The following account is taken from the book, Digging up Uncle Evans, by Philip Howard.

In October of 1837 the Steamboat Home wrecked on Ocracoke Island. It was the worst sea disaster ever to occur on Ocracoke. Ninety persons lost their lives that Monday night, October 9, as the 550-ton wooden, side-wheel steamer broke apart in the surf.

The Home was a 198 foot luxury vessel which, although it had made two previous voyages from New York City to Charleston, South Carolina, seems not to have been designed or constructed to endure the vicissitudes of the often unpredictable and violent weather in the North Atlantic, especially near the dreaded Cape Hatteras. This harsh lesson was learned only through unspeakable tragedy.

The Home, under the charge of Captain Carleton White, left New York harbor at four o’clock in the afternoon of Saturday, October 7, 1837, bound once again for Charleston. The Home was a grand and marvelous vessel. On her previous voyage she had exceeded all previously set speed records for travel between the two major ports. Excitement was palpable as the Home left the dock. One hundred and thirty persons, including forty crew members and ninety passengers, were aboard.

Virtually all of the passengers were well-to-do New Yorkers or Charlestonians. Their cabins were luxurious and their spirits high as they reveled in their finely appointed quarters and elegant surroundings, and looked forward to an enjoyable voyage.

Steamboat Home
From Steamboat Disasters & Railroad Accidents
in the United States by S.A. Howland

Shortly after their departure, the Home ran aground on a shoal near Sandy Hook, New Jersey, and remained stranded for more than five hours. Finally, with the help of sails, steam power, and a rising tide, the Home was freed to continue her voyage. Now all hope of setting a new speed record was dashed.

The voyage continued for more than twenty-four hours without further delay, although the Home encountered increasingly stormy conditions late in the day of Sunday, October 8. By very early Monday morning gale force winds had intensified to hurricane velocity, and the Home was beginning to show alarming signs of distress. Captain White ordered the sails reefed. The storm grew wilder. The Home showed increasing indications of not being seaworthy.

By daybreak Monday morning crew members and passengers, including two veteran sea captains on board, had become so concerned that they called for the captain to beach the vessel as their only hope for survival. Captain White refused, explaining that the ship’s owner, Mr. Allaire, had not insured the Home, and furthermore that his vessel was less than six months old, well built, and sturdy enough to withstand whatever torment the Atlantic could throw their way.

Soon after first light a leak was discovered, and one of the ship’s boilers shut down. At that point Captain White turned the Home toward land, but headed back out to sea again when the boiler was returned to service.

The Home was now in the vicinity of Wimble Shoals, abreast of Cape Hatteras, and taking a harrowing drubbing from the worsening storm. Waves broke over the vessel, tearing off portions of the superstructure and smashing stateroom and dining room windows. The majestic wooden boat now creaked and groaned as it rode the heavy seas. Tiles began to fall from the dining room ceiling, and seawater was pouring in through seams in the ship’s planking.

By 2 p.m. on Monday afternoon it was apparent that the ship’s pumps were inadequate for dealing with the increasing volume of water the Home was taking on. Captain White pressed all aboard into service. Passengers and crew joined together on a brigade. Buckets, pails, pots, pans, derby hats, and other containers were put to use bailing the vessel, but by 8 p.m. the seawater had risen so deep that the Home’s boilers were finally extinguished.

Now with only a few tattered sails, the Home was at the mercy of the raging sea. Captain White ordered his vessel turned to the west, toward the distant beach. It was his only hope. The Home had passed south of Cape Hatteras by this time and, although it was hours after sunset, the moon was waxing and the vessel was within sight of Ocracoke Island, about five and a half miles north of the settlement and the lighthouse.

Quickly filling with water, the Home limped toward the beach. Crew and passengers stood on the deck with dreaded anticipation. Finally, with a sickening thud, the steamer struck the outer bar, spun around, then listed onto her starboard side. The Home was more than one hundred yards from the shore and completely exposed to the thundering surf. Huge waves broke over the deck, tearing away the helm, the forecastle, lifeboats, and much of the rest of the superstructure in short order. Dozens of people were swept into the raging sea.

