Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Graveyard of the Atlantic

 Roll on, thou deep dark ocean, roll!
Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain;
Thy wrecks are all they deed, nor doth remain
A shadow of man's ravage, save his own,
When for a moment, like a drop of rain,
He sinks into thy depths with bubbling groan,
Without a grave, unknelled, uncoffined, and unknown.
~Apostrophe to the Ocean, George Lord Byron

Alexander Hamilton coined the nickname that has stayed with the seas of North Carolina for over 200 years: Graveyard of the Atlantic. In 1773, a 15 year-old Hamilton was caught off Cape Hatteras in a furious storm which nearly sent his ship to the bottom of the Atlantic.
Shipwrecks have occurred of the North Carolina coast since European settlement of the New World. For nearly 300 years, ships grounded on the shoals, pitchpoled in the enormous breakers, encountered sudden knockdowns outside Cape Hatteras or simply disappeared from the gray, heaving sea without a trace.

While men and women carved a new country out of the North American frontier, fighting the Native Americans, the French, the Spanish, the English and each other almost no effort was made to save the countless mariners, merchants and passengers who found themselves clinging to the tattered shrouds of shipwrecks.

Though the origins of organized lifesaving are rooted in the experiments and efforts of the Northern coastal states, for decads untold numbers of ships have been coming ashore on North Carolina beaches. The Henry, the Horacio and the Islington all foundered in the winter of 1820. The elegant steamship Home, which sailed right into the terrible "Racer Storm," was one of 16 wrecks recorded in 1837. Grounded just 100 yards off Ocracoke, the Home's shipmates realized they had only two life preservers on board. 90 people perished in the surf.

The Pulaski in 1838, the Congress in 1842 and the French bark Emilie in 1845 were all victims of the shoals off the Outer Banks. And the toll continued to mount. The Mary Anna, the Ocean, the Magnolia. During some storms, such as the brutal gale of July 24, 1850, that took five vessels at Diamond Shoals alone, miles of beach would be strewn with debris and bodies. It can never be known how many lives were lost during this period.

The alarming loss of life off the Outer Banks prompted Congress to allocate funds to station surfboats at Bodie Island, Ocracoke and Wilmington in 1852, for use by volunteer crews. Despite the great need for more, North Carolina lacked the political influence for appropriations comparable to those allocated to New Jersey and Massachusetts.

In the late 1850s, a small majority in Congress finally acknowledged the need for a publicly funded organization of well-trained lifesavers to safeguard against maritime catastrophes and to respond when trouble struck. The outbreak of the Civil War delayed their efforts, but in 1871, amid continued debate, the United States Life-Saving Service (LSS) was born as a branch of the Revenue Marine Service of the Treasury Department and the age of volunteerism was over.

Found at Fire on the Beach: Recovering the Lost Story of Richard Etheridge and the Pea Island Lifesavers  by David Wright & David Zoby

Outer Banks Ghost Fleet

The North Carolina Underwater Archaeology Branch maintains
a database of approx. 5,000 ship wrecked in North Carolina waters. This map represents only 600 of them.


Wreckers & the "Legend of Nags Head"

"Wreckers" by E. Duncan, in the
Winter Exhibition at 7, Haymarket
"What even the storm spared will not escape the more ruthless hand of man's fellow-man. We do not see the "wreckers" leaving in their greed, as they have often don, the poor shipwrecked ones unaided, to perish; the painter has spared us that. But on all that is left--the shattered hull, the splintered masts and spars, the tattered sails--they are gathering, more rapacious than the gulls that toss and shriek above them, like birds of prey scenting carrion; like demons round a lost soul. We had hoped that the most diabolical practice of wrecking, which formerly so much prevailed, especially on the Cornish coast, no longer disgraced our civilizations; but it would appear that this is not so, judging by the most recent accounts of wrecking at Deal, and the still worst instance at New Brighton, near the entrance of the Mersey." ~ from The Illustrated London News, January 19, 1867.

