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 rescue.

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.

The Cedar Hammock LSS (Keeper Howard on right; family members on left), late 1800s:
Cedar Hammock LSS

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 away.

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 fatal mistake.

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.

Painting of the Wreck of the Ariosto by Charlie Ahmen:
The Wreck of the Ariosto
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.

Zilphia & James W. Howard:
James & Zilphia 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.

Captain Baines’ Platform Rocker:
Capt. Baines' 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 door.

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!

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In an August journal entry Dale mentioned the Outer Banks’ “Old August Storm” of 1899, and said that I would publish more about that hurricane in our September Newsletter.  In the intervening weeks we all witnessed the devastation to New Orleans and surrounding areas caused by hurricane Katrina.  Of course, nearly all storm stories pale in comparison.  Ocracoke’s recent encounter with hurricane Ophelia, for example, was extremely mild.  Damage was minimal, and life has returned to normal is just a few days.

Nevertheless, perhaps the most devastating hurricane to visit the Outer Banks since people have been keeping records was the “Old August Storm” of 1899.  Herewith a report.


It was summer of the last year of the 19th century.  The weather had been exceptionally pleasant for days.  Young Elisha Ballance and several other Ocracoke fishermen were out in the sound in their small skiffs.  Scanning the skies, they realized that a fierce storm was bearing down on them.  They sought refuge in the sand dunes about eight miles “down below” (that area of the island north of the village of Ocracoke).  As the weather deteriorated they scooped out a hole in the side of a small hill and covered it with their sails.

They endured the full fury of the hurricane in this primitive shelter, barely surviving the windblown debris and rising tide.  The storm continued relentlessly for three days (August 16, 17 & 18), covering the island with salt water, and threatening to drown the men with every tidal surge.

Elisha Ballance was only 17 years old when he was caught in this terrible maelstrom.  On the 19th he could endure the tension no longer.  Concerned for his family back in the village, and unwilling to wait for the tide to fully recede so the boats could be repaired and the sails mended, Elisha, along with two others, insisted on walking the eight miles back to the village.  It was a long and arduous trek fraught with danger along the way.

The island’s waterways were still swollen, and at times the men were forced to wade waist deep across creeks or trudge through saturated marshland.  Snakes that had been forced out of their habitat slithered past them.  Elisha and his companions were weak, hungry, and exhausted from the three-day ordeal.

Eventually Elisha made his way to his family home.  The scene was heartbreaking.  Alone in the house he found the lower level and all of the furniture soaked and coated with muck and sludge. Seaweed, sand, and mud covered the floor.  In the kitchen he slipped and fell.  The depressing sight before him, coupled with his weakened condition, left him with few resources.  He passed out.

In due time Elisha regained consciousness and began a search for his family .  As with so many others threatened by the rising tide, they had sought refuge with neighbors.

Elisha and his family recovered, as did the rest of the villagers, but memories and tales of the Old August Storm live on, more than one hundred years later.

Following is a first hand account of the storm, as related by Mr. S.L. Dosher, official Observer with the Weather Bureau on Hatteras Island.


Hatteras Devastated by Hurricane

U.S. Department of Agriculture
Weather Bureau
Office of the Observer

Subject: Hurricane
Station: Hatteras, North Carolina
Date: August 21st, 1899

Chief of the Weather Bureau,
Washington, D.C.

Sir:

I have the honor to make the following report of the severe hurricane which swept over this section on the 16th, 17th and 18th instantly.

The wind began blowing a gale from the east on the morning of the 16th, varying in velocity from 35 to 50 miles an hour….During the early morning of the 17th the wind increased to a hurricane and at about 4 a.m. it was blowing at the rate of 70 miles, at 10 a.m. it had increased to 84 miles and at 1 p.m. it was blowing a velocity of 93 miles with occasional extreme velocities of 120 miles to 140 per hour. The record of wind from about 1 p.m. was lost, but it is estimated that the wind blew even with greater force from about 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. and it is believed that between these hours the wind reached a regular velocity of at least 100 miles per hour….

At about 7:30 p.m. on the 17th there was a very decided lull in the force of the wind and at 8 p.m. it had fallen out until only a gentle breeze was blowing. This lull did not last more than half hour, however, before the wind veered to east and then to south-east and began blowing at a velocity estimated from 60 to 70 miles per hour which continued until well into the morning of the 18th. During the morning of the 18th the wind veered to the south and continued to blow a gale, with heavy rain squalls, all day, decreasing somewhat in the late evening and going into southwest. This day may be said to be the end of the hurricane, although the weather continued squally on the 19th , but without any winds of very high velocity.