With great difficulty one of the remaining lifeboats was lowered over the lee side, but the angry breakers engulfed the small boat and it immediately capsized, spilling its occupants into the sea. No sooner was the lifeboat lost, than the mainmast crashed onto the deck, followed by the smokestacks. The Home was disintegrating rapidly. The starboard cabins and dining room were quickly demolished and the deck caved in soon afterwards. Within less than thirty minutes the Home was completely destroyed.

In the ensuing chaos every effort was made to protect the women and children, but eventually everyone was cast into the tempestuous sea. The vessel itself carried but one life ring. One gentleman had purchased a life vest before embarking, and he quickly buckled it on. Although he was temporarily knocked unconscious when his head struck a shattered piece of timber, he recovered and was washed onto the beach, alive and grateful.

Only forty people survived the wreck of the steamboat Home, including one twelve year old boy. All of the other children perished. The survivors found themselves, near midnight, cold, exhausted, and disoriented, on a desolate and unfamiliar beach. Seeing the light from the lighthouse, several men proceeded to walk the five miles to the village to seek help.

Bodies of the ninety victims of the greatest sea disaster in Ocracoke’s history would later be found more than a mile from the wreck.

By daybreak the people of Ocracoke had heard of the terrible tragedy. They walked or rode their ponies to the site of the wreck to care for the survivors, and later to bury the dead and gather together any property that could be salvaged. Most of the dead were buried by the islanders in the nearby dunes in unmarked graves, many simply wrapped in sail canvas, blankets, or quilts.

After the disaster Captain John Salter, one of the passengers, who for a time seems to have acquired command of the Home, leveled charges against Captain White, accusing him of drunkenness and neglect, and claiming that the Home itself was not seaworthy. Ten other passengers joined him in his accusations. Whether the charges were true or false, Captain White was eventually exonerated.

As a consequence of the wreck of the Home, one year later Congress passed the first law requiring ocean going vessels to carry at least one life preserver for every person on board.

Stories of shipwrecks have been passed down on Ocracoke for generations. Island native Walter Howard penned the following tale more than fifty years ago. It was told to him by old Arcadia Williams, whose family was intimately involved with the aftermath of the steamboat Home tragedy. Walter’s story is a brilliant account of the wreck and a fascinating glimpse into island life of more than one hundred and twenty years ago.

The following version of Walter’s story, The Wreck of the Steamboat Home, is abridged but the entire tale may be found on the Internet.

THE WRECK OF THE STEAMBOAT HOME, by   Walter Howard:

When I was a small boy, I used to listen to the older people tell of the shipwrecks on Ocracoke Island where I was born. “God help the sailors on a night like this!” was, and is to this day, a household saying in our section of the country.

Old Arcadia Williams is responsible for the tale I’m about to tell. We will call her “Kade” as that was her nickname.

Kade lived in an old house framed from the beams of old shipwrecks. There were wooden windows and a wooden chimney which was always a source of wonder to me. Kade still did her cooking in the fireplace. The boys wanted to take up a collection to buy her a stove but she would have none of it. Her excuse was that old Ben Franklin was an infidel and that she would have none of his doings or inventions in her house.

Kade could “cuss like a sailor.” Aside from this human weakness she was a good soul and didn’t have an enemy in the world. As a story teller her equal has never been found.

She was a short, squat woman with a friendly, round face which boasted countless fine wrinkles. She parted her hair in the center and drew it into a tight knot terminating at the nape of her neck where she fastened it with two wire nails whose protruding heads gave the appearance that a carpenter had been trying to nail her head fast to her body without any marked success.

“It was in the fall of the year,” she began, drawing the big cuspidor a little closer so as to get a better range for her spitting.

“It was in October, a heavy Northeaster had been blowing for two days and getting worse by the hour. It never blew any harder nor rained any more since Noah’s Ark. Young’uns, I thought every gust of wind would be the last, as that old house of ours wasn’t any too strong. It kept up for eight solid hours. The wind and rain was roaring so loud we could hardly hear each other talk. Along about two o’clock that night Father Jack had a nightmare. Young’uns, he almost scared all hands of us to death. Finally we brought him out of his fit and he told us his dream. He had dreamed of going down to the sea and beholding a terrible disaster with hundreds of people washed upon the sand, and he had picked up an infant only to discover it was drowned. As he stood there on the beach holding the child in his arms, the sea turned itself into a horrible monster and was reaching out with clutching hands trying to grasp him and pull him in with the rest of the drowned.