Shipwrecks have shaped the destiny of the Outer Banks ever since Native-Americans stood awestruck, as some of the earliest European seafarers met their doom off North Carolina's treacherous capes and attendant shoals in the 1500s. A century later, non-native inhabitants, many castaways themselves, survived almost entirely off the flotsam of foundered vessels. A few were even rumored to have adoped the ways of the wreckers of Britain's Cornish coast, "indulging in proverbial crudity," by neglecting, or even murdering, ill-fated shipwreck victims in order to salvage wreckage with abandon. The practice produced a legend, fanciful but false, of the origin of the name, Nags Head, which was based on how wreckers may have lured wayward ships onto the beach using a lantern, dangling from the neck of a Banker pony--a visually romantic ruse but in practice, unlikely. No navigator worth his salt would ever be fooled by a dimly-lit lantern swinging from a horse's neck, even if his vessel was within a mile or two of Outer Banks breakers. In thick and threatening weather, poor visibility would make the prospect significantly more improbable. Still, there were rumors. ~ from Shipwrecks of the Outer Banks by Kevin P. Duffus


"The main land of North Carolina is separated in most parts from the ocean by a Sound, of different breadths, and a sandy bank, that is about one mile broad and one hundred miles long. This bank is chiefly settled; and the inhabitants, some hundreds in number, are employed in fishing, piloting, or navigating small coastal vessels.

North Carolina has been long noted for the number of ships that are wrecked upon its coast in the vicinity of Cape Hatteras. There is hardly any other coast on which a ship may be cast away with so little danger to the lives of mariners: a circumstance that is fully understood by the masters of old vessels that are well insured. It is known that on the coast of Cornwall in England, on the coast of Ireland, of France, and on every other coast where ships are frequently wrecked, the mariners and passengers are in much danger of being murdered by the inhabitants for the sake of getting their property. The laws of England, where the police is well regulated, have not been able fully to prevent those abominable outrages upon humanity. On the coast of Carolina there has not been an instance of murder. The mariner or passenger, who may have the misfortune to be shipwrecked, is hospitably received. The bankers lend their active assistance in saving the cargo." ~ from The History of North Carolina by Hugh Williamson, 1812

Monday, June 3, 2013

United States Life-Saving Service

"These poor, plain men, dwellers upon the lonely sands of Hatteras took their lives in their hands, and, at the most imminent risk, crossed the tumultuous sea ... and all for what? So that others might live to see home and friends."

Historical records are filled with stories of ship disasters off the Outer Banks. It's astounding to learn how many ships grounded and washed ashore during the 18th and 19th centuries and how often Bankers risked their lives to rescue mariners and their cargo.

During the 18th century, the Outer Banks offered no organized method of dealing with one of the area’s most constant and worrisome problems … shipwrecks. Fortunately, on their own, it's residents, known as "Bankers", did a fair job of it themselves. In some cases they were rewarded for their actions either by wreck survivors, by the ship’s owner or by public sale of the ship’s cargo.

In 1801 the North Carolina Assembly finally legislated a loose system of wreck districts for the Outer Banks that authorized wreck commissioners to handle maritime disasters. Wreck masters were responsible for gathering a party of people to rescue ships in distress—accounting for the wreck and its cargo and assuring that the ship’s owners reimbursed the rescue party. If the cargo from a wreck went unclaimed for a year, a public sale was arranged by the wreck master. At best, this system was disorganized, leaving initiatives with the various coastal communities, and depending on Bankers to have the integrity to do the right thing.

A rash of maritime disasters near the mid-9th century convinced a reluctant Congress to appropriate funds for government-sponsored lifesaving stations and in 1852, federal money paid for surfboats to be stationed at Wilmington, Ocracoke and Bodie Islands in the custody of the customs collector. But it was not until 1871, following another series of shipwrecks, that a Revenue Marine Bureau was funded within the U.S. Treasury Department and given responsibility for maritime rescues. The new legislation authorized 7 lifesaving stations on the Outer Banks, to be built in 1873 and 1874, at Jones’s Hill, Caffrey’s Inlet, Kitty Hawk, Nags Head, Bodie Island, Chicamacomico and Little Kinnakeet. 

