wreckage, the crew’s belongings and the bodies washed ashore prove the severity of the accident and its aftermath.
But there is one mystery that surrounds the wreck of the Red Wing, one that remains unexplained to this day. In the cemetery of the nearby Ocean View Presbyterian Church are seven unmarked graves that records show contains the remains of the Red Wing’s crew, though all official records record the number killed in the storm as only six.
Who was that mysterious seventh man? He has never been identified and history shows no record of him ever washing ashore or his body ever being discovered. So whose body was buried along with the other six?
We may never know.
The tale of the Red Wing not withstanding, the men of the Indian River Life-Saving Station were nearly always successful in their missions to save lives along the Delaware coast. It was extremely difficult work, and at times tedious, but they performed admirably and were always up to the task when needed.
Delaware Historic and Cultural Affairs Photo
The Indian River Life-Saving Station is today managed by Delaware Seashore State Park. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.
One of six that served the Delaware coast, it is the only station in the state that remains on its original site.