“While we were listening to this story there came a knocking at the door, and when brother Wid opened the door there stood as fine a figure of a drowned man as ever I laid eyes on. Before anyone had a chance to speak to him, he turned loose the door knob and pitched head foremost on the floor. It was fully a half hour before he was able to speak. He told us that he had just washed ashore from a steamer that had struck the beach about five miles away. Her name was the Steamboat Home bound from New York to Charleston with 130 people aboard. Upon reaching the beach he had groped around in the dark until he spied the light in our window.

“We drew our chairs up close to him and he told us his story.”

“The weather was pleasant when we left New York on Saturday.

“The next morning a moderate breeze prevailed from the northeast. The sails were spread before the wind, and the speed of the boat was much accelerated. About noon the wind increased and the sea became rough. At sunset the wind blew heavily and continued to increase during the night. At daylight on Monday, it had become a gale.

“The sea raged frightfully from the violence of the gale, causing a general anxiety among the passengers. Early on Monday land was discovered, nearly ahead, which was believed to be the northern tip of Hatteras.

“The condition of the boat now was truly alarming—it bent and twisted when struck by the waves as if the next one would rend it asunder. The panels of the ceiling were falling from their places and the hull, as if united by hinges, was bending against the feet of the braces. Throughout the day the rolling and pitching were so great that no cooking could be done on board.

“Late in the afternoon the course was changed from southeasterly to northwesterly, when the awful truth burst upon us: the boat must be filling, for we could imagine no other cause for this sudden change. This was but a momentary suspense, for within a few minutes all the passengers were called on to bail in order to prevent the boat from sinking.

“Immediately all were employed, but with little effect, for notwithstanding the greatest exertions on the part of the passengers the water was rapidly increasing, and gave the most conclusive evidence that unless we reached the shore within a few hours, the boat must sink at sea.

“Soon after the boat was headed towards the land, the water had increased so much so as to reach the fire under the boilers and it was quickly extinguished. Gloomy indeed was the prospect before us, with 130 persons in a sinking boat far out at sea on a dark and tempestuous night, with no other dependence for reaching the shore than a few small and tattered sails; our condition might be considered tragic. But with all these disheartening circumstances, hope, delusive hope, still supported us.

“Although it was evident that we must soon sink, and our progress toward the land was slow, still we cherished the expectation that the boat would finally be run ashore and thus most of us be delivered from a watery grave.

“Early in the afternoon the ladies had been provided with strips of blanket that they might be lashed to such parts of the boat as could afford the greatest probability of safety.

“In this condition and with these expectations, we gradually, but with a motion nearly imperceptible, approached what to many of us was an unknown shore.

“At about eleven o’clock those that had been employed in bailing were compelled to leave the cabin as the boat had sunk until the deck was nearly level with the waters and it appeared too probable that all would soon be swallowed up by the foaming waves.

“Soon land was announced by those on the lookout. This, for a moment, aroused the sinking energies of all when a general bustle ensued, in the hasty, but trifling preparations that could be made for safety as soon as the boat should strike. But what were the feelings of an anxious multitude, when instead of land, a range of angry breakers was visible just ahead, and land was but half perceptible in the distance far beyond.

“Immediately before we struck, one or two passengers, aided by some of the seamen, attempted to seek safety in one of the boats at the quarter deck when a breaker struck it, swept it from the davits and carried with it a seaman who was instantly lost.

“A similar attempt was made to launch the long-boat from the upper deck by the chief mate. It was filled with several passengers and some of the crew but as we were already within the verge of the breakers, this boat shared the fate of the other, and all on board, about ten in number, perished.

“Now commenced the most heart-rending scene of all. Wives clinging to husbands, and children to parents, all awaiting the results of the next moment, which might bring with it either life or death. Though an intense feeling of anxiety must have filled every breast, not a shriek was heard.