The presence of lifesaving stations on the Outer Banks was a step in the right direction, but the stations were understaffed for years. It required the wreck of the Huron off Nags Head in 1877, with the loss of 103 lives, to create a public outcry for increased government resources for maritime disasters.

Two months later, the steamer Metropolis grounded at Currituck, and 85 people drowned. That same year, Congress conferred full bureau status on the U.S. Lifesaving Service (USLSS), and the agency came into its own. Like the Revenue Marine Bureau, the USLSS lay within the Treasury Department.

Still, the government rescue operations extended only halfway down the North Carolina coast, leaving Core Banks, Shackleford Banks, Bogue Banks, Topsail Island and the Cape Fear regions without an official means of responding to shipwrecks. This geographical limitation may have been influenced by the Union sympathies of the upper half of the Outer Banks during the Civil War.

The politics of Reconstruction may have dealt another hand in the evolution of the USLSS on the Outer Banks. The story of the Pea Island Station, for example, is an anomaly in the service’s annals and should be recounted in some detail.
Photo: U.S.Coast Guard
     Built in 1878, it was staffed with an all-white crew. Soon after its opening for active duty, one of its watches failed to spot a grounded vessel. This lapse cost the lives of four men. An investigation of the tragedy by USLSS officials forced the resignation of the station keeper and of the surfman who had neglected his duties. The investigating official further recommended Richard Etheridge, a local black, for the position of keeper, and on January 24, 1880, he became the first black station keeper in the USLSS. The appointment of a black keeper raised the anger of the locals, especially when Etheridge hired an all-black crew. On May 29 the station burned to the ground. An investigation cited arson as the cause, but no one was ever charged with the crime.
     Captain Etheridge supervised the construction of a new station and continued with his duties, drilling his crew beyond the requirements of the service. “We knew we were colored,” recalled one of the unit’s later members, “and, if you know what I mean, felt we had to do better whether anybody said so or not.” Read more HERE. 
     Yet another shipwreck tragedy was required to convince Congress of the wisdom of extending lifesaving operations south of Kinnakeet to the southern reaches of the Carolina coast. The dreadful breakup of the Crissie Wright in 1886 off Shackleford Banks, during which horrified citizens watched passengers and crew freeze to death in the ship’s rigging, inspired lifesaving stations at Hatteras, Ocracoke, Portsmouth, Lookout and so on down the coast to Wilmington and Southport.
     The U.S. Lifesaving Service, originally set up on a nationwide basis in 1871 and expanded to include part of the North Carolina coast in 1876, was merged with the older U.S Revenue Cutter Service on January 28, 1915. The name given to the new federal agency thus formed was United States Coast Guard, but the change made little difference along the coast, for the same stations, equipment and crews were still employed.
     At the time of the formation of the Coast Guard there were 29 stations on the coast of North Carolina. These were, from north to south: Wash Woods, Pennys Hill, Whales Head, Poyners Hill, Caffeys Inlet, Paul Gamiels Hill, Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, Nags Head, Bodie Island, Oregon Inlet, Pea Island, New Inlet (abandoned the following year), Chicamacomico, Gull Shoal, Little Kinnakeet, Big Kinnakeet, Cape Hatteras, Creeds Hill, Durants, Hatteras Inlet, Ocracoke, Portsmouth, Core Bank, Cape Lookout, Fort Macon, Bogue Inlet, Cape Fear and Oak Island.
     The Coast Guard absorbed the Lighthouse Service in 1939 and its duties came to include both prevention and rescue, customs violations, prohibition enforcement and all other national maritime regulation. In many instances, the Coast Guard simply occupied the structures of its predecessors and went on with business as usual.

U.S. Life-Saving Service Annual Reports

Annual Reports of the Operations of the United States Life-Saving Service for the fiscal years ending June 30 …

Annual Reports for the USLSS were published each year from 1876 to 1914 and are not limited to Life Saving stations serving the North Carolina coast. Reports ceased on January 20, 1915 when the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service and U.S. Life-Saving Service were combined and renamed United States Coast Guard.

