December 17, 2007
The Wreck of the Ariosto, by Philip Howard
It was December of 1899. The U.S. Life Saving Station at
Cedar Hammock, just a mile or so from Hatteras Inlet, on the north end
of Ocracoke Island, had been in operation for sixteen years.
The station had been built to provide rescue services for
mariners involved in shipping disasters along the coast.
For three hundred years numerous shipwrecks had
occurred around Cape Hatteras, and over that time many a sailor died
because those on shore had no equipment or training to attempt a
In 1883 a dramatic change was made on Ocracoke. James Howard
was appointed the first keeper (or captain) of the new Cedar Hammock
station. Six surfmen, all natives of the island, were hired,
and training began. Over the next sixteen years a number of
schooners and other sailing vessels wrecked on Ocracoke's beach in
stormy weather and high seas. But most of the skippers and
crew of those ships were delivered from watery graves because of the
bravery and courage of the well-trained life savers.
Hammock LSS (Keeper Howard on right; family members on left), late
Not far from their fully equipped station, Keeper Howard and some of his
crew had built modest homes. Forsaking the comforts,
conveniences, and community of Ocracoke village, the keeper and his
surfmen brought wives, children, and other family members to their
remote end of the island during their months of service (typically
September to March, the period of severest weather). Keeper Howard and
his wife, Zilphia, even had their grandchildren with them after their
daughter, Lorena, died unexpectedly in her mid-30s. Their
father, Rev. L.O. Wyche, was a traveling Methodist preacher and was
unable to take his children with him on his circuit.
As Christmas approached in 1899, the small isolated community at Cedar
Hammock, including more than a dozen children, looked forward to the
holiday season. Native cedars and yaupons were cut and used to decorate
windows and doors. Red bows were tied on wreaths and trees.
Christmas songs were played on the Howards' parlor organ.
Stockings were hung by the fireplace in great anticipation of
the coming holiday. The surfmen and their families chose to
pool their resources for a community-wide Christmas day celebration.
They would all gather in the station at mid-day on December
25 to share a festive dinner of roast goose, potatoes, collards, and
pumpkin pie. Each family would provide a portion of the
meal. James Hatton Wahab's wife, Martha Ann Howard Wahab,
accepted the responsibility of baking the pies.
On December 23, late in the afternoon, Hatton walked into the kitchen
and discovered every level surface covered with pumpkin pies.
Martha Ann had baked, not just three or four pies for the two
dozen or so people at Cedar Hammock. She had baked enough
pies for more than twice that many people. "Whatever are you
doing?" Hatton asked her. "We can't possibly eat all those
pies, Martha Ann!"
"Well, Hatton," she replied, "you know I always like to be prepared.
I want to be sure to have enough pies in case any folks from
over seas come to join us for Christmas dinner."
Hatton just shrugged his shoulders and walked back outside.
He had been scanning the skies. Dark, ominous storm
clouds had been rolling in over the sound, and the wind was picking up.
He had come home to check on his family. After his
five children were safe inside he would help at the station.
The other families had the same concerns.
Before long the children were all accounted for. Some had
been in the sound in their sail skiffs. Two had ridden their
ponies down the beach. Others were in the yard, or in the
house, playing games or singing along with the organ. But now
they were all safe inside.
The wind was stronger now. The surfmen struggled to haul
boats out of the water, put their horses in the stable, tie down
equipment, and close the shutters. The surf was rough and the
tide was already beginning to rise.
Inside, the children were fed their dinners and put to bed around eight
o'clock. The adults huddled around their fireplaces, trying
to stay warm, and worrying about what the storm might bring.
Cold wind was whistling through cracks in the walls, around
rattling windows, and under the doors. They might lose some
shingles from the roof, or maybe a banging shutter would blow off.
But they were most concerned about the rising tide.
If it came too high they would be forced to open the doors
(and maybe even the windows) to let the cold Atlantic water inside
before it could lift their houses off of their foundations and float them
As the night wore on and midnight approached the worried families at
Cedar Hammock were unaware of the drama playing out a few
miles south in the Atlantic Ocean.
The steel hulled, schooner-rigged, British steamship, Ariosto, with a
crew of thirty, loaded with wheat, cotton, lumber, and cottonseed meal,
was making its way north, intending to refuel in Norfolk before
departing for Hamburg, Germany. Peering through the mist,
rain, and clouds, on a pitching and rolling vessel, the Ariosto's
navigator spied a lighthouse. At midnight he reported to his
captain, R.R. Baines from Antwerp, that they were abreast of the Cape
Hatteras light. Captain Baines gave orders: "Steam straight
ahead." And then he retired to his cabin. It was a
The ship was not well out to sea, east of the dreaded shoals of Cape Hatteras,
as the officers believed. The navigator had actually seen the Ocracoke light, and the Ariosto was headed straight for the north end of Ocracoke.