“A slight agitation was, however, apparent in the general circle. Some few hurried from one part of the boat to another seeking a place of greater safety. Yet most remained quiet and calm observers of the scene before them. The boat, at length strikes—it stops—and is as motionless as a bar of lead. A momentary pause follows as if the angel of death shrunk from so dreadful a work of slaughter. But soon the work of destruction commenced. A breaker with a deafening crash swept over the boat carrying its unfortunate victims into the deep. At the same time a simultaneous rush was made towards the bow of the boat. The forward deck was covered. Another breaker came with irresistible force and all within its sweep disappeared. Our number was now frightfully reduced. The roaring of the waters, together with the dreadful crash of breaking timbers, surpassed the power of description.

“Some of the remaining passengers sought shelter from the encroaching dangers by retreating to the passage on the lee side of the boat as if to be as far as possible from the grasp of death.

“Already both decks were swept of everything that was on them. The dining cabin was entirely gone and everything belonging to the quarter deck was completely stripped away. All this was the work of about five minutes.

“The starboard wheelhouse, and everything about it, were soon entirely demolished. So much of the ceiling had fallen during the day that the waves soon found their way through all that remained to oppose them and were a few minutes time forcing deluges into the last retreat of those who had taken shelter in the passage already mentioned. Every wave made a frightful encroachment on our narrow limits and seemed to threaten us with immediate death. One lady begged earnestly for someone to save her.

“Another scene witnessed at this trying hour was still more painful. A little boy was pleading with his father to save him but the unhappy father was too deeply absorbed in the other charges that rested upon him even to notice the imploring child. For at that time his wife hung upon one arm and his daughter of seventeen upon the other. He had one daughter besides but whether she had been washed overboard at that time I am not certain.

“After remaining here some minutes the deck overhead was split open by the violence of the waves which allowed me an opportunity of climbing out. This I instantly did and assisted my wife through the same opening. As I had now left those below, I am unable to say how they were lost as that part of the boat was very soon completely destroyed, their further sufferings could not have been much more prolonged.

“We could see the encroachment of the devouring waves, every one of which reduced our thinned numbers and swept with it parts of our crumbling boat. For several hours previous, the gale had been sensibly abating. For a moment the pale moon broke through the dispersing clouds as if to witness this scene of terror and destruction and to show the horror-stricken victims the fate that awaited them.

“While the moon yet shone, three men were seen to rush from the middle to the stern of the boat. A wave came rushing on. It passed over the deck and only one of the three was left. He had barely time to reach a large timber to which he clung when this wave struck him—and he too was missing. As the wave passed away these men were seen above the water but they appeared to make no effort to swim. The probability is that the violence with which they were hurled into the sea disabled them. They sank to rise no more.

“During this time, Mr. Lovegreen of Charleston continued to ring the ship’s bell which added to the gloom. It sounded like a funeral knell over the departed dead. Never before perhaps was a bell tolled at such a funeral as this.

“While in this situation our attention was arrested by the appearance of a lady climbing up on the outside of the boat. Her head was barely above the deck on which we stood and she was holding to it in a most perilous manner. She implored help. I ran to her aid but was unable to raise her to the deck. Mr. Woodburn of New York now came and with his assistance the lady was rescued. She was then lashed to a large piece of timber by the side of another lady.

“The former lady was washed ashore on this piece of wreckage beside me. I was compelled to get on a larger piece of the boat that lay near. This was almost immediately driven from its place into the breakers which instantly swept me from it and plunged me deep into the water. With some difficulty I gained the raft and continued to cling to this fragment as well as I could but was repeatedly washed from it, sometimes plunging deep into the water and coming up under it. After encountering all the difficulties that seemed possible to be borne, I was, at length, thrown on shore in an exhausted condition.

“At the time I was driven from the boat there were but few left. Of these, four washed ashore with me. On reaching the beach there was no appearance of inhabitants but after wandering some distance I saw your light and followed it.”

“While this man was telling his story”, Kade continued, “someone in my family sneaked out of the house and gave the alarm that a steamer was ashore.

