Driving north over the Indian River Bridge and continuing for about 3 miles on Route 1, you reach the restored and open-to-the-public Indian River Life Saving Station. It is preserved as a museum to educate visitors about the living and working conditions of men who often risked their lives to rescue sailors and cargo from shipwrecks off the coast of Delaware.
The U.S. Life Saving Service built the station in 1876. It was one of a number of stations built along the coastline — each station with a keeper and a crew of “surfmen” who were familiar with the local waters.
The USLSS operated until 1915, when it merged with the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service to form the U.S. Coast Guard, and the Coast Guard used the Indian River station until 1962 — when the building was decommissioned due to storm damage. The Delaware Seashore Preservation Foundation restored the building in the late 1990s.
The keeper for a number of years at the IRLSS was Washington Vickers, who — though records are unclear — was born in 1842, probably in the area now known as Seaford. After the Civil War erupted in 1861, young Washington went to Richmond and joined the Confederate service as a member of the 2nd Battalion of the Maryland Infantry.
Vickers’ Maryland unit was a part of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army on its expedition into the North in June and July of 1863 that led to a major confrontation with Union forces at a small community in Pennsylvania named Gettysburg. During the battle, Washington sustained a wound in the arm but managed to avoid capture.
Following the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg, Lee sent thousands of his wounded soldiers back toward the Potomac River in a wagon train estimated to be 17 miles long. Washington Vickers undoubtedly was among these miserable souls traveling wretched roads for 50 miles in heavy rains.
Vickers recovered from his wound in a Richmond hospital and served out his time in military service performing hospital patrol and nursing duties. He applied these skills later as a surfman, when he was the only medical care immediately accessible.
After the war, Washington became a farmer, until 1878, when he decided to enlist in the USLSS. In order to do that, he had to sign an amnesty oath because he had fought for the South.
Five years later, Vickers received promotion as keeper of the Indian River Station. He earned the princely sum of $900 for an annual salary.
Serving in this capacity was hard on family life. Washington was required to be present at the station year-round, while his wife, Henrietta, and their five children lived much farther inland.
As a result, over the next 24 years, he only saw them occasionally. Henrietta, the daughter of John Hooper, who owned the land that eventually became the town of Seaford, spent her time rearing the children and working as a school teacher.
It was in 1915, when the USLSS became the U.S. Coast Guard, that Washington Vickers retired from service. For a photo essay on Washington Vickers, see the website at http://ashorthistoryblog.com/the-stormy-season-from-confederate-soldier-....
During his 20-plus year career at IRLSS, Washington led the rescue of numerous wrecks, in which some 300 lives were saved. These included the Anna Murray in 1902, during which the crew of 10 men were all saved via use of a Lyle gun (a rope gun) to get on board and make trips back and forth between the rescue boat and the ship in distress.
Those who visit the restored Indian River Life Saving Station will be able to take a self-guided tour through the Mess Room, Boat Room, Keeper’s Office, Keeper’s Room, Locker Area and Bunk Room, as well as take a stroll around the outside to view the station’s architecture.
It is an enjoyable hour or so for family members of all ages to learn about the career of a Civil War veteran dedicated to rescuing victims of shipwrecks in Delaware waters. For more information, go online at http://www.destateparks.com/attractions/life-saving-station/, or call (302) 227-6991.
Tom Ryan is the author of the multiple award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign.” Signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books and Browseabout Books in Rehoboth. His latest book, with co-author Rick Schaus, “Eleven Fateful Days in July 1863: Meade Tracks Lee’s Escape after Gettysburg,” is due out in 2018. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.