Two major hurricanes struck the North Carolina coast in 1806. On August 22 the “Great Coastal Hurricane” made landfall at the mouth of the Cape Fear River and did considerable damage in Bald Head Island and other locations in Brunswick County.

In late September of 1806 another hurricane struck “with excessive force,” this time at Ocracoke Inlet. At least three sailors died, and nine vessels were sunk, dismasted, or driven ashore. Among the ships sunk was the Governor Williams, which along with the Diligence, was participating in the nation’s first congressionally mandated survey of the U.S. coastline. The project was the brain child of President Thomas Jefferson, and the commission’s base of operations for the three-month survey of the North Carolina Coast was Shell Castle Island in Pamlico Sound between Ocracoke and Portsmouth.

Governor Williams Model by Jim Goodwin
Governor Williams Model by Jim Goodwin

The Governor Williams, under command of Capt. Alexander Henderson, and with eight crew members, left Shell Castle Island June 24 to begin the survey. Also on board were two of the survey’s three commissioners, Maj. Thomas Coles and Jonathan Price, a gifted cartographer. The third member of the commission, the brilliant Col. William Tatham, an acquaintance of President Jefferson, was left on shore because he was considered abrasive, and arrogant.

Col. William Tatham
Col. William Tatham

The Governor Williams was back at Shell Castle Island on September 28, presumably at anchor in anticipation of hurricane force winds.

The following article recounts the damage at Shell Castle Island caused by the September 28 hurricane, with mention of Col.  Tatham’s valuable “philosophical and mathematical” instruments and apparatus.


From “The Wilmington Gazette” (Wilmington, North Carolina), Tuesday, October 14, 1806 (slightly edited for ease of reading):

We have been favored with the following account of the last Storm.


About 12 o’clock last evening a gale at E.N.E. commenced and increased in its violence until about 4 A.M when it shifted to E.S.E. and blew the most tremendous storm, ever I believe, witnessed by a human being, until six o’clock, when it got further to the southward, and finally to W.S.W. where it still continues to blow with excessive force. The Cutter belonging to this station under the command of Capt. Henderson, upset and sunk at her anchors. – He, thank God, with five of the crew are saved, three poor fellows, belonging to her, are lost, their names are Frederick Cherry, Jacob (a Russian), and J. G. Romain.

Nearly all the lighters of the navigation sunk, ashore, or dismasted. In Wallace’s channel, the ship ______ Capt. McKeel of Washington, main and mizen mast gone, ashore. – the ship Connelia, Common, of Washington, ashore; the schooner ________Bracket, master, belonging to Messsrs.  Marshes of Washington, ashore & sunk, a sch’r belonging to Mr. Eborn of Washington, dismasted, ashore and sunk, schooner Mount Vernon, Fisher, of Newbern, lost entirely, but it is believed no lives lost. – A small sloop which arrived last evening from Jamaica, with rum, name unknown yet, upset on the east point of Beacon Island, the people are now seen on her bottom, there is some prospect of them and cargo being saved. —–Schooner Horizon, Jerkins, still at anchor above the Swath, main mast cut away. Sloop Union, Keals, ashore dismasted. In short but one vessel in the whole navigation afloat and all standing, and that a singular instance of preservation; it is a lighter belonging to Mr. James Jones of Newbern, who struck adrift with two anchors a head, at the Castle, and drifted two and a half miles to the Royal shoal, where she brought up, and rode out the storm —- only one small black boy on board.

I have now to add, to the tale of destruction, the total loss of the immensely valuable, philosophical and mathematical instruments of Col. Tatham, he yesterday put them on board the Governor Williams, for the purpose of having them conveyed to Newbern, and they are now buried with her, in two fathoms water: Altho’ there is no doubt, but Capt. Henderson will be able to get her up, we fear all the apparatus will be totally ruined, a loss which while it may be ruinous to the colonel, is to be sincerely, deplored by the lovers of science.

Description cannot paint, nor imagination conceive, the force of the sea. It was impetuous, and irresistible, it struck, and on striking, deluged, or dismasted, the unopposing victims of its mighty power.

During the gale, the oil in the lamp of the Beacon took fire, and blew out 36 panes of glass—the light of course will not be in operation for some days to come.

——We are happy to learn from Col. Tatham who arrived in town yesterday, that his loss stated in the above communication does not include his Philosophical apparatus, which was chiefly left in Virginia and sent up to Newbern before the storms commenced: His work for public account, a valuable assortment of Instruments, Books, Papers and clothing are, however, sunk in the Cutter, and cannot be replaced.


For more about the 1806 hurricane and Col. William Tatham, see this United States Coast Guard article.


