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Graveyard of the AtlanticShipwrecks of the North Carolina Coast
By David Stick
The University of North Carolina PressCopyright © 1989 University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneCatching up on Lost Time: 1866-1877
Coastal trade flourished in the period immediately following the Civil War, for peace brought with it a great demand for the civilian goods so long denied the participants in the struggle between the North and South. One immediate result was that a large number of war craft were hastily converted to commercial use; another was that coastal Carolina was soon littered with the remains of ships lost in this scramble to catch up on lost trade.
The 560-ton passenger steamer Thames, on its regular run between Galveston and New York, rounded Cape Hatteras, April 5, 1869, and headed north along the coast. When still within sight of the lighthouse on the cape a frenzied call was heard from amidships: "Fire!" By the time Captain Pennington could organize his fire-fighting crew, the flames had spread so rapidly that there was no hope of bringing them under control, and all hands-nine crewmen and nine passengers-were driven from the cabin.
With the wind blowing strong from the west Captain Pennington ordered the three aft boats removed from their davits and carried forward; then, with passengers and crew gathered on the bow, he headed his vessel into the wind, toward shore.
The flames continued to spread, however, and soon afterwards Pennington was driven from the pilothouse, leaving the vessel in an unmanageable state. Hurriedly the three boats were then lowered over the side, the passengers and crew crowded in them, and the Thames, by then almost completely engulfed in flames, was abandoned in the sea off Hatteras.
Two of the boats reached shore that night. The third, containing the ship's cook, two cabin boys, a seaman, and a coal heaver, either drifted to sea or overturned on Diamond Shoals, the five crewmen given up for lost.
On January 27, 1871, the bark Templar and the steamer Kensington were involved in a collision sixty miles northeast of Diamond Shoals. The World Almanac lists this as one of the worst maritime disasters in history and claims that a total of 150 lives were lost; but the plain facts are that no one was lost either on the Templar or the Kensington, though the steamer did go to the bottom.
The Kensington, with a crew of thirty and eighteen passengers, left Savannah, January 25, 1871, for Boston carrying a full cargo of cotton, rice, and lumber. Two days later, January 27, the Templar sailed from Hampton Roads, bound for Rio de Janeiro.
About 7:30 that evening, while tacking to the eastward, Captain Wilson of the Templar made out a steamer on his starboard beam. "Saw her mast head and red light plain," the Captain said, "and supposing that the steamer would pass under our stern we held our course to the eastward. Finding then that the steamer did not alter her course, several of the crew hailed her as loud as they could. No attention was paid to the hail, the steamer holding her course."
Realizing that the steamer would, on that course, cut his own craft in two, Captain Wilson ordered his wheel hard over. Slowly the bark turned aside as the Kensington passed under her bow, taking away the "bowsprit, jibboom, fore and main topgallants, foretopmast, and all attached." A moment later the bark crashed into the side of the steamer.
A sailor, who at the time of the accident was perched in the forward rigging of the bark, was thrown to the deck of the Kensington. The two vessels then drifted apart, and since Captain Wilson claimed he "heard no sound or indication from the steamer, of distress," he quickly sounded his pumps and ordered the debris cleared away on the Templar.
Meanwhile, the sailor who had fallen from the bark to the deck of the steamer found all confusion there. The Kensington, with a large hole in her side, was already filling with water, and crewmen were even then in the process of lowering away her boats. The sea being comparatively calm, this was accomplished in a short time, and the thirty members of the steamer's crew, the eighteen passengers, and the lone sailor from the Templar managed to row clear before the vessel sank.
They were picked up late the next morning-fifteen hours after the collision-by the steamer Georgia, which transported them to Charleston. Complete details of the disaster, as recounted by the crew and passengers of the Kensington and the sailor from the Templar, were printed in the newspapers there and sent by telegraph to other parts of the country, together with a statement that the Templar and the remaining members of her crew were presumed lost.
Two days later, however, the steamer Yazoo, en route from Havana to Philadelphia, sighted the Templar off the Virginia Capes, partly filled with water and moving slowly northward under improvised sails. The Yazoo took the bark in tow, reaching Norfolk the following day, and subsequently the vessel was repaired and made ready for sea duty again.