This hurricane was, without any question, the most severe of any storm that has ever passed over this section within the memory of any person now living, and there are people here who can remember back for a period of over 75 years. I have made careful inquiry among the old inhabitants here, and they all agree, with one accord, that no storm like this has ever visited the island….

The scene here on the 17th was wild and terrifying in the extreme. By 8 a.m. on that date the entire island was covered with water blown in from the sound, and by 11 a.m. all the land was covered to a depth of from 3 to ten feet. The tide swept over the island at a fearful rate carrying everything movable before it. There were not more than four houses on the island in which the tide did not rise to a depth of from one to four feet, and at least half of the people had to abandon their homes and property to the mercy of the wind and tide and seek the safety of their own lives with those who were fortunate enough to live on higher land.

Language is inadequate to express the conditions which prevailed all day on the 17th. The howling wind, the rushing and roaring tide and the awful sea which swept over the beach and thundered like a thousand pieces of artillery made a picture which was at once appalling and terrible and the like of which Dante’s Inferno could scarcely equal.

The frightened people were grouped sometimes 40 or 50 in one house, and at times one house would have to be abandoned and they would all have to wade almost beyond their depth in order to reach another. All day this gale, tide and sea continued with a fury and persistent energy that knew no abatement, and the strain on the minds of every one was something so frightful and dejecting that it cannot be expressed.

In many houses families were huddled together in the upper portion of the building with the water several feet deep in the lower portion, not knowing what minute the house would either be blown down or swept away by the tide….

Cattle, sheep, hogs and chickens were drowned by hundreds before the very eyes of the owners, who were powerless to render any assistance on account of the rushing tide. The fright of these poor animals was terrible to see, and their cries of terror when being surrounded by the water were pitiful in the extreme.

The damage done to this place by the hurricane is, at this time difficult to estimate,…but is believed that the total loss to Hatteras alone will amount to from $15,000 to $20,000. The fishing business here is the principal industry from which is derived the revenue upon which the great majority live, and it may be said that this industry has for the present time been swept entirely out of existence….

A great majority of the houses on the island were badly damaged, and 5 or 6 are so badly wrecked as to be unfit for habitation and that many families are without homes, living wherever they can best find a home. The Southern Methodist church building was completely wrecked…All of the bridges and footways over the creeks and small streams were swept away…. The roadways are piled from three to ten feet high with wreckage….

The telegraph and telephone lines are both down…. It is reported that several vessels are stranded north of [Big Kinnakeet Life Saving Station]….

A large steamship foundered about one mile off Hatteras beach…and it is thought all on board were drowned….

The Diamond Shoals Light Ship which was stationed off Hatteras, broke loose from her mooring on the morning of the 17th and was carried southward by the gale….This vessel will probably prove a total loss….

The damage to the instruments and property of the Bureau here was considerable….The office building was flooded with water to the depth of about 18 inches, and the rain beat in at the roof and windows until the entire building was a mass of water….

I live about a mile from the office building and when I went home at 8 a.m. I had to wade in water which was about waist deep. I waited until about 10:30 a.m., thinking the storm would lull, but it did not do so, and at that time I started for the office…. I got about one-third of the distance and found the water about breast height, when I had to stop in a neighbor’s house and rest, the strain of pushing through the water and storm having nearly exhausted my strength. I rested there until about noon when I started again and after going a short distance further I found the water up to my shoulders…. I had to give it up again and take refuge in another neighbor’s house where I had to remain until about 8 p.m. when the tide fell so that I could reach the office….

I started to the office against the advice of those who were better acquainted with the condition of the roads than I, and continued on my way until I saw that the attempt was rash and fool-hardy and that I was certain to reach low places where I would be swept off my feet and drowned…. [T]here has never been any such tide as the one here mentioned.

….The rainfall…was as heavy as I have ever seen. It fell in [a] perfect torrent and at times was so thick and in such blinding sheets that it was impossible to see across a roadway 20 feet wide.

…[E]verything went before the fury of the gale. No lives were lost at Hatteras, although many narrow escapes occurred, several families being washed out of their homes in the tide and storm. At Ocracoke and Portsmouth, 16 and 20 miles south of this station the storm is reported about the same as at Hatteras, with a corresponding damage to property. Reliable details from these places however, being lacking. A pleasure boat at Ocracoke with a party of men from Washington, N.C., was lost and a portion of the party were drowned.

There has been no communication with this place by wire or mail since the storm, and it is not known when there will be. It is therefore requested that so much of this report as may be of interest to the public be given to the Associated Press for publication in the newspaper.

Very respectfully,

S.L. Dosher

Observer, Weather Bureau

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