“It wasn’t very long before everybody knew about it and the whole population of the Island (about 300 people) turned out. Men began to run by with lanterns and torches, screaming ‘Wreck on the Beach’ and ‘Vessel Ashore.’

“All the men folk went down to the wreck that night. As soon as the men arrived at the scene, they started to pull the drowned from the water. My father said that the last thing he found was a drowned child, the same as he had seen in his dream that very night. The following day was a sad day for this island as well as for the survivors. The menfolk had worked from four o’clock that morning until sundown. Every piece of canvas was used to sew up the dead in for burial, as well as all the bed quilts that were donated by the people here on the Island. Most of the dead could not be identified and were buried just as they had been washed ashore with their clothing and jewelry on.

“These earrings,” Kade said, pointing to her ears, “were taken from the body of one of the ladies who had washed up on the beach. My mother had a complete outfit salvaged from an old trunk on the boat. It was the prettiest thing I had ever seen. The owner must have been a very wealthy lady. My mother never would wear it. She hung it upstairs where she could look at it now and then until it rotted away.”

Having now finished her story, Kade fired one parting shot at the spittoon, toddled over to the window, looked out into the darkness and said in a voice almost inaudible, “God help the sailors on a night like this.”

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In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, whales and “porpoises” (actually bottle-nose dolphins)* were hunted commercially by Outer Banks fishermen. Evidence of this industry on Ocracoke Island survives in the name of Try Yard Creek, located 6.1 miles northeast of the village of Ocracoke.

A “try yard” was a place where whales or porpoises were processed in order to “try out” or render the oil from blubber or fat.

Today, whales and dolphins are not only protected, but have become iconic symbols of ocean conservation. A number of organizations are dedicated specifically to the protection of marine mammals. Tour boats around the world take tourists and photographers on “Whale Watching Cruises” and “Dolphin Watching Cruises.” Some coastal communities offer opportunities to swim with captive dolphins, and the Internet contains thousands of images and videos of whales and dolphins taken by amateur and professional photographers.

A Whale Sighted off Ocracoke’s Beach:

It is easy to forget that life on the Outer Banks, even one hundred years ago, was much different than it is today. The residents of these wind-swept sandy banks were isolated, poor, and unsophisticated. They were also resourceful, creative, and self-sufficient. They did what they could to survive and feed their families, and that sometimes meant hunting whales and “porpoises.”

By the early 1700s the American whaling industry was centered in New England.

Engraving from Account of the Arctic Regions (1820), by W. Scoresby:

In 1666 Peter Cartaret, assistant governor of Albemarle (which later became North Carolina), granted a commercial whaling license to three New England mariners, granting them permission to take whales in the colony’s waters. There is no evidence that they took advantage of the license.

For almost two centuries, beginning in the mid-1600s, residents of coastal North Carolina engaged in shore-based whaling activities, while New England whalers eventually operated far out to sea in square-rigged ships specially outfitted for the task.

North Carolina whalers never pursued their prey in the open ocean. Initially, they relied exclusively on “drift whales,” cetaceans that became stranded in shallow water, or that died at sea and washed ashore. Later, pursuit of whales became more active as crews ventured just off-shore in small boats rowed by four men. In 1725 the governor of North Carolina issued a license to Samuel Chadwick of Carteret Precinct “to fish for Whale or Other Royall fish on ye Seay Coast of the Government and whatsoever you shall catch to convert to your own use paying to ye Hon. ye Governor one tenth parte of ye Oyls and bone Made by Vertue of this License.”

License Granted to Samuel Chadwick:

Most North Carolina whaling was based at Cape Lookout and Shackleford Banks, although it extended throughout the region from Hatteras, southward. The season began in December, and continued into June. The peak months were February, March, and April.

Sperm whales, humpback whales, blackfish (short-finned pilot whales) and others were sometimes pursued, but the right whale (so named because it was the “right” whale to hunt) was the primary target. Right whales typically swam closer to shore, were more docile, and floated after being killed.

