Village Craftsmen Ocracoke Newsletter
The Stovepipe Hat Wreck
My father occasionally told me the story of the
mid-nineteenth century Outer Banks “stovepipe hat”
shipwreck. It allegedly happened at Rodanthe before my father’s
time, so he did not know of it first-hand. But he had heard of the
wreck from residents of Hatteras Island. The ship was carrying
thousands of elegant beaver stovepipe hats, exactly the same headgear
made popular by President Abraham Lincoln. When the ship broke apart,
the hats washed up on the beach. In short order everyone on Hatteras
Island was wearing stovepipe hats.
In recent years I became curious about the wreck. What
was the name of the ship, I wondered. And in what year did it come
ashore? Then I discovered a 1965 magazine advertisement put out by the
North Carolina Tourism Bureau. It included a captivating image of a
proud Outer Banks family, each one wearing a beaver hat and holding
several more in their hands. It is titled “North Carolina’s
1965 North Carolina Tourism Image:
The text under the photo reads “After a heavy storm on North
Carolina’s Outer Banks, the native folk still search the
shoreline near the rotting timbers of countless old shipwrecks for
“Beneath the famed gamefish waters of the ‘Graveyard of the
Atlantic’ rest more than 2,000 hapless vessels. Each of them has
its own story.
“The most incredible tale of all, however, is told about the
steamer Flambeau whose cargo of 10,000 stovepipe hats all washed ashore
at once back in 1867, causing a ruckus that hasn’t been forgotten
“Following the wreck of the Flambeau,
there were more than 125 tall stovepipe hats for every man, woman and
child on these banks. Easter that year was an elegant occasion.
“Those fine beaver toppers were on their way to becoming a
prevailing fashion when the owners lodged complaint, and the Army came
and seized the stylish headwear.
“Stovepipe hats are hard to find on the Outer Banks of North
Carolina today. But the stories are as oft-told as ever, for these
banks, where the first attempt was made to settle American, are the
cradle of our history. And the ghosts of early colonists and pirates
rustle easily here.”
I immediately did some research on the steamer Flambeau. David Stick’s 1952
book, Graveyard of the Atlantic,
makes only one mention of the Flambeau,
in a list of vessels totally lost, on page 248. The Flambeau is identified as a steamer
that wrecked in March, 1867 at New Inlet. On a map of the coast of
North Carolina, Stick shows New Inlet (since closed) just north of
Rodanthe, on Hatteras Island. There is no mention of top hats in Graveyard of the Atlantic, nor in
Stick’s 1958 book, The Outer
Banks of North Carolina.
Ben Dixon McNeil, on the other hand, in his 1958 book, The Hatterasman, devotes two
entertaining pages to the stovepipe hat wreck. Fred M. Mallison, author
of The Civil War on the Outer Banks,
tells the same story, which he learned from McNeil. According to
McNeil, 10,000 silk hats were on board the Flambeau, en route to markets on
the west coast of South America. When the vessel broke up “the
beach was littered with hats, and it was not long before every man,
woman, and child on this Island had one of his own.” He goes on
to declare that “the beaver hat, and the taller the better, was
very general Easter wear that spring.”
McNeil quotes Captain John Allen Midgett who remembered Captain
Bannister Midgett saying that “even the porpoises were wearing
stove-pipe hats that spring.” According to the story, the
rightful owners of the hats prevailed upon military authorities to send
troops to Hatteras to seize the hats and deliver them to the Military
Governor of North Carolina.
As for the ship itself, McNeil states that even today, “the upper
part of her boiler…[is plainly marked, and] sits about fifty
Eventually I discovered several contemporary newspaper accounts of the
wreck of the Flambeau. They
tell a different story.
According to a letter from Major A. Compton, of the United States Army,
who was on board the Flambeau
at the time of the disaster, and published in the New York Times, dated March 10,
1867, titled “The Loss of the Steamship Flambeau,” “[t]he ship
left Alexandria on the evening of the 26th of February, with five
companies of the Fortieth United States Infantry on board, numbering
nine officers and four hundred and sixty-two men, and two ladies,
destined for Fort Fisher, Fort Caswell and Smithville, N.C…. On
the morning of [March 1] we entered New Inlet, N.C…. [Shortly
after 3 pm] the ship struck [the bar], and was hard and fast….