About two in the morning of December 24, 1899 Captain Baines was rudely
awakened by a sudden thud, a fearful shuddering of his entire
vessel, a precipitous list to starboard, and the
ringing of the ship's bell. Rushing to the deck, he leaned
over the rails and saw nothing but wild, churning white water.
Thick, heavy weather enveloped the Ariosto, preventing
visibility for more than a dozen yards. He was convinced that
they had run hard aground on the outer Diamond Shoals. Captain Baines
ordered distress flares to be launched, but he had no hope that life
savers from Hatteras could reach them in a storm such as this.
Fearing that his boat would break apart (already the starboard life
boats had been carried away), Captain Baines ordered all men in the
remaining life boats. The first boat touched the roiling
waves and was immediately capsized. All eleven men were
thrown into the frigid December waters. Fifteen sailors
climbed into the second boat when a wave struck it and it broke apart.
All fell into the Atlantic. The captain and three others who
had remained on the vessel were now stranded. Two sailors
from the overturned life boat managed to grab hold of some
tackle thrown over the side of the boat, and were pulled back onto the deck.
of the Wreck of the Ariosto by Charlie Ahmen:
It was then that the crew from the Cedar Hammock station arrived on the
scene. Immediately keeper Howard raised the international
signal, MK, "Remain on Your Ship!" The Ariosto was several
hundred yards off shore, only about two miles south of the station.
By now the ship was visible from shore, and the life savers
were busy unloading their beach cart. While designated
surfmen set the crotch and buried the sand anchor others got the Lyle
gun ready and released the line from the faking box. As soon
as possible Keeper Howard fired the first shot line to the stricken
vessel. It missed, but miraculously fell across a struggling
sailor. He wrapped the line around his arm before loosing
consciousness. The unconscious sailor was hauled up on the
beach and given artificial respiration. He revived.
Against all odds an exhausted sailor, seaman Elsing, managed
to swim to shore. Another struggling sailor was
pulled out of the surf when the life savers made a human chain by
clasping hands and wading into the numbingly cold, turbulent breakers.
Eventually a shot line reached the Ariosto and the hawser was attached
to a mast. The traveling block and breeches buoy were sent to
the vessel. By late in the afternoon the five sailors and the
captain (carrying his pet dog "Belgium") were brought safely ashore.
As Keeper Howard noted in his report, if all had remained on
board all would have been saved. As it was, twenty-one main
drowned that Christmas Eve, 1899.
The survivors were carried back to the station, given dry clothes,
warmed by the fire, and provided with food and hot coffee. The work of
the life savers was not over, however. Their equipment had to
be gathered up and repacked in the beach cart, then taken back to the
station where the ponies were cared for.
After that the drowned were carried from the incoming tide and buried
in unmarked graves in the dunes near where they had washed up on the
beach. Rev. Wyche, who was spending the holidays with his children, was called on to provide Christian burials
for the hapless sailors.
That night eight sailors from the Ariosto were berthed in the station.
Captain Baines spent the night with Keeper and Mrs. Howard.
& James W. Howard:
The next day, of course, was Christmas. The nine survivors
from the wreck of the Ariosto were included in the Cedar Hammock
Christmas dinner celebration.
When it came time for dessert, all were impressed that there was plenty
of pie for everyone, for Martha Ann was prepared, and had anticipated
having "folks from overseas" join them for Christmas dinner.
The Ariosto never broke apart. Several days later, after the
storm subsided, the captain and crew asked the surfmen to row
them out to their ship in order to retrieve a few personal belongings.
Captain Baines insisted on bringing his caned platform
rocking chair with him. Once on shore he presented it to
Keeper Howard as a token of gratitude for saving his life.
Captain Baine's chair has been passed down in the family, and sits
today in my living room, a silent reminder of the disaster of Christmas
Eve, 1899. And of the courage, bravery, and skill of the men
of the U.S. Life Saving Service.
Baines' Platform Rocker:
As Christmas approaches each year I decorate my home with a native cedar
tree adorned with mini-lights. I cut yaupon branches, thick
with red berries, and decorate my table. I put candles in the
windows, and hang a cedar wreath (with bright red bow) on my front
In the evenings I like to sit in my recliner, next to a dancing fire in
my cast iron stove, and read. Not infrequently I'll
nod off for ten or fifteen minutes. I sometimes wake with a
start, still somewhat drowsy, and glance towards Captain Baine's chair.
That's when I'm sure I see the chair gently rocking back and forth.
I force myself awake, and when I look carefully the chair is
still. Nevertheless, I wonder, could it be that Captain
Baines returns every year at Christmas? Maybe he stops to
visit my great-grandfather this time of year. If so, I wonder
what they chat about?
Perhaps he returns to reminisce about the wreck of his ship, and his rescue....and to wish us all a very Happy Christmas!