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 Incredible Shipwreck.”

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 trinkets—and treasure.

“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 yet.

“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 yards offshore.”

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 Island].”

According to the Outer Banks Free Press (http://www.outerbanksfreepress.com/atlanticgraveyard.html), this boiler belongs to a different vessel, the Oriental:

“The Oriental…was 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 Hat Wreck”):

(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.”

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While driving, biking, or walking almost anywhere along the Outer Banks from early April through December you are likely to notice clusters of brightly colored red and yellow wild flowers. They are gaillardias (Gaillardia aristata), a member of the sunflower family. Drought tolerant and especially well adapted to sandy soil, gaillardias flourish on the Banks, even in direct sunlight.

Gaillardia (or Joe Bell Flower):

Gaillardias are so well adapted to the Outer Banks that you might think they have been here forever. In fact, they are native to the northern and western sections of North America where they are often called Indian blanket flowers, fire wheels, or paint brushes. The flowers were introduced to Ocracoke in the early days of the twentieth century by a gentleman from Washington, North Carolina who was just as colorful as the gaillardia, Joseph Nash Bell, Jr.

Born in Washington in 1850, Joe Bell seems to have been destined for adventure. When he was only fourteen years old he left home, lied about his age, and joined the Confederate army. His military career was cut short when a family friend recognized him and sent him home with a cavalry patrol.

After only one year at university and another at a business college, he was persuaded to attend watchmaker’s school. His father, Joseph Nash Bell, Sr., and his uncle, Benjamin A. Bell, were established watchmakers and jewelers in New Bern and Washington, North Carolina. In his early twenties Joe joined the family business.

Joe Bell left Washington abruptly after a brief courtship with one of the young girls in town. For the next half century he led an unconventional life. He was in the Klondike in 1896, mining for gold. But like most novice miners in the unforgiving Yukon Territory he found little gold. Eventually he abandoned his search for gold and settled for a time in Dawson City where he opened a watch repair and jeweler’s shop.

The Klondike Gold Rush:

In 1899, when gold was discovered in Nome, Alaska, Joe Bell moved his business there. The sea called him sometime later, and for a while he served aboard sailing ships plying the Pacific Ocean. By 1906 he was living in San Francisco. On the 18th of April the San Andreas Fault opened up along a 296 mile corridor. The resulting fires, caused mainly by ruptured gas lines, raged out of control for four days and nights. It was one of the worst natural disasters in the history of the United States.

Deciding that California was not for him, Joe Bell moved to New York, then back to North Carolina where he established an itinerant watch repair and jeweler’s business. When his horse died he was ready for another undertaking. By the 1920s Joe Bell was living on Ocracoke.

Joe Bell’s brother-in-law had purchased two homes on Ocracoke Island where he and his extended family spent summer vacations. It was the perfect retreat for the aging adventurer. As caretaker of his brother-in-law’s summer residences Joe Bell received free housing and the opportunity to continue his unconventional lifestyle. Ocracoke had not yet entered the modern world. None of the island homes had indoor plumbing, and electric power had yet to be introduced. All of the roads were sandy lanes, and the only connection to the mainland was by private yacht or the daily mailboat. No more than 550 people called Ocracoke home.

In the off-season Joe Bell enjoyed his solitude when he wished, or the companionship of friendly neighbors when that suited him better. It was not unusual for Joe and friends to gather around a jug of homemade meal wine and wile away the hours laughing, sharing stories, and playing poker. On one occasion, after imbibing copious amounts of their home brew, they set up a coal oil lamp so it would cast shadows against the living room wall. The revelers then took turns tracing around their shadows.

On another occasion Joe fell into the cistern while trying to dip out a cup of water to wash down strong drink.

Island life suited Joe Bell. He made a modest income repairing watches and jewelry. He even served as magistrate for a while. Although there were few small claims cases to be adjudicated on Ocracoke he did officiate at the occasional wedding ceremony.

Another Ocracoke visitor who fell in love with the island in the 1920s was Rex Beach (1877-1949), American novelist, playwright, Olympic water polo player, sportsman, and journalist. In Beach’s 1921 book, Oh, Shoot!: Confessions of an Agitated Sportsman, he describes Ocracoke as the “centre of the goose-hunting industry.” He goes on to say that “the houses are scattered among wind-twisted cedars or thickets of juniper and sedge, and most of them possess two outstanding adjuncts – a private graveyard and a decoy pen [for live decoys]”.

Rex Beach:

Beach was also an adventurer. Like Joe Bell, he had spent time in the Yukon Territory prospecting for gold in 1896, and then in Nome in 1899. When Rex Beach came to Ocracoke Joe could often be found on Beach’s yacht late into the evening drinking and sharing stories from his days in Canada and Alaska.

Joe Bell’s most enduring legacy is the Joe Bell flower, for that is what islanders call the gaillardia. The most popular story has it that Joe Bell moved to Ocracoke to mend a broken heart. According to the legend, the woman he loved left him to marry another. In tribute to his enduring love for her Joe Bell brought gaillardia seeds to Ocracoke and planted the flowers in his yard. Some versions of the story claim he cast seeds to the wind, always wore a gaillardia flower in his lapel, and passed out flowers and seeds to anyone who would accept them.

As with any legend, Joe Bell’s story got more fanciful as the years passed. Charles Whedbee, North Carolina judge and raconteur, even published his version in which Joe Bell’s wife Josephine, a midwife, died and her heartbroken husband discovered gaillardias growing out of a conch shell next to her grave. He decided to bring the flowers to Ocracoke, where they had spent many a happy summer.

In fact, Joe Bell never married. He did bring some of the red and yellow flowers to Ocracoke from California, but not as a way of mending a broken heart. He was simply a man of good taste who appreciated beauty.  On the mainland he was known to dress in a dark suit with a necktie and a pearl stickpin. On Ocracoke he wore a collarless long sleeved white shirt, gold collar button (adorned with a garnet), khaki pants and red suspenders.

Joe Bell died in 1930. He was standing on his brother-in-law’s porch when he had a stroke and fell to the ground. He was buried in a simple, handmade wooden casket in the yard. Joe Bell flowers were planted next to the grave, but they no longer grow there. Nevertheless, Joe Bell’s legacy lives on.

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Joe Bell planted the colorful flowers in his Ocracoke yard almost a century ago. They quickly spread to neighbors’ yards¸ then throughout the village. In time they migrated past the village and established themselves along the highway as far north as Hatteras Inlet. By the 1970s Joe Bell flowers had spread the entire length of the Outer Banks.

When you spy a cluster of his brightly colored flowers, think “there are joebells” (for on Ocracoke it is usually pronounced as one word), and remember the story of Joe Bell, one of many unusual characters who have called Ocracoke home.

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See also To Ocracoke! by Fred M. , especially chapter 10, “Uncle Joe Bell.”

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