“During the night of the 1st inst. the surf, which roiled
heavily, forced the ship about two lengths further toward the shore,
leaving her in about six or seven feet of water.
“On the morning of the 2nd it was deemed advisable to make an
effort to remove the troops from the vessel to the shore, and through
the assistance and by the combined efforts ably, willingly and
cheerfully rendered by Capt. Everson, his officers and crew, about 400
men were safely landed in the ship’s boats.
“Before daylight on the morning of the 3d, the wind had changed
to northeast, and the surf rolled entirely over the ship. At times the
spray flew over the foretopsail-yard. Her boilers shifted during the
night, and she made water to the depth of six or seven feet in the
lower hold. The wind had increased to a gale, and through a tremendous
sea the remainder of the troops were safely landed.” (http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=9907E2DD1731EF34BC4852DFB566838C679FDE).
There is no mention of top hats in Major Compton’s account.
Furthermore, the inlet just south of Fort Fisher, called New Inlet, was
in New Hanorver County. The New Inlet where the Flambeau wrecked was definitely not
the Dare County inlet of the same name.
A March 13, 1867, article in the New
Bern Journal of Commerce (http://www.newspapers.com/image/52611693/)
and a March 28, 1867 article in the Washington
Daily Dispatch (http://www.newspapers.com/image/56099860/),
confirm Major Compton’s story.
Numerous attempts to verify the Outer Banks top hat story from Hatteras
Island residents yielded only comments such as “I grew up hearing
the story, although my mother's memory is very selective now & she
doesn't remember lots of the stories she told me,” or
“Regarding the Stovepipe hat wreck, … I was hoping to
gather more information. .. [but] I have had no success” or
“Had no luck and no one seemed to really have definite info on
those hats. Hope that something will surface.”
Attempts to verify the story by professional researchers were equally
unproductive. Bland Simpson, (UNC, Department of English &
Comparative Literature, Chapel Hill), Jessica A. Bandel (Historical
Research Office, N.C. Office of Archives and History), and Michael Hill
(Supervisor, Historical Research, NC Office of Archives and History)
could only uncover secondary sources (viz. McNeil and Mallison). After
extensive searching they were unable to track down a single
contemporary primary source for the story.
Interestingly, as mentioned above, McNeil states that “the upper
part of [the “stovepipe wreck’s] boiler…[is
plainly marked, and] sits about fifty yards offshore [of Hatteras
According to the Outer Banks Free
this boiler belongs to a different vessel, the Oriental:
a Federal Transport ship. The boat sank on May 16, 1862. The ship was
210 feet long. It is also known as the Stovepipe Hat Wreck. The ship
lies about 200 yards off the beach at Pea Island National Wildlife
Headquarters, three miles south of the Oregon Inlet on Rt. 12….
[T]he boiler stack [is] sticking out of the water.”
The Oriental (the "Stovepipe
(Above image by Wilton Wescott (obx_shooter), @ http://s137.photobucket.com/user/obx_shooter/media/DSC_0040-1-3.jpg.html)
After considerable research I have become convinced that the elaborate
and fanciful story of the top hats was invented by Ben Dixon MacNeil in
a co-mingling of the story of the wreck of the Oriental (wrecked 1862 on Bodie
Island, near New Inlet in Dare County) whose boiler looks like a
stovepipe hat, and is often described as the "stovepipe hat
wreck,” and the 1867 wreck of the Flambeau at New Inlet (in New
Hanover County, near Fort Fisher).
As McNeil writes in The Hatterasman,
“This is not a history. I am not a historian….”
Subsequently, Fred Mallison, the North Carolina Tourism Bureau (with
the help of a staged photograph), local Hatteras Island residents, and
others repeated the story uncritically, and frequently enough, for
it to become an oft-repeated, and believed, Outer Banks legend.
I am disappointed to discover that thousands of top hats probably never
washed up on the shores of the Outer Banks, that islanders did not
strut around their villages on Easter Sunday morning bedecked like
President Lincoln, and that this colorful Hatteras Island legend is
just that…a legend. But a great legend it is! As someone
once said to me, “it’s a damn poor piece of cloth that
can’t take a little embroidery.”