The above facts are gleaned from interviews with the Captain of the Templar, the passengers and crewmen of the Kensington, and the crews of the Georgia and Yazoo, as published in contemporary newspaper accounts. It is definitely stated in several of these articles that there were forty-eight persons on board the Kensington and that all were saved; and in none of them is there mention of so much as a single life being lost on the Templar, thus completely refuting the published reports in more recent times that 150 lives were lost and that this was one of the worst maritime disasters in history.
The clipper ship Henrietta left Puerto Rico in late October, 1873, loaded with a cargo of molasses, sugar, and syrup. The 950-ton vessel carried a crew of sixteen, including the master, and was bound for the port of Philadelphia.
While en route north the Henrietta came upon a schooner, disabled and lying low in the water. In order to lighten the schooner, most of her cargo of coffee was transferred to the larger clipper. Then the two vessels parted, and the Henrietta, now heavily loaded, continued on her way up the coast.
The morning of November 4 the clipper encountered a strong northeast gale, and before it was over the vessel's main topsail was carried away, her foremast fell with it, and the mizzenmast was wrung off six feet above the deck, leaving the ship little more than a log drifting upon the angry waters.
After that the wind let up, but the waves seemed to grow even larger as the vessel drifted toward shore. Subsequently all of her boats were swept away except one which was lashed amidships; one man, the steward, was washed overboard; and by the time she appeared off the Carolina coast she was a complete derelict, at the mercy of wind and wave.
She struck, finally, on the southern end of Frying Pan Shoals, lodging briefly on a bar in about three fathoms of water, then drifting clear and drifting clear and sinking in a deep gully beyond. The fifteen remaining crewmen put off in the lone boat, but two hours later the small craft capsized, throwing all fifteen into the raging surf. Two, the captain and mate, managed to regain the boat; the other thirteen drowned. And for five more days the two surviving officers, without food or water, drifted aimlessly on the open sea until they were finally picked up by a passing vessel.
Spencer D. Gray, like most residents of coastal Carolina in 1875, was a man of most trades and of none, an individual of diverse talents-carpenter, fisherman, farmer, hunter-who could and would do just about any kind of work that might bring in a living for himself and his growing family.
In 1875, Spencer D. Gray, a balding man with a slight middle-age stoop, took on something entirely new; Spencer Gray left his home at Church's Island and moved over to Currituck Lighthouse on the beach, there to become a member of the new United States Lifesaving Service.
He was listed on the payroll-at $20 a month-as a surfman; his job was to patrol the barren beach north and south from Jones Hill Station (later, Whales Head; still later, Currituck Beach) on the lookout for ships in distress. And at those times when a ship did come on shore he and his fellow surfmen were charged with the task of saving the lives of unknown castaways-even at the peril of their own.
By March 1, 1876, Spencer Gray had become accustomed to the job-to the long hikes along the beach in the worst of weather; the handling of his particular oar in the station lifeboat; the method of operation of the mortar gun, the breeches buoy, and the life car. And he had grown accustomed, almost, to separation from his wife and two children back at Church's Island, though a third child was six months on the way, and that would make it harder later on.
Soon after dusk on March 1, a vessel appeared just north of Jones Hill Station, a large sailing vessel, a bark, stranded on the bar a couple of hundred yards from shore.
Keeper John G. Gale, who had taken command of the Jones Hill Station when it was first put in operation, mustered his crew. One man, John Chappell, was absent, having been sent to Tulls Creek for supplies. The others-Gale, Spencer Gray, Lemuel Griggs, Lewis White, Malachi Brumsey, and Jerry Munden-hauled the lifeboat down to the surf and made preparations to go to the aid of the crew of the distressed vessel.
Neighbors appeared on the beach at this time-J. W. Lewis, H. T. Halstead, George W. Wilson, and others-and offered their assistance. Keeper Gale asked for one volunteer to take the place of Chappell in the boat. Halstead stepped forward, actually climbed in the boat, but was replaced by Wilson, a younger, larger, stronger man.
