We talk to him by name. Bid him good morning, good night, and refer to John in everyday, normal conversation. Some days it’s kind of like he’s right here with us. Still working at the Station he reported for duty at for 34 years.
John Woodhouse Sparrow was a local boy from Princess Anne County, born to William Thomas and Mary Jane on September 13, 1855. We don’t know very much about his younger days. He would have most certainly worked on the family farm in the then very rural coastal area. Being near the water meant he would also know how to fish and handle a small boat.
John entered the United States Life-Saving Service here in Virginia Beach in 1882, at the age of 27. He would have worked the storm seasons in the original Sea-Tack Station building erected on the site in 1878. This was a small boat house structure, similar to the many other Stations being built along the eastern coast since the USLSS was created in 1871. We see in the records that Sparrow worked the ’82 and ’83 storm seasons, then comes back to serve from 1885 to 1917. That span meant he saw many changes to the building, the service, and the Virginia Beach oceanfront.
He was on the Virginia Beach crew when the original building was set aside and the new, modern Q-Type Life-Saving Station was built in 1903. The dawn of the new century brought steam ships along side the now aging sailing vessels. John would have been schooled and skilled in all of the modern rescue methods now being deployed. The breeches buoy had been well established and perfected by this time, and used often in the rigorous shore to ship rescues. The method still used the most, however, was rowing the Surfboat into the storm waves in order to reach a grounded vessel. Walk onto the beach during any major winter nor’easter, and imagine yourself getting into an open 24′ boat, and then rowing that boat into freezing waters. John repeatedly put his own life on the line to save others. That was his job. For more than three decades, day in, day out, John would prepare to put his life on the line.
He married Vandalia Gornto in 1885 and lived in a house about a block away from the Station. They would raise their children and become part of a nucleus of families directly connected to the Life-Saving Service that built and established a small community that would be known as Virginia Beach. The little yellow cottage has still avoided the developer’s bulldozer, and the current owners pay tribute to the home’s history with the name “Sparrow’s Nest.” We often walk past the house coming to and from the museum.
John Sparrow was on the crew that worked the infamous Wreck of the Dictator, in March of 1891. In December of 1900, his bravery in the rescue of the Schooner Jennie Hall would earn him the most prestigious Silver Life Saving Medal. John was swept out of the rescue boat and into the freezing waters himself that day. By the records, it appears the closest he came to losing his life during his service. As John saved many, so he was saved this day by fellow crew members.
Having served until 1917, John Sparrow was one of the few men that bridged the transition and transformation of the USLSS into the newly named United States Coast Guard. When he finally put his oars to rest, he did so as a now distinguished Coast Guardsman.
He would live another 18 years as an active member of a now bustling oceanfront community. His beloved Station now surrounded by colorful cottages that marked a time when the railroad developed the once barren, desolate stretch of beach into a sought after resort getaway. Early hotels, guest houses, and businesses rapidly brought the once sleepy area into the booming 20th Century.
John passed away on January 25, 1935, at the age of 79. You can still visit him at the Eastern Shore Chapel Cemetery in Virginia Beach. I write this blog on the anniversary of his passing.
John’s photograph is included, of course, in our Rescue Gallery featuring the many heroes that served in the building from 1903 to 1969. John has another special place in the museum, and that’s in our Lookout Tower. A number of years back, the museum created a life size cut out of a photograph taken of John in 1910. The 5’10” Surfman was photographed by the Life-Saving Service to be featured in education and promotion of the expanding USLSS. The impressive shot of John is stilled used as the poster image for the history of the Service and early history of the USCG.
Some folks argue that John is still here. It’s common knowledge that strange things happen in our building, and many explain the unexplained with the idea that John’s ghost is still on watch.
Ghost or no ghost, John Woodhouse Sparrow will always be with us in spirit. His memory and legacy stand as a proud testament to a bygone era where the ships really were made of wood, and the men, indeed, made of iron. We could share his story and legend with romanticism of the olden days, but we prefer to tell his story as truth. A working class man that chose a hard profession, a dangerous profession, and quietly went about that business while raising a family and being part of a very special community by the sea.