September 15, 2003 – September 23, 2003 

Monday, September 15, 2003

Although no one can confidently predict the course of Hurricane Isabel at this time, the storm is on a track that may include landfall on the Outer Banks sometime on Thursday.

Emergency management personnel have called for an evacuation of Ocracoke Island beginning at 12:30 pm today.

No one on the island is dismissing Isabel, though some residents are choosing to remain in their homes, while others are planning to leave.  The hurricane is still hundreds of miles southeast of Cape Hatteras, and the wind velocity has decreased from 160 mph to 140 mph.

We will keep you informed of developments via this web page as long as power and telephone service are available.

Residents have been taking advantage of the beautiful weather during the last few days to make preparations for Isabel.  People are removing loose objects from their yards and porches, pulling small boats out of the water, and finding areas of higher ground to park their cars and trucks.

Many docks are empty as boats are taken out of the water:

Cars are parked on higher ground whenever possible:

Boats are secured as well as they can be:



Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Island residents are relieved to hear that maximum sustained winds associated with hurricane Isabel are down to 105 mph.  Nevertheless we are bracing for what looks like a direct hit sometime on Thursday.  In the meanwhile the several hundred residents who have chosen to remain on the island have generally finished most or all of their hurricane preparations.

Following are a few more photos.

The ocean beach continues to show modest signs of the impending storm:

Businesses are boarding up their windows:

Rental bicycles stacked on the porch, away from high tides (we hope):



Wednesday, September 17, 2003, 8:30 am

Ocracoke village is very quiet.  About 200-300 residents have elected to remain on the island.  UPS and USPS services have been suspended.  Most businesses are closed.

A light to moderate breeze is blowing as Isabel approaches the coast.  NOAA has issued the following:

Statement as of 6:00 am EDT on September 17, 2003

…Hurricane Isabel Continues Moving Toward The North Carolina Coast…

… Storm information… at 5 am the center of Hurricane Isabel was located about 450 miles south southeast of Cape Hatteras. Isabel was moving north northwest near 9 mph. Maximum sustained winds were near 110 mph with higher gusts… making Isabel a category two hurricane.

The center of Isabel is forecast to make landfall as a strong category two hurricane near Ocracoke Inlet around noon on Thursday.

… Wind information… winds along the coast are expected to begin increasing late tonight. By sunrise tomorrow winds could be as high as 50 mph on the immediate coast. The highest winds will be near the center of the Isabel. The center is expected to cross the coast around noon with winds of over 100 mph.

… Overwash on Highway 12… some beach erosion is likely today along the Outer Banks. Ocean overwash is likely on Highway 12 on the Outer Banks… especially around high tide which will occur shortly after noon.

Storm surges on the Outer Banks are expected to be around 6 to 8 feet on Thursday.

Additional information can be found on at




Wednesday, September 17, 2003, 4:00 pm

Winds are beginning to pick up this afternoon.  Gusts are probably as high as 25 mph, but 15 mph is more typical.  The village is very quiet.

Hurricane warning flags are flying:

The surf is now washing up to the dune line:

NOAA Statement as of 2:30 PM EDT on September 17, 2003

…Hurricane Isabel Beginning To Bear Down On Eastern North Carolina…

… Storm information… at 2 PM the center of Hurricane Isabel was located about 350 miles south southeast of Cape Hatteras. Isabel was moving north northwest near 11 mph. Maximum sustained winds were near 105 mph with higher gusts… making Isabel a category two hurricane.

The center of Isabel is forecast to make landfall between Cape Lookout and Ocracoke early Thursday afternoon…

… Overwash on Highway 12… ocean overwash is likely on Highway 12 on the Outer Banks … Especially around high tide which will occur around 1 am tonight.

… Marine information… very rough surf conditions are already occurring. Seas were near 15 feet at Diamond Shoals… and near 25 feet further offshore. Ocean swells striking the beach are resulting in dangerous rip currents. People are urged to stay out of the water.


Thursday, September 18, 2003, 7:00 am

Winds have increased during the night to about 30 – 50 mph.  Rain not yet heavy.  No tidewater on Howard Street at least.

NOAA Statement as of 6:15 AM EDT on September 18, 2003
… Storm information… at 5 am the center of Hurricane Isabel was located near latitude 33.1 degrees north… longitude 74.7 degrees west… or about 155 miles south southeast of Cape Hatteras. Isabel was moving northwest near 14 mph. Maximum sustained winds were near 105 mph with higher gusts… making Isabel a category two hurricane.

… Wind information… winds across the area have been increasing… with gusts as high as 60 mph at Cape Lookout… 53 mph at Beaufort and 50 mph at Cape Hatteras and Kill Devil Hills. The potential for hurricane force winds will begin along the coast within a couple of hours after sunrise. The highest winds will approach the coast as the center makes landfall around midday.

