The August Storm of 1899

In September, 2005, we published a Newsletter about the 1899 hurricane. I included a brief account about 17-year-old Elisha Ballance, and a report by Mr. S.L. Dosher, official Observer with the Weather Bureau on Hatteras Island.  Your can read that Newsletter here.

This month we are posting a detailed report of that storm (with very minor editing) written in February, 1964, by R. G. Thompson, a North Carolina mainlander who was six years old and staying with his family on Ocracoke when the storm struck. Thompson’s account was discovered in a stash of letters and papers in the Blanche Howard house after she died.

 

My Recollections of the August Storm of 1899 at Ocracoke, NC, by R. G. Thompson

I was born at Aurora, in Beaufort County, N.C., in Feb. 1893. At that time my father owned and operated a farm, a sawmill, a cotton gin, and a working, two-masted, single top-mast schooner, named Love D. Cobb, which was used to haul any freight available between Aurora and Washington, New Bern, Belhaven, Elizabeth City and Norfolk, the freight consisting chiefly of bale cotton, cotton seed, fertilizer and Irish potatoes. Our family had owned, for many years prior to my birth, a cottage at Ocracoke, where my mother and all her small children lived throughout each summer. We were taken to this summer cottage at Ocracoke in the hope of avoiding the malarial fever which was so prevalent at Aurora at that time. My father and his older boys stayed at Aurora, attending to his various businesses, but visited us at Ocracoke at week-ends using the schooner Cobb for transportation.

On these weekend visits my father would bring not only provisions for the family, but many other things for sale and barter with the local Ocracoke people, such as vegetables, potatoes, corn, chickens, meat, both smoked and salt, and firewood. And watermelons. We children, and all the Ocracoke people, were quite fond of my father’s watermelons.

Our cottage at Ocracoke was located on the sound-side directly in front of Capt. Bragg’s home, and so close to the water’s edge that we could almost leap from our porch into the water at normal high tide. It was a small two-story house, with a kitchen on the back, connected to the main house by a breezeway, and with a rainwater cistern in the vee between the house and kitchen. The house was set on blocks that had been cut from ships’ masts which had been taken from the many wrecked sailing ships on the Ocracoke beach. These blocks were six feet in length, with four feet buried in the sand, leaving the house about two feet above ground, and with the sills of the house securely pinned to the blocks. These precautions were taken in the full knowledge that sooner or later a “big blow” might knock the house off its blocks.

Even these precautions were of no consequence when the “big blow,” the “big storm,” the August Storm of 1899 struck. My mother and her four smallest children were in the cottage on this day when the storm clouds gathered in the early morning. By noon the water was upon our doorstep, and the winds were of gale force. Soon after, Capt. Bragg came to our door and advised my mother to bring the family up to his house which was on higher ground, saying that he was fearful that this was going to be a very violent storm, and that it would be dangerous to remain in our home. We moved to Capt. Bragg’s house, carrying nothing with us except the clothes on our backs.

When we left the house we left my father’s bird dog shut up in the house. By late afternoon the water had risen until there were several feet of water in our house. At this time my brother Rob thought of the dog and determined to go rescue him. He did so but had to swim part way to the house and back. When he opened the door of our cottage, he found the dog swimming around the room trying to find a safe place by clinging to the floating trunks and beds. He and the dog both swam back to Capt. Bragg’s.

My memory does not serve me as to when the “eye” of the storm passed over and as to when the wind shifted to the west. I do remember that the water continued to rise until it was in the floors of Capt. Bragg’s house. Capt. Bragg thought it was wise to do what he called “scuttle” his house, and with an ax chopped holes in the floor of each room, in the down-stairs part of the house. At this height of water the water at our house was nearly up to the second story.

I do remember that it was a very violent night. No one slept. Such a screeching and howling of winds with live oak trees being blown down and against the house, with the timbers and framing of the house groaning as if the house would be smashed to pieces at any minute.

When the “storm” (hurricane) struck, there were three small sailing vessels anchored in the channel directly in front of our house, two small, single-top-mast schooners, of about twenty tons each, and a sloop, of about ten tons. One of the schooners had no one aboard, one had two on board, and the sloop had a teen-age boy aboard.

