August 26, 2008
The Wreck of the Victoria S & Ocracoke's First Automobile Accident
“Son, why don’t you come along with me,” Homer called out. Lawton was eager to join
his father on beach patrol. It was exciting to be allowed to accompany a U.S. Coast
Guard surfman, and this would be a great adventure. It was August 22, 1925 and Lawton was fourteen years
father and son set out toward the bald beach,
leading Homer’s spirited stallion, "Old Bill." Just a quarter mile
from their village home the bald beach spread out before them.
Wide flats, devoid of
vegetation, extended for several miles toward First Hammock Hills, a
dune, prominent because of its covering of trees and bushes. Second
Hills lay beyond that, and barely visible farther north was the first
several small maritime forests, more dunes, and, hidden amongst the
yaupon and myrtle bushes, narrow tidal creeks.
The flats, dubbed the “Plains” by Ocracokers, were littered
with seaweed, seashells, starfish, and horseshoe crabs. Terns circled overhead,
diving at the interlopers in an attempt to keep their attention from exposed
“nests” (really just shallow depressions in the sand) with two or three speckled eggs
waiting to hatch.
Homer Howard, Sr.:
(Click on photo to view larger image.)
But Homer and Lawton
were focused on the beach. Turning east, they trudged through the soft sand,
shielding their eyes from the sun as best they could. Once they arrived
at the edge of the sea, walking became much easier. The sand there was hard and
flat. Homer’s assignment was to walk along the surf, always with an eye toward
the open sea. Schooners and steamers heading south regularly hugged the coast
along the lower Outer Banks of North Carolina, trying to avoid the strong
northward current of the Gulf Stream. Ships
sailing north also had to contend with currents, strong winds, and treacherous
shoals. All too often violent storms rose up with little or no warning.
Captains and sailors frequently met with disaster as their vessels, blown off
course, ploughed into the angry outer breakers of Ocracoke Island.
It was the job of the Coast Guard life savers to patrol the beach and render
assistance when tragedy struck.
Early in the afternoon of August 22 ship traffic along the Atlantic Ocean was light. Lawton even convinced his father to stop for
a few minutes while he jumped into the warm water. Large waves and a powerful
undertow suggested that a storm somewhere out to sea was making itself felt on
Ocracoke. Waves periodically rolled far up onto the beach, forcing Homer and Old Bill to retreat. But Lawton
was a strong swimmer. He emerged from the water only when his father beckoned
him…and then reluctantly.
Walking along the beach, Homer pulled out his fiddle. He
would play a tune (“Hand Me Down My Walking Cane,” “Bully of the Town,” or
maybe “Boil Them Cabbages Down”), all the while keeping his eye on ships
traveling offshore. Eventually fast-paced square dance tunes yielded to more
melancholy numbers. “The Letter Edged in Black.” “Put My Little Shoes Away,”
and “The Little Rosewood Casket” were soothingly popular at a time of high
infant mortality. Homer and his wife Aliph had lost more than a half dozen
babies to whooping cough, diphtheria, measles, and other childhood diseases. These songs reminded Homer
that he was not alone. They helped protect him from debilitating sorrow.
Late in the afternoon, his fiddle back in his saddlebag, and
his tour of duty coming to an end, Homer spied a four-masted schooner a
considerable distance off shore and sailing south. As he and his son watched,
the impressive sailing ship tacked and turned back toward the north. “What is
that all about?” Homer wondered to himself.
Then, without warning the schooner
turned around and headed south. As Homer and Lawton watched, the boat surprised them again
when it turned northward once more.
“Mark my words, son,” Homer finally said, looking at Lawton. “The captain of
that vessel is just waiting for nightfall. He’s planning to run her aground,
probably for the insurance money.”
And then it was time to return to the station. Another
surfman was taking over the patrol.
Early in the morning of August 23, 1925 Homer was awakened
from his bunk at the station. The announcement, “Ship Ashore!” rang out loud and clear.
The Coast Guard rushed to the rescue. The four-masted
schooner, Victoria S, was hard
aground in the breakers directly across the Plains from Ocracoke village. Using
the beach apparatus and breeches buoy the life savers quickly and efficiently
pulled all seven sailors to safety on shore. Shortly thereafter the Victoria S broke apart in the pounding
surf. Her cargo of rough cut pine lumber spilled out of the wreck and tumbled into the Atlantic Ocean.
The Wreck of the Victoria S:
(Click on photo to view larger image.)
For days large quantities of lumber washed up along several
miles of beach. The owners of the cargo were contacted and they immediately
dispatched an agent to Ocracoke to coordinate salvage operations.
The agent quickly assessed the situation. There were only
two gasoline powered vehicles on Ocracoke
Island in 1925. Captain Bill Gaskill, who owned the Pamlico Inn on the sound shore, had a flat bed
truck. Mr. Albert Styron, who operated a general store near the lighthouse, also
owned a truck. Both men were hired to drive out to the beach and collect as
much of the lumber as possible. A steamer was requisitioned, and brought down Pamlico Sound. It tied up to a dock on the northwest shore of Ocracoke village.
For several days Captain Bill and Mr. Albert drove back and
forth, from the beach to the sound, and back again, carrying load after load of
lumber. At that time the main thoroughfare through Ocracoke village was a one
lane, soft sand road that included what today is known as Howard Street.
In front of Stacy and Elizabeth Howard’s home the road made
a sharp bend, and there the loose sand was especially deep. To negotiate the
curve without getting stuck, the drivers of the model T trucks, equipped with
narrow rubber tires, needed to accelerate as they approached, and maintain
their speed as they rounded the blind bend.
Captain Bill had just loaded his truck at the beach. Piled with
lumber, his vehicle was traveling west. Mr. Albert had just unloaded his truck
at the steamer, and was returning to the beach, heading east. Both drivers
approached the curve in front of Stacy and Elizabeth’s house at the same time. Both
gunned their engines and rounded the bend simultaneously.
And that’s how it happened that Ocracoke experienced its
first automobile accident, in early September of 1925, a head on collision,
with only two vehicles on the island!