… Overwash on Highway 12… major ocean overwash is expected across the Outer Banks near the time of high tide today… which occurs around 130 PM. Battering waves of 10 to 15 feet on top of the 6 to 8 feet of storm surge will result in major ocean overwash and beach erosion.

Storm surges on the Outer Banks are expected to be around 6 to 8 feet on Thursday.

Seas offshore were near 30 feet. Ocean swells striking the beach are resulting in dangerous rip currents.

Thursday, September 18, 2003, 9:45 am

Winds are estimated at 50-60 mph.  Trees are swaying as the wind increases.  Power is fluctuating periodically.  Soundside flooding is beginning.  Small waves are evident as the tide flows down School Rd.

View from Howard Street looking through church yard:

View from corner of Howard St. & School Rd. looking towards school:

Thursday, September 18, 2003, 1:15 pm

Hurricane force winds of 80 – 100 mph have been battering Ocracoke since about 10:30 am.  At the present time, the eye is passing close to Ocracoke village.  Winds have subsided and tides have fallen slightly.  However we are prepared for a resumption of strong winds as the eye passes.  At 11 am the water was 12″ deep on the School Road and 18″ deep near the Slushie Stand.  I have heard reports of water waist deep in some areas of the village.

Water across Highway 12 near the Slushie Stand:

Howard Street residence at high water:

Fallen trees block Howard Street:

Update, Friday, September 19, 2003, 3:15 pm

Ocracoke has been without power since about 10:15 am, yesterday.  The community generator was started moments ago.  Everything considered, Ocracoke faired well during hurricane Isabel.

According to reports, peak winds were recorded at 105 mph on the island.   The eye of the storm passed close to the village about 12:45 yesterday.  Winds abated, the rain ceased, and the sky lightened.

Not long afterwards the winds shifted and tidewater started flowing into the village from the ocean.  The water level at the Village Craftsmen was close to the level during hurricanes Gloria & Dennis.

Although there is noticeable damage in the village (primarily broken & downed trees and flood waters), homes, businesses, boats, and other structures weathered the storm well for the most part.  There have been no reports of any injuries on the island.

The ocean breached the dunes in several places, including the airport ramp and several places north of the pony pasture.  Sand covered parts of the airstrip.  Power lines are down on the north end of the island, the pony pen suffered major damage, and the horses are now free to roam.

Several people have reported major damage to Try Yard Creek, just south of the pony pasture.   According to witnesses, the roadway on both approaches to the bridge has washed away, making travel to the north end of Ocracoke impossible.

Many reports have filtered down to Ocracoke of extensive damage to homes, businesses, roadways, and the beach on Hatteras Island and the Nags Head area.  We have also heard of major flooding and damage at Swan Quarter and Cedar Island.

As of today, Friday, September 19, no ferry service is available to or from Ocracoke Island.  Residents should check with the NC Highway Department and the Ferry Division for latest updates about re-entry to the island.

Tidewater approaches the siding at Village Craftsmen:

Village Craftsmen parking area is flooded:

View from Village Craftsmen parking area toward highway 12:

Airport ramp is wide and level:

Flood waters have receded noticeably today and Ocracoke residents are busy cleaning up the damage.

Saturday, September 20, 2003, 8:00 pm

Ferry service to Ocracoke from both Swan Quarter and Cedar Island has been resumed.  At this time only residents are permitted to return to the island.

Electric power in Ocracoke village is being generated locally.  Most telephones on the island are working.  Municipal water has been available continually.  Internet access was restored just a short while ago.

Ocracoke islanders are feeling very fortunate.

Tuesday, September 23, 2003

At this time Highway 12 is closed north of the airport ramp as NC Department of Transportation workers clear the highway of sand and broken pavement.  The bridge at Try Yard Creek has been repaired.

Reentry to Ocracoke is still limited to permanent residents.  Access by air and private boat is also restricted.

Approximately 48 power poles were knocked down at the north end of the island.  The local generator is providing power to islanders.

The water plant is operating normally, the school is in session, and garbage is being collected.

UPS has not yet resumed pickups and deliveries on the island, but the US Postal Service is adjusting to the new circumstances.

Following are a number of photos taken during and after hurricane Isabel by island resident, Shelby Wright:


More information and additional photos of Isabel and her aftermath can be seen by following these links suggested by Warner Passanisi, Ocracoke resident (these were active sites as of 09/23/2003, but may become inactive at any time):

Ocracoke intact

Charlotte Observer – work on the highway, plus photos of Hatteras Village

Washington Post – story on Ocracoke

More shots of Hatteras Village

Outer Banks Sentinel – photos of damage

Outer Banks Sentinel – more photos of damage

Storm rips through Hatteras Village

More Hatteras Village Coverage