The men aboard these small ships, after the storm had gotten real bad, signaled ashore that they wished to be taken off and ashore. It was out of the question for them to come ashore in their own small skiffs, because of the high winds, high seas and swift tides. There was no Life Saving Station at Ocracoke at that time, the nearest one being at Portsmouth, five or six miles to the southwest. There were no power boats at that time, and any effort to rescue them had to depend on men using oars. Capt. Bragg, who was a licensed pilot for Ocracoke Inlet, and who owned two very able, big, sailing skiffs, which he used in pilot work, and which could also be manned by eight oarsmen, organized a party to try to rescue these men. He made two attempts, but was never able to even launch the skiffs from the shore, as the winds by that time, from the west, were blowing at an estimated 100 miles per hour and seas were running very high.

I remember, as if it were yesterday, watching these small sailing vessels at anchor, doing their violent pitching and rolling, mostly rolling as they were laying almost side to the seas. A sweeping, fast running tide, probably as much as 10 mph held them in a side to the sea position. One of the schooners rolled its topmast right out, or broke it off right at the mainmast head. This probably was due to the crew’s carelessness in clewing up the topsail when last used. They had clewed it up at the head of the topmast, rather than settling it to the head of the main mast. A topsail when clewed up is like a big bag with a cord around its neck. If the clewing is not properly and snugly done, an opening is left at the neck into which the wind can get, ballooning the topsail out, causing tremendous pressure and weight. After breaking off, the topmast and attached topsail were left hanging by the shrouds or rigging. It slatted back and forth for some time, and finally the shrouds broke, and the topmast and topsail plunged overboard. All three of these small sailing vessels held onto their anchorage much longer than anyone expected them to, but finally no man-made gear could hold against the violence of this storm, and they, one by one, either parted their chains or dragged away, headed for the inlet and out to sea. The two schooners, nor the two men aboard them, were ever seen or heard from again. The teenage boy aboard the sloop had a miraculous experience and escape. His sloop, when it passed Springer’s Point, cut across the beach, which was covered by many feet of water, and hit an isolated sand dune which we knew at that time as a “hammock”.  When the sloop hit the hammock, the boy decided to get off the sloop and onto the hammock, although the hammock was under water, and he had to stand in waist-deep water. The sloop soon freed herself and went on out to sea and was never seen again. The boy stayed on the hammock until the storm abated and the water went out, and then walked back to Ocracoke Village. Of course, everyone had given him up for lost and were amazed to see him.

There was an old hulk of a vessel, a de-masted sailing ship, which was anchored in the sound, just outside the reef, probably 4-5 miles west of Ocracoke, which was called the “Lay Boat”. It was federal government property, and its purpose was to serve as a transfer ship for mail and messages. It was crewed by a man and his wife. It was of about 200 tons burden, was not loaded so stood up high in the water, and was a familiar sight from around in clear weather. Everyone was concerned during the storm as to what was happening to the man and wife crew. The rain and spume and mist of the storm cut off sight of the Lay Boat, and it was only after the storm had died down did anyone know. It had dragged its anchor, several miles to the southeast, had struck the reef, had broken completely in half, and one half had disappeared. The remaining half had grounded somewhere in the vicinity of Castle Rock or Beacon Island, and luckily, the man and wife crew were aboard the grounded half.

Lay Boat (Fred Walton)
Lay Boat (Fred Walton) in better days

Our small two-story house which was so close to the sound side was a complete wreck after the storm, and was never rebuilt. The battering of the huge waves had knocked it off its blocks, had moved it several feet until the house stood over the rain water cistern, had knocked off all the weather boarding up to the second story, and had washed away every single item of furniture and clothing on the first floor. The one-story kitchen, behind the house was completely gutted, with all its weather boarding gone.

My mother had a small trinket box, about the size of a cigar box, in which she kept a few small valuables and heirlooms. It had a hasp and a tiny lock, and was kept locked. It was also washed away. My mother cherished it so much that she offered a reward for finding it, and one of the older local boys found it lodged against a timber several hundred yards from the house.

Upshore from our house stood the Tuthill Hotel, a frame structure of about 25 rooms, and like our house, stood almost at the sound’s edge, with a substantial wharf or deck running right from the front porch to the channel. Like our house, the hotel was completely wrecked and de-weatherboarded up to the second story. Its dock was carried away with only a few staggering pilings left.