The typical Outer Banks whaleboat was 20-25 feet long, double-ended, high in the bow and stern, and constructed of lapped planks. It was designed to be rowed by four men. Another acted as steersman, while a sixth, often the captain, remained in the bow, ready to throw the harpoon.

The earliest harpoons employed in North Carolina were of the simple single-flue or two-flue variety. Later, “toggle-irons” (harpoons with a pivoting barbed head secured with a wooden shear pin) were used. After penetrating the whale’s muscle, tension on the harpoon line broke the shear pin, turning the barbed point at a right angle making it difficult to dislodge.

Outer Banks shore-whalers employed a drudge (also called a “drag,” a “drug,” or a “drogue”), a block of wood that was tied to the end of the 40- to 240-foot long harpoon line. Although the drudge acted somewhat as a sea anchor, slowing and tiring the whale, it was primarily intended as a buoy to help identify the harpooned whale’s position.

Unlike pelagic whalers, North Carolina whalers seldom maintained continuous contact with the harpooned whale. This may account for the fact that no Outer Banks whaler is known to have been killed in pursuit of a whale.

After the Civil War, shoulder guns were sometimes used to fire explosive “bomb lances” that penetrated and exploded deep within the whale’s body.

Dead whales were towed to shore, often requiring hours of hard rowing. A block-and-tackle was used to pull the carcass above the high tide line where it was butchered and tryed.

The trying process, which remained essentially unchanged for more than one hundred years, was graphically described by H. H. Brimley in his 1894 article, Whale Fishing in North Carolina: “The head is cut off and the whalebone cut out of the upper jaws in blocks and piled up like a shock of corn. The tongue is next cut out in pieces, being too large to handle whole…. The tools used in cutting up are known as spades. They are long and broad-bladed chisels, ground very sharp and fitted with a long wooden handle. The whole tool is some six or eight feet long, and the blade six or eight inches across. The blubber is cut in long strips with a pushing, jabbing motion of the spade and then crosswise so as to get it off in square blocks small enough for two men to handle. A hole is cut near one edge, a pole run through it and it is then carried across to the try kettles….”

Cutting up Whale Blubber on Shore:

Brimley continues, “The try kettles are large iron pots of about fifty gallons capacity…set in brick-work over one fire. The blubber, as it is cut from the carcass, is piled up near the try kettles. It is then ‘minced,’ either with a spade in a tub or on a bench with an old scythe blade, and is then thrown into the kettles. As the boiling is finished the oil is dipped out with a long-handled copper ladle and poured into the strainer, which consists of a wide-flaring trough with holes in the bottom, the holes being plugged loosely with bulrushes. The strained oil runs into a long dug-out trough with a partition across the center, the partition also having auger holes plugged with bulrushes. The secondary straining renders the oil perfectly clear, and from the lower end of the big trough it runs through a hole in the side into a small movable trough which connects with the bung-hole of the barrel. The barrel lies on its side in a hole in the ground and as soon as filled is lifted out and replaced by another. The crackling is dumped from the strainer in a pile and used as required, in conjunction with red cedar wood (the common growth on the banks), in keeping up the fire under the pot. On the leeward side of the kettles the steam from the boiling oil, combined with the thick smoke of the burning crackling, makes the smell one to be remembered.”

Trying Out the Oil:

In 1737 John Brickell, in The Natural History of North-Carolina, described an incident involving whaling and the Outer Banks:  “These Monsters [whales] are very numerous on the Coasts of North-Carolina, and the Bone and Oil would be a great Advantage to the Inhabitants that live on the Sand-Banks along the Ocean, if they were as dexterous and industrious in Fishing for them as they are Northwards; but as I observed before the People in these parts are not very much given to Industry, but wait upon Providence to throw those dead Monsters on Shoar, which frequently happens to their great advantage and Profit. For which reason abundance of Inhabitants dwell upon the Banks near the Sea for that Intent, and the benefit of Wrecks of Vessels which are sometimes driven in upon these Coasts. Not  many Years ago there were two Boats that came from the Northward to Ocacock Island, to fish, and carried away that Season Three Hundred and Forty Barrels of Oil, beside the Bone, but these Fishermen going away without paying the Tenths to the Governor, they never appeared to fish on these Coasts afterwards, or any other that I ever could hear of.”

