Jessica Miller, a 2015 graduate of UVa-Wise, is researching a 128-year-old shipwreck that took the lives of five U.S. Life-Saving Service surfmen as they made an unsuccessful but heroic attempt to rescue the German crew of the Elizabeth.
Miller, a history major, is working as an intern at the Coast Guard Museum in Virginia Beach. The U.S. Life-Saving Service later became the U.S. Coast Guard.
The Elizabeth wrecked between Dam Neck Mills Station and Little Island Station during a Jan. 8, 1887 snowstorm. Miller’s research reveals the dedication and bravery of the seven surfmen who worked hard to rescue the 22-member Elizabeth crew. Two of the seven surfmen who attempted the rescue survived.
Miller’s research shows that a handful of life-saving stations were operated along the Virginia Beach coastline in the later part of the 1800s. Each station had a keeper and several surfmen to patrol the shore.
According to Miller, a surfman from the Little Island Station and a surfman from the Dam Neck Mills Station were on routine patrol when they discovered the wreckage of the Elizabeth.
“Both surfmen returned to their respective stations to inform the two life-saving crews of the shipwreck,” Miller said. “After arriving at the scene of the accident, the surfman attempted to make contact with the ship’s distressed crew by using a Lyle gun. Their efforts, however, were unsuccessful and the German sailors were forced to abandon the Elizabeth and crowd into a large lifeboat.”
In her research, Miller learned that Abel Belanga, the keeper of the Little Island Station, made a decision to deploy a surfboat to rescue the crew. The keeper picked six surfmen to accompany him as oarsmen.
“From his own station, Belanga chose surfman John T. Etheridge, John H. Land, George W. Stone and Frank Tedford,” she said. “He also chose James E. Belanga and Joseph Spratley from the Dam Neck Mills Station.”
James E. Belanga was the keeper’s brother and Tedford and Spratley were his brothers-in-law.
“When the life-saving crew reached the German sailors, Keeper Belanga informed Frederick G. Halberstady, the captain of the Elizabeth, that the 22 Germans would be transported to the beach in three trips,” Miller said. “As the surfmen attempted to bring the first group of men to shore, an immense wave overturned both the surfboat and the large lifeboat.”
The surfmen and the Elizabeth crew fought to survive the cold and choppy water, but Etheridge and Tedford were the only survivors.
Miller said the internship is giving her real world experience that she can use in the future, regardless of her career path. She plans to pursue a master’s degree, but has not decided whether to pursue the degree in history or criminal justice.
“The history department helped me develop marketable skills such as researching, writing and critical thinking,” she said of her time at UVa-Wise. “I feel like my major did prepare me for life after college. The professors in the history department are also willing to help students with their resumes and cover letters as well as providing students with continued advice and support after graduation.”