Category Archives: shipwrecks

Mirlo Commemoration

Cape Hatteras is well known for it’s proximity with the offshore waters known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic. Over the centuries there have been numerous documented shipwrecks and loss of life. Most of these have been weather related incidents, but some were a result of German U-Boat activity off our coast during both world wars.

One of the most notable was the daring rescue of 42 British sailors by personel from Chicamacomico Coast Guard Station in Rodanthe. On August 16, 1918, the tanker Mirlo, carrying a load of fuel for the war effort in Europe, was struck several miles offshore by a torpedo fired by the U-117. The explosion split the tanker in two, setting the sea aflame.

Hair-raising details of the event can be found at www.Chicamacomico.org

The Mirlo Rescue was led by Captain John Allen Midgett, the officer in charge at Chicamacomico. He was accompanied by 5 surfmen: Zion Midgett, Arthur Midgett, Prochorus O’Neal, Clarence Midgett and Leroy Midgett. They were all awarded Gold Lifesaving medals from the British Government and the American Grand Cross of Honor. It has gone down as one of the most heroic rescues in the history of the United States Coast Guard.

As a former president and board member of Chicamacomico Historical Association, I attended the recent centennial commemoration of the Mirlo Rescue.

The day began with the raising of colors of Britain and the United States.

Chicamacomico Station was all decked out.

Dignitaries representing the British Government, U.S.  Coast Guard and descendants of the rescuers and were on hand to pay their respects.

The newly restored Bebe-McClelland Surfboat used in the rescue was on display in the original 1874 station.

The event was culminated, as reenactment surfmen carried a wreath on the beach cart out toward the ocean.  At the same time the U.S. Coast Guard out of Elizabeth City Air Station conducted a flyover.

The wreath was then transferred to the Chicamacomico Water Rescue Team’s jet ski, and handed over to an awaiting Coast Guard vessel.

The Coast Guard then committed the commemorative wreath to the sea, miles offshore at the site of the famous Mirlo Rescue, a hundred years to the day.

In a final tribute: Left to right.                                                                                                               David Hallac, Superintendent Cape Hatteras National Seashore.                                                     Admiral Todd Sokalzuk, Deputy Commander U S Coast Guard Atlantic Area                         Colonel Laura Fogelsong, U S Air Force retired and great grand daughter of John Allen Midgett Commander Richard Underwood, British Royal Navy                                                               Matthew Shepard, Chaplain U S Coast Guard Base Elizabeth City

Miss Elsie’s Place

Two weeks ago Elsie Hooper’s house was torn down. It was a relic of a home. Her husband Les passed away several years ago. He had told his children when they were growing up, decades ago in that same building, that the original part of the house was well over a hundred years old.

On the morning of February 1, a demolition crew arrived, to take down the house that had survived a multitude of storms, and had sheltered generations of family. When Les and Elsie married, they bought the old house from a nearby property, and with the help of neighbors rolled it to the location where they would raise their family. I suspect much of the house was built with hand tools, and as years passed and the family grew, it was added on to accommodate them.

Elsie and her grand daughter Amanda, take a last look at the interior of a home that housed love and memories.

Hand hewn beams supported a floor in the original part of the home.

Two of Elsie’s children and granddaughter came to lend some emotional support for an ordeal