Tuthill Hotel
Tuthill Hotel

Down shore from our house was the Old Dominion Steamship Co. wharf and dock. This structure was built of huge pilings and heavy timbers, with only a small warehouse and office on its outer end. The whole structure was carried away except for a few staggering pilings.

The complete wreckage of our house left our family with no food at all, and no change of clothes. There were other families left almost equally destitute, and food was very scarce all over the Island. Capt. Bragg and other neighbors were very generous in sharing the little food that was available. Many drowned chickens were picked up after the storm, and they were dressed and cooked and eaten. I remember the queasiness of my stomach at the thought of having to eat drowned chickens. But we had to and did eat it.

From somewhere, I know not where, my mother found some highly colored, red flowered window curtains, which she cut up and made into make-shift clothing for us small children. I remember the big red flower on the pants she made for me, and the teasing, because of them, from my small associates.

There were many other families on the island like ours from the mainland, from Aurora, Washington, Belhaven, New Bern and other places. We had no knowledge of how violent the storm had been on the mainland, nor whether any boats had been left afloat. But we knew that if my father were alive and if the old schooner Cobb were afloat, that he would be away in her at the earliest possible moment, and that other boats would bring relief as soon as possible. It was a time of praying and hoping and waiting.

To the older people of Ocracoke, especially Capt. Bragg, every sailing vessel that sailed between the mainland and Ocracoke was recognizable, from miles away, by the “cut of its jib”, or some other feature of the rig. I remember how hopefully everyone watched the horizon to the west for the first eying of an approaching vessel with relief. It was not many days after the storm abated, if my memory serves me, when a “speck” was discovered in the horizon. Capt. Bragg almost immediately identified it as the schooner Cobb, Capt.Thompson from Aurora. This was the first vessel to arrive at Ocracoke with relief and provisions.

In all the long history of Ocracoke, probably no vessel arriving elicited more joy and thanksgiving and hallelujahs. The schooner Cobb had a long history of plying to Ocracoke, and had always brought many things the Island people wanted. Every man, woman and child on the island knew her by her rigging, at great distance, and even in normal times she was always gladly welcomed. This time they knew she would be loaded with the things they all so badly needed.

My father was so well acquainted at Ocracoke that he could call about every man there by his first name. He knew their needs and at this time he knew that, not only his own family, but every family there needed everything. So, at the cost of a whole day’s delay in seeing his own family, he had stocked the old Cobb with everything he could think of. He had aboard great stocks of provisions, meat, lard, flour, corn meal, fruit, medicine, old clothes, salt, sugar and coffee. She even had barrels of fresh water.

I do not recall that anyone on the island was near starvation or was even particularly hungry.  And the old people were cautious enough to carefully ration out the little food they had. We could probably have survived for a number of days. But when the old schooner Cobb pulled in there was a full stomach for everyone, and within a few days other ships began to arrive.

I do not recall that there was a single human life lost on the Island in this storm, other than the two men who were lost when the small schooner dragged to sea.  Practically all live stock and chickens, ducks, geese and pigs were lost. The wild ponies survived by taking to big sand dunes north of the village.

The damage to houses in low lying areas was very heavy. Small boats, fishing gear, nets and such things were nearly all carried away. It was a terrible blow to the economy of the natives of Ocracoke. The Island natives were plunged into a depression from which it took them many years to recover.

The visitors such as our family, and other family from the mainland who regularly went to Ocracoke for the summer had had enough. The experience was too frightening. All of them as soon as they could get transportation, hurried back home to the mainland. After my father had discharged its cargo, by sale, by barter, and by gift, he packed us all aboard and took us home. We never had a cottage on Ocracoke after that. We had many friends there and continued to visit, but never to stay for the summer.

The oldest people of Ocracoke said that the “August Storm” was the worst one within the memory of living men. Certainly, there has not been one since that matched it for high winds, high water and destruction. I myself have been on or near the coast during every hurricane, every storm, Hazel, Diane and Ione, and all the named hurricanes have merely been boisterous young women with billowing skirts on a windy day compared to the “Big Blow”, “Big Storm”, the August Storm of 1899.

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