- Historic Sites
If Tortugas Let You Pass
How Cape Hatteras earned its evil notoriety as graveyard of the Atlantic—and how it looked to a speculative novelist on tour
February 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 2
There are few pieces of wreckage on the outer banks that anyone can identify with any degree of certainty. Most of them are the remnants of vessels that were wrecked during the early part of the century, with possibly a few scattered timbers that might have belonged to ships that were blown ashore in the 1880’s and 1890’s.
Though there are many men and women on the outer banks whose memories go back that far, their memories are often in conflict. I had the names of three different schooners assigned to one piece of wreckage on Hatteras Island, and while it was easy to find people who recalled the year and month and day on which this or that vessel had come ashore—even the hour—there rarely seemed to be any agreement as to where the remains of the vessel had been finally deposited.
The best authority on the shipwrecks of the North Carolina coast is a young historian named David Stick. The author of a rather definitive volume entitled Graveyard of the Atlantic , he lives in Nags Head, one of the settlements on the Currituck Bank. I had read and liked Mr. Stick’s book and was glad when we were introduced by mutual friends. He invited me to his home and I visited with him for most of an afternoon, talking about shipwrecks. He told me that of all the ships that had been wrecked on both the outer and lower banks, he had been able to identify the remains of only eight. It made me feel a little better. I had been able to establish the names and whereabouts of two, so Mr. Stick was only six up on me.
Mr. Stick has compiled a list of vessels which he has been able to authenticate as having been totally lost along the North Carolina coast. It appears as an appendix to his book. Mr. Stick told me that he included no vessel of less than fifty tons, nor those lost in the inland waters, nor the ones that came ashore and were refloated, nor the hundreds of others that were lost at sea in the immediate neighborhood of the banks. The first casualty in Mr. Stick’s compilation was a brigantine of unknown name that foundered on Cape Fear in 1526; the last on which he reports was the Panamanian freighter Miget which came ashore on Portsmouth Island in 1952 and broke to pieces in the surf. Six hundred and forty-eight ships are accounted for in all.
A loss of 648 ships over 426 years (1526-1952) works out to a loss of approximately one and one-half ships a year. That, however, isn’t quite an accurate picture. Shipwrecks were not reported with any accuracy until 1837, when Congress authorized the chartering of ships to assist distressed navigators. The records before 1837 are meager and fragmentary. Mr. Stick, for example, working his way through the three centuries from 1526 to 1837, was able to authenticate the loss of but 26 vessels. Should we eliminate these from our original total of 648 and confine ourselves to the years 18371952, the arithmetic would then work out to a loss of 622 ships over 115 years, or an average of more than five a year.
Some years were naturally worse than others—sixteen ships in 1837 as against two in 1839; nine in 1842 and only one in 1843; the record toll of 1863-64 when some 35 gunboats and blockade runners, mostly Con- federate, piled up on the banks. During the years from 1837 to 1952, excluding the Civil War and World War II, for which no reliable figures are available, more than 900 persons were lost in peacetime shipwrecks on the banks.
Four major disasters accounted for more than a third of these—the wreck of the steamer Home at Ocracoke on October 9, 1837 (9° nves lost); the wreck of the steamship Pulaski off New River on June 14, 1838 (100 lives lost); the wreck of the U.S.S. Huron , a barkentine-rigged screw-steamer fitted out as a gunboat, at Nags Head on November 24, 1877 (103 lives lost); and the wreck of the steamer Metropolis at Currituck Beach on January 31, 1878 (85 lives lost). No traces are left of the Home , the Pulaski , and the Metropolis . The remains of the Huron , however, submerged in the water off the beach at Nags Head, are clearly visible on an exceptionally fine day.
One of the most substantial pieces of wreckage on the outer banks, and because of the story behind it one of the most dramatic, is the bow of the schooner Carroll A. Deering . It lies in the sand near the north end of Ocracoke Island.
The Deering , a five-master, was among the last of the really large sailing vessels ever built. Launched in 1919 at Bath, Maine, she was 255 feet long, 44.3 feet across the beam, and had a total displacement of 1,879 tons. Sailing from Boston in September, 1920, and bound for Buenos Aires with a mixed cargo, she made the run successfully. She then put in at several South American ports, but was apparently unable to pick up any cargo. She left Rio in ballast on December 2, 1920. Early in the morning of January 31, 1921, one of the men attached to the Cape Hatteras Coast Guard Station saw her grounded on Diamond Shoals. A strong southwest wind was blowing, and the tide was running hard.