USLSS Annual Reports summarize the operations and activities of the service for that year. They include information regarding the establishment of stations, the design and procurement of equipment, statistics regarding maritime activity, accidents, shipwrecks and casualties, and descriptions of related life-saving operations.

This blog includes transcriptions of the following USLSS Annual Reports on vessels that wrecked off the North Carolina coast. Because of the difficulty in scanning said reports for NC wrecks, there are no doubt vessels that might have been missed. Following are links to the actual reports:


1908 – Not Available
1914 – Not Available
1918 – Not Available
1919 – Not Available

Life-Savers & Their Equipment

Chicamacomico Crew (1914)
Most U.S. Life-Saving Service facilities were built to similar designs. Stations were manned by 7 surfmen and a keeper, who was responsible for all aspects of the station's operation. Although the stations were only manned in winter, the keeper was responsible for mustering a volunteer crew and carrying out the rescue in the event of an off-season shipwreck.

John Woodhouse Sparrow
Virginia Beach Life-Saving
Station, Early 1900s
Photo: Charles A. Harbaugh
Surfmen maintained beach patrols 24 hours a day during storms, and in hours of darkness during calm weather. Surfmen would walk patrols of at least 5 miles round trip, and sometimes up to 10 miles. In the event of a wreck, the surfman on beach patrol would light his flare to let the ship know they had been spotted, then rush back to the station to give the alarm. In pre-telephone days, the dash back to the station seriously slowed the rescuers, but there was an odd resistance to giving beach patrols horses so they could make haste more quickly. In populated areas beach patrols often enlisted the assistance of residents to speed word of a wreck, but in isolated areas they simply had to trek back to the station.

Time did not always allow for the surfman to return to the station for help. Surfman Rasmus S. Midgett, walking beach patrol from the Gull Shoal Station in North Carolina, single handedly rescued 10 people from the Priscilla, a barkentine that wrecked some three miles from the station. Although he was on horseback and thus could return to the station quickly, beach conditions would have held up arrival of the lifesavers for hours. Realizing there was only one hope for the crew, Midgett dashed into the surf 10 times, each time bringing back one of the ship's crew. The last three trips were made carrying injured members of the crew. Although the keeper thought his actions did not warrant special recognition, he received the Gold Life Saving Medal and became one of the Life Saving Service's, and later the Coast Guard's, most celebrated figures.

When ships were too close to shore for surfboat rescue, or when seas were too high to launch the boats, the breeches buoy was used. A heavy line was passed out to the ship, a sort of "life-ring with trousers" was hung beneath it, and people were brought in from the ship one at a time. The beach apparatus associated with the breeches buoy was complex and cumbersome, but many times it was the only way.

In this view most of the beach gear is laid out: at left rear are the shovels and pick used to dig in the sand anchor, the crossed wooden boards directly in front of the shovels. The sand anchor secured the inshore end of the main hawser. The cannon-like device is the Lyle gun, used to shoot a line out to the stricken ship. Its shot is the cylinder leaning against the wooden box; the box holds the shot-line itself. The spike-like devices were used to coil the shotline so it would run freely when the gun was fired. The lightweight line running under the sand anchor is the whip line, used to haul the breeches buoy back and forth from ship to shore. The heavy line run through blocks in the center foreground was used to tension the main hawser. The A-frame-like wooden timbers at right are the crutches used to support the inshore end of the hawser. Atop the crutch is the breeches buoy itself; the main hawser runs through the block resting atop the buoy.

All this equipment, along with the hundreds of feet of line required for the setup, were carried on a beach cart. This cart was usually drawn by the lifesavers themselves, but sometimes a horse was employed. Dragging the cart to the scene of the shipwreck could be the worst part of the entire operation.

For a description of a hauling out process read the United States Life-Saving Service Beach-Apparatus Drill. It illustrates the proper way to set up and display a Beach Apparatus Cart per the service's regulations in 1883.