The wind that night was from the southeast, light, but the weather was thick and the sea was rough, with the surf pounding on the beach. Offshore, in the haze, the stranded vessel was barely visible. The sound of her flapping sails came across the water dimly. But it was impossible to see, from shore, whether she was a stout ship or frail; whether she was in the breakers or beyond them; whether her docks were above water or swept by the seas. Keeper Gale could have set up his beach apparatus and fired a line aboard; but there was no certainty, there in the darkness, that a rescue could be effected until morning-and morning might be too late. So the seven men, six lifesavers and volunteer Wilson, launched their lifeboat through the surf and rowed out toward the stranded bark.
Spencer Gray, at his oar, was bent over even more than usual; the others, near him, pulled with equal strength and willingness. Lifesavers at stations all along our coast have gone out since, many times, under just such conditions as those; but that night of March 1, 1876, at Jones Hill one thing was different, for the surfmen, inadvertently or otherwise, had neglected to put on the cork life jackets which the service had provided for them.
The group of observers on the beach, augmented now by other neighbors from the community near the lighthouse, watched as the lifeboat passed through the breakers, reached the calmer water beyond, then moved off into the darkness. A lantern on the stern of the little boat, bobbing up and down with the heavy ground swells, marked the position of the craft; the only sounds were of the wind and the surf and the flapping of the sails against the masts. Then, suddenly, another sound came to them across the water, a shrill scream, terrified. And then the bobbing light disappeared from view.
A constant watch was kept on the beach then, and soon after one of the lifeboat oars drifted ashore, then a second, a third, and a fourth. After that the boat itself, turned bottom upwards, empty; and still later, one of the lifesavers, Malachi Brumsey, all life gone from his body.
Throughout the night the friends and neighbors and kinfolk waited, and at dawn the bark was still there; masts still standing, sails still flapping, and men clustered together on her deck. Eight of them were counted, but Keeper Gale was not among them. His body was found on the beach with the bodies of Lemuel Griggs, Lewis White, George Wilson, and five unidentified Italian sailors, members of the crew of the ill-fated vessel on the bar. As for the others, only one thing was certain: Spencer Gray was one of the eight still on board the vessel, for his stoop, his bald head, stood out even at that distance.
If it was a period of trial for the eight men yet alive on board the Italian vessel, it was no less trying for the neighbors on shore. The craft was within easy range of the lifesaving mortar, and ample shot and line were available. But the trouble was that the lifesavers, the men trained in the use of the equipment, were all gone; at Tulls Creek, or drowned, or still out there on the ship.
The neighbors tried. They fired time after time, until the shot was exhausted and the vent in the mortar was clogged by sand. Forty-one rockets were sent up throughout the day and night, as encouragement for the men stranded on the vessel; for at least one of them was a native man, a neighbor: Surfman Spencer D. Gray.
It was all in vain, for at noon that second day of March the vessel began to go to pieces, and by 2 p.m. she had completely disappeared. Four men drifted ashore on a piece of wreckage, strangers all, Italians; they were exhausted, bruised, two with open gashes in their feet where spikes on the breaking deck had cut them. In the days that followed the Italians told, as best they could with signs and motions, what had happened. But it was never determined how or why the bark-her name was Nuova Ottavia-had stranded there. Fragments of the wreck which drifted ashore (one large section of the stern came in twenty miles down the beach near Kitty Hawk) were charred, leading to the speculation that the vessel had caught fire at sea. But it was only speculation, never substantiated.
At Church's Island, across the sound, meanwhile, Molly Berry Gray was left a widow, with two children to support and a third on the way; for her husband, Spencer D. Gray, who had somehow managed to reach the deck of the Nuovo Ottavia after his lifeboat capsized, did not live long. Like his six brave companions, he drowned before ever again reaching shore.
Excerpted from Graveyard of the Atlantic by David Stick Copyright © 1989 by University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are Saying About This
A thrilling record of storm and stress, of cruel seas and shifting sands, of broken ships, tragedy and gallantry is set down in this book. . . . David Stick, who lives on the Outer Banks, captures the spirit of this treacherous coast. He has done a major research job.New York Times Book Review
An engrossing account of shipwrecks off the Outer Banks of North Carolina, between 1526 and the last years of the Second World War.New Yorker
If you like shipwrecks (to read about, that is) you'll revel in Graveyard of the Atlantic, for here more than 600 wrecked vessels are mentioned in this absorbing anthology of deep water tragedies.Chicago Tribune