Captain E.L. Halsey was an experienced seaman who made an estimated 400 trips past Cape Hatteras. For the last two years of his career he commanded the steam packet William Gibbons on which two passengers and three crewmen were killed after its chimney exploded in New York Harbor in January 1836. Halsey retired soon after the accident.
The following October, he was hurriedly called out of retirement to sail the Gibbons from New York to South Carolina as its new master, Captain Spinney, had taken sick. It was his understanding that he was not expected to take charge of the navigation of the craft, since First Mate Joshua Andrews and his navigator, T.W. Winship, were both experienced in that regard. He also understood that he was to “preside at the table, and to assist in having every necessary attention paid to the comfort and convenience of passengers during the passage, and also to advise with Mr. Andrews, if necessity required.”
The Gibbons set sail at four o’clock the afternoon of October 8 with 140 passengers, among them 32 women and 14 children. She steamed southward along the coast that night and all of the next day at a steady speed of about 10 mph and was off the outer banks of North Carolina by the second night. Visibility was poor the night of October 9, making it impossible for Andrews or Winship to take observations. Instead, they relied on soundings, taking them every quarter hour, and finding at midnight some 11 fathoms of water.
Then, as now, there were lighthouses along the coast—one located on the southern end of Bodie Island and another further south at Cape Hatteras. At approx. 2:30 a.m. a light was seen bearing on the northwest, which Andrews identified as Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. This opinion was confirmed during the next hour as the water deepened—to 15, then 17 and 19 fathoms—and Andrews, looking through his spyglass, said he could distinctly see the breakers on outer Diamond Shoals.
At 3:45 a.m. the leadsman reported no bottom, and 15 minutes later Andrews told Halsey they had passed Diamond Shoals and were going to change to a westward course, heading for Cape Lookout. All seemed to go well with the exception of one slight mistake; the light Andrews saw was not Cape Hatteras but Bodie Island, and instead of heading westward through deep water toward Cape Lookout, they were heading straight for the outer banks of North Carolina, approx. 40 miles further north.
The Gibbons struck at 4:40 a.m., lurched over one bar, slipped across a gully and ended up in shoal water close to shore. Halsey, realizing too late that the captain who sits at the head of the table should be in charge of the ship as well, now proceeded to take over. He ordered the engines reversed and repeated efforts were made to back the vessel off the shoal. When she finally did move, it was discovered that the rudder was out of commission. She soon grounded again.
At daylight people were seen on shore, and one of the small boats was dispatched to find out where they were and what accommodations could be secured on the beach for the comfort of the passengers. It was reported that they were in New Inlet, at the north end of Chicamacomico Banks, and that there were two small deserted houses less than a mile away. Four miles distant, it was reported, stood “Mr. John Midyett’s residence, containing a bountiful supply of provisions.” Two ship’s boats shuttled 116 passengers ashore before the wind and tide had risen to such an extent that the remaining passengers refused to leave the stranded vessel. That afternoon, more than a hundred men, women and children—without crewmen among them—were crowded into the two small houses with a very limited supply of water—the “bountiful provisions” of Squire Midyett several miles away. On the Gibbons, the remainder of the passengers and entire crew were in an equally bad situation.
For three days a strong northeaster and high tides marooned those on board and confined those on shore. By the second day aground, Captain Halsey noticed some of the crewmen had been partaking of hard liquor and were no longer obeying his commands. He ordered the bartender to destroy all of the liquor, but some of the crewmen—the firemen especially—had already stolen enough gin to keep them in a drunken state for some time. First Mate Andrews soon joined them below decks. Before it was over, the crew of the Gibbons had broken open practically every bag and trunk on board, stealing the more valuable contents, and had pilfered through the mail which the Gibbons carried.
For all the confusion, danger, lack of discipline and privation the wreck of the William Gibbons ended without the loss of a single life. When the storm let up, Halsey went ashore in one of the boats and assisted in making arrangements to transport passengers and crew back to Norfolk. Meanwhile, Andrews and his buddies among the firemen commandeered the other boat and set out for Elizabeth City where they were reported two days later to have tried to sell the items they had stolen.
The first mention in newspapers of the loss of the Gibbons included a card, signed by a number of passengers, censuring old Captain Halsey for his negligence; a charge which he vehemently refuted, and of which he was proved innocent some time later when Andrews and four of the firemen were arrested and jailed in New York. The five were later tried at Raleigh—the firemen got off free and Andrews received a token fine which he paid from the proceeds of the very crime with which he was charged.