Although shore-based whaling was always seasonal, and never amounted to more than a minor industry on the Outer Banks, whale oil was quite valuable as a lubricant and lamp fuel. Whale oil was especially prized for fuel in Outer Banks lighthouses. During the Proprietary period (prior to 1729), whale oil even became an official medium of currency.

With the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, whaling in North Carolina was significantly curtailed. According to Marcus Simpson and Sallie Simpson in Whaling on the North Carolina Coast, “[t]he ensuing years of embargoes, seizures, war, destruction of ships, and port blockades decimated the American whaling enterprise. Just before the Revolution, the industry employed some 4,700 men and 360 vessels, with an annual production of 45,000 barrels of sperm oil, 8,500 barrels of whale oil, and 75,000 pounds of whalebone. By 1789 the fleet had been reduced to 130 vessels and the annual production of sperm oil to 10,000 barrels.”

In 1789, two North Carolina entrepreneurs and merchants, John Gray Blount and John Wallace, established a commercial entrepôt on a small oyster “rock” in Pamlico Sound between Ocracoke and Portsmouth. Dubbed Shell Castle, the island was home to more than forty people, including twenty-two slaves. Shell Castle had wharves and warehouses, a ship’s chandlery, and a tavern, as well as a wooden lighthouse and several dwellings for the owners, servants, and slaves.

Although Shell Castle was primarily used for “lightering” (transferring cargo from larger, sea-going ships to smaller, lighter vessels capable of negotiating shallower channels in Pamlico Sound), Blount and Wallace also engaged in mullet fishing, ship building, salvage operations, and storage services.

By 1793 the owners of Shell Castle had initiated a porpoise fishery, perhaps the earliest such operation, although others were established on the Outer Banks after the Civil War. Porpoises were prized for their oil, and for their skins, which produced a supple, waterproof leather suitable for boots. Porpoise meat was sometimes consumed locally, although its strong, oily flavor prevented it from being marketed commercially.

In a typical operation, fifteen to eighteen slaves in four small boats surrounded the marine mammals and contained them within heavy, large-mesh nets. Once trapped, thirty to forty porpoises at a time were surrounded by a smaller seine and hauled closer to shore. As David Cecelski writes in The Waterman’s Song, Slavery and Freedom in Maritime North Carolina, “The rest was a grisly business. Once they had trapped them in the surf, the slave boatmen waded into the water and knifed the dolphins that had not already drowned. Then they gaffed the animals and dragged them ashore. Cutting off the flippers and dorsal fins, the men stripped off the skin and blubber and rendered their oil by fire.”

Whereas a single right whale could yield more than 1,000 gallons of high quality oil for lamp fuel or lubricant, one dolphin might yield six to eight gallons of oil. However, a single large haul of one hundred or more dolphins could provide 750 gallons of oil, a more reliable source of income, obtained at less risk (especially for the slave owner).

In the early nineteenth century, porpoise fishing and whaling were an important commercial activity in Beaufort and Cape Lookout on the Carolina coast. In 1806 about 200 gallons of oil were processed there. The enterprises continued to expand until the outbreak of the Civil War when, as noted, the cost of boats, nets and other equipment stifled the industry until the mid-1880s, when three porpoise fisheries were again active in Cartaret County.

Fishermen set up tents and temporary huts (constructed of saplings, bull-rushes, and reeds) on Bogue Banks (west of Cape Lookout) and elsewhere along the Outer Banks, as base camps from which to pursue porpoises, whales, mullet and other fish.

Whaling on the North Carolina coast came to an end in March, 1916, when the last whale, a 57-foot right whale, was killed near Cape Lookout.

Porpoise fishing continued for another ten years. At least two porpoise factories were established at Hatteras in the late nineteenth century. In 1885, former Union officer Colonel Jonathan P. Wainwright commenced operation of his enterprise (Porpoise Oil and Leather Manufactury, Wainright and Co.) which continued until December, 1892. Hatteras native, John W. Rollinson, was captain and superintendant of one of two crews.

