- 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
Lifesavers from four Coast Guard stations in the immediate neighborhood—Hatteras, Big Kinnakeet, Creeds Hill, and Hatteras Inlet—went out to the Deering in two boats. The sea was so heavy, however, that they were able to come only within a quarter-mile of her. She was not reached and boarded until four days later. The boarding party found a deserted, ghostly ship. Her steering gear was disabled and water filled her hold. Charts were scattered across the floor of the captain’s quarters. Her lifeboats were gone and a ladder dangled over one side. A meal had been set out in the galley, and there was food on the stove.
The people who live on the banks, as well as a lot of people who don’t, have been evolving theories to explain what happened to her—mutiny, piracy, and abandonment at sea. The latter is the one most generally credited. It suggests that the Deering , disabled in a storm off the lower Carolina coast and being blown helplessly toward Diamond Shoals, was abandoned by her crew and officers who took to the sea in open boats. They were never seen again.
In talking with some of the people who live on the outer banks—bankers, they are called—I soon discovered that wrecks like that of the Deering have a way of serving as points of personal reference. One venerable gentleman who lives on Hatteras recalled that when the barkentine J. W. Dresser came ashore on July 23, 1895, it was his twelfth birthday; a lady told me that she well recollected the wreck of the schooner Catherine M. Monahan off Ocracoke on August 24, 1910, because she had the worst toothache in her life; another lady remembered that some of the nicest hats she ever owned were acquired at a salvage auction on Nags Head beach after the steamer Elizabeth was blown ashore on March 19, 1919.
“There was everything aboard the Elizabeth ,” she said. “She was on her way from Baltimore to the Canal Zone and she carried everything from three automobiles to a case of silk shirts. The men had a lighter and a schooner boat and they unloaded her cargo in that. Soon as they’d get a load of stuff ashore, it would be auctioned off on the beach. I bought in a case of white hats, a dozen, and they were the nicest hats you ever saw. There was much more on the Elizabeth than the men could get off. A big tide came in and she floated herself on the fifth day and that was the end of the auction. There’s been nothing like the Elizabeth to come ashore since. Those hats lasted me for I don’t know how long.”
Few events in the more recent history of the outer banks, I gathered, exceeded the Elizabeth auction in importance. The achievement of the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk, only a few miles from where the Elizabeth grounded herself, was obviously nowhere in the same class. And I gathered, also, that there was a certain amount of nostalgia for the days when “going wrecking”—plundering wrecked ships—was the leading cottage industry of the outer banks.
Today it is tourism instead. The outer banks are having a boom. New dwellings, new motels, and new filling stations are going up just about everywhere. The outer banks are almost inevitably due for a large transformation. A major portion of Hatteras Island, along with nearly the whole of Ocracoke and a good part of the southern tip of the Currituck Bank, has been acquired by the federal government as a national park. The area extends for seventy miles and includes some 30,000 acres. It has been christened The Cape Hatteras National Seashore Recreational Area.
All sorts of plans are afoot for it—a $3,000,000, two-lane highway from Virginia Beach to Nags Head; the widening and improving of the present road on Hatteras; a brand new road running the length of Ocracoke; special picnic grounds; and even bronze markers to identify the wreckage in the sand. I heard talkperhaps overenthusiastic talk—of as many as a million visitors a year.
The residents of the established communities on the Currituck Bank—Nags Head, Kitty Hawk, and Kill Devil Hills—seem to be taking the proposed development more or less in their stride. The people with whom I talked on Ocracoke and Hatteras, however, appeared rather uncertain as to how to proceed. They are not unused to strangers, and there are several huntingand-fishing camps and a few small hotels on both islands, but tourists in tens of thousands represent something else entirely.
To find out more about the tourist business—how best to attract visitors and how best to provide for their needs—a delegation of folk from Hatteras came over to Nags Head one evening to attend a dinner given by the local chamber of commerce. I was invited to the dinner but I didn’t go, and now I’m sorry I didn’t. Hard though it is to date such things exactly, it probably marked the end of an era.