The Coston Flare

Martha J. Coston was an inventor and businesswoman best known for her invention of the Coston flare, a device for signaling at sea. She was born Martha Jane Hunt in Baltimore, MD, and moved to Philadelphia in the 1830s. At age 14 or 16, she eloped with a Benjamin Franklin Coston, age 21, who had already acquired a reputation as a promising inventor.

As a young Benjamin Coston became director of the U.S. Navy’s scientific laboratory in Washington, D.C. At the Washington Navy Yard, he developed a signaling rocket and a percussion primer for cannons. He also experimented with color-coded night signals to allow communication between ships, which at that time was limited to visual signals such as flags during the day and lanterns at night. After a dispute over payment for his work on the percussion primer, Coston resigned his commission with the Navy in 1847 and became president of the Boston Gas Company. His work with chemical fumes at both the Navy Yard and the Boston Gas Company caused his health to deteriorate, and he died in 1848 as a result of the chemical exposure. His work on the signal flares, while important, was limited to plans and chemical formulas.

The years following Benjamin's death were filled with more tragedy for Martha Jane; two of her children and her mother died in the next two years, leaving her in poor condition emotionally as well as in difficult financial straits. While searching through her husband's papers, she discovered the notes he had written on night signaling at the Navy Yard. Her husband’s incomplete work needed substantial additional effort before it could be turned into a practical signaling system.

For nearly 10 years, Martha worked to develop a system of flare signaling based on her husband's earlier work. With a limited knowledge of chemistry and pyrotechnics, she relied on the advice of hired chemists and fireworks experts, with mixed results. A breakthrough came in 1858, while she was witnessing the fireworks display in New York City celebrating the completion of the transatlantic telegraph cable; she realized that her system needed a bright blue flare, along with the red and white she had already developed. She established the Coston Manufacturing Company to manufacture the signal flares, and entered into a business relationship with a pyrotechnics developer to provide the necessary blue color.

On April 5, 1859, she was granted U.S. Patent number 23,536 for a pyrotechnic night signal and code system. (The patent was granted to her as administratrix for her deceased husband, who is named as inventor.) Using different combinations of colors, it enabled ships to signal to one another, and to signal to shore. Captain C.S. McCauley of the U.S. Navy recommended the use of her flares to Secretary of the Navy Isaac Toucey in 1859. After extended testing, which demonstrated the effectiveness of the system, the U.S. Navy ordered an initial set of 300 flares, and later placed an order for $6000 worth of the flares.

Martha then obtained patents in England, France, Italy, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands, and sailed to England to begin marketing here invention there and in other parts of Europe. She remained in Europe until 1861, when she returned to the U.S. on the outbreak of the Civil War. She went directly to Washington, where she petitioned Congress to purchase the patent so that the flares could be used in the approaching conflict. After some delay, Congress passed an act on August 5, 1861, authorizing the U.S. Navy to purchase the patent for $20,000, though less than the $40,000 she had originally demanded.

Coston flares were used extensively by the U.S. Navy during the Civil War; they proved particularly effective in the discovery and capture of Confederate blockade runners during the Union blockade of southern ports. Coston flares also played an important role in coordinating naval opertions during the battle of Fort Fisher in North Carolina on January 13-15, 1865.

In 1871, Coston obtained a patent in her own name - Patent No. 115,935, Improvement in Pyrotechnic Night Signals. In addition to working on improvements to the signaling system, she continued to press claims for additional compensation from the U.S. government. Due to wartime inflation, the Coston Manufacturing Company supplied flares to the U.S. Navy at less than cost, and Coston estimated that the government owed her $120,000 in compensation. Although she pressed her claims for over ten years, she was offered only $15,000 additional reimbursement.

Eventually every station of the United States Life-Saving Service was equipped with Coston flares, which were used to signal ships, warn of dangerous coastal conditions, and summon surfmen and other rescuers to a wreck scene. Many accounts of wrecks and rescues describe the use of the Costen flare, which was instrumental in saving thousands of lives. While Martha Jane Coston died in 1904, her company, later called the Coston Signal Company and the Coston Supply Company, remained in business until at least 1985.