When porpoises were sighted, fishermen on the shore launched lapstrake dories (15-foot long lightweight double-ended rowing boats with high bows and sterns, constructed with overlapping hull planks). They set thousand-foot-long nets of extra heavy twine, and hauled the mammals onto the beach. In a procedure almost identical to the operation at Shell Castle one hundred years earlier, the porpoises were killed by stabbing them under the left fin.

The processing facility was located not on the beach, but on the sound side of Hatteras village, adjacent to a dock that extended into deep water. The facility consisted of large tanks positioned over furnaces where the jaw fat was “tryed” or rendered to produce high quality oil used for lubricants in watches, clocks, and other delicate instruments. Body blubber was tryed to produce a lesser grade oil for lamp fuel and other purposes. The hides were sold for manufacturing machinery belts.

A freight boat arrived periodically to transport the finished products to market.

Fishing for porpoises usually began in October or November, and lasted until the end of May. In the first season 1,295 porpoises were caught. By 1892, the porpoise fishery was moribund. Only 57 porpoises were harvested, all of them in December.

In 1887 a smaller porpoise fishery was begun by a man named Zimmerman. But already the industry was in decline. Cheaper kerosene was rapidly replacing whale and porpoise oil for lamp fuel. By 1890 low prices for porpoise hides added to the problem. It was simply too expensive to catch the animals, prepare the hides, and try out the oil.

There was a resurgence of porpoise fishing in the 1920s when Joseph K. Nye of New Bedford, Massachusetts, located a factory at Durant’s Island, on the sound side of Hatteras village. Nye’s operation ended in 1926. A local couple attempted to continue the enterprise, but that was short-lived, and porpoise fishing never recovered.

No sustained whale or porpoise fishery ever gained traction on Ocracoke Island. The name Try Yard Creek is the only surviving relic of a fascinating experiment that captured the attention of other Outer Bankers, but seems only to have been a very sporadic enterprise on Ocracoke.

*Dolphins and porpoises, though similar in appearance, are two distinct species of marine mammals. Dolphins, which migrate off-shore of the Outer Banks in pods, were typically called porpoises by local fishermen. For that reason, I frequently adopt the term “porpoise” to refer to the dolphins that frequent North Carolina waters.

Bibliography

The Outer Banks of North Carolina 1584-1958, by David Stick, UNC Press, 1958, pp. 184-187

The Waterman’s Song, Slavery and Freedom in Maritime North Carolina, by David S. Cecelski, UNC Press,
2001, p. 77

Paradise Lost, An Oral History of Portsmouth Island, by James E. White, III, Mount Truxton Publishing Company,
2012, pp. 185-191

Whaling on the North Carolina Coast, by Marcus B. Simpson, Jr., and Sallie W. Simpson, NC Division of Archives
and History, 1988

Ethnohistorical Description of the Eight Villages adjoining Cape Hatteras National Seashore and Interpretive
Themes of History and Heritage, November 2005

Whale Fishing in North Carolina, by Herbert Hutchinson Brimley, 1894

The Porpoise Fishery of Cape Hatteras, Transactions of the American Fisheries Society, Vol. 14, Issue 1, 1885

http://www.nyelubricants.com/history.shtml

“The Porpoise in Captivity,” Zoological Society Bulletin, Vol. XVI, November, 1913

“Porpoise Fishery is Old,” The Day, October 31, 1917

A Historian’s Coast: Adventures Into the Tidewater Past, by David S. Cecelski, John f. Blair Publisher, 2000, Chapter 11, “Small Miracles”

History of Whaling In and Near North Carolina, US Dept. of Commerce, NOAA, National Marine Fisheries Service, by Randall R. Reeves and Edward Mitchell, March, 1988 (http://spo.nwr.noaa.gov/tr65opt.pdf)

“The Porpoise Factory” by Mary Helen Goodloe-Murphy, The Coastland Times, 2003 (http://www.outerbankscatch.com/news/2010/06/27/porpoise-factory)

Seasoned by Salt, A Historical Album of the Outer Banks, by Rodney Barfield, UNC Press, 1995, pp 56-65

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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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