The former patchwork bridge that extended across a small section of Pea Island never had an esteemed name.
Built in a hurry after 2011’s Hurricane Irene cut an inlet where a portion of N.C. Highway 12 used to be, the bridge was technically known as the Pea Island Internment Bridge, and was affectionately referred to as the “Lego Bridge” or “Tinker Toy Bridge” by locals and visitors who got used to the rickety ride at 25 mph speeds.
But the new bridge that was built in 2017 to replace its Lego / Tinker Toy predecessor will have a more dignified title, as the bridge was formally dedicated on Tuesday afternoon as the “Captain Richard Etheridge Bridge.”
The dedication and unveiling of the new bridge sign were part of a well-attended public event that drew in crowds of current and former public officials, U.S. Coast Guard personnel, representatives of community organizations, news outlets, and the general public.
“Captain Etheridge was highly respected, and it is truly an honor to be here,” said Dare County Board of Commissioners Chairman Robert Woodard in opening remarks at the event. “[He was called] a ‘man among men’ – he was certainly that, and he was certainly more than that.”
Captain Richard Etheridge was a trailblazer. A Union Army veteran, Captain Etheridge became the first African American to command a Life-Saving Station when the service appointed him as the keeper of the Pea Island Life-Saving Station 1880.
“I can’t think of a more appropriate way to honor Black History Month than to name this bridge the ‘Captain Richard Etheridge Bridge,’” said Woodard.
Etheridge traveled a long road to reach the highest rank of the Live-Saving Service Keeper, and his story was chronicled to the crowd in a presentation of “Freedmen, Surfmen, and Heroes™” by the Pea Island Preservation Society, which has been performing the presentation for elementary schools across Dare County.
Two of the presenters – Joan Collins and President of the Pea Island Preservation Society Darrell Collins – have personal ties to the story of Capt. Etheridge, and specifically to the African American crew members that manned the Pea Island Station over the decades.
“We have had descendants at the station ever since the Pea Island Station was founded,” said Joan Collins. “And we want to teach this history in a special way… so you will remember the story, and will share it.”
In the late 1800s, 29 Life-Saving Stations were built along the Outer Banks, roughly 5-7 miles apart, to address a crisis of shipwrecks that frequently occurred along the North Carolina coastline.
Captain Etheridge, who was a low rank surfman at the time, garnered acclaim from superiors who noted that he was “as good a surfman as there was on the coast, black or white,” and he was eventually appointed keeper of the Pea Island station that was constructed in 1878.
But trouble ensured soon after his appointment. The white surfmen refused to work for Etheridge, and the station mysteriously burned down soon after he took command.
Undeterred, Etheridge formed a new all-African American crew and rebuilt the station, which was located within eyesight of where the new bridge stands.
“That bridge is built within yards of where the [Pea Island] station was,” said Darrell Collins.
On October 11, 1896, the crew of the Pea Island Life-Saving Station took part in one of the more heroic stories to emerge from the heyday of the Life-Saving Service when they rescued all nine people on board the E.S. Newman – a three masted schooner whose passengers included the captain, his wife, and their three-year-old son.
Etheridge served in the Life-Saving Service for 20 years, and along with his Pea Island crew, was posthumously awarded the Gold Life-Saving Medal in 1996 by the U.S. Coast Guard for their rescue of the people on board the E.S. Newman.
“It is my hope that every time you cross the Captain Richard Etheridge Bridge, you will [remember] his story,” said Woodard to the crowd. “More importantly, it is vital to share this story with all young people who may be in the car with you.”
Sharing and preserving the history of Captain Richard Etheridge was a common theme at the event, and was something that Jim Trogdon, Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Transportation, touched on as well. He noted that the Pea Island crew were saving lives during a hurricane that resembled the strength of Irene – in the same area no less – more than 100 years prior to 2011.
“It is fitting that even a century later, this historic event and historic individual will be honored,” he said.
Other speakers at the event also paid homage to the efforts of the NCDOT, which had a contractor flying into the area within 36 hours of the new inlet’s formation in 2011, and which created the original Lego Bridge in a little over a month.
“Thank you to the family members for lending us that name,” said County Manager Robert Outten at the event, “and thank you, NCDOT, for putting that bridge in for us.”
After remarks from Allen Moran, (member of the N.C. Board of Transportation), Woodard, Trogdon, Outten, and the presentation, the veil was lifted on the sign by state and county officials, as well as members of the Pea Island Preservation Society. It will be installed at the edge of the bridge at in the near future.
The Captain Richard Etheridge Bridge – formerly the “new” Pea Island Interim Bridge, or “Replacement Lego Bridge” – was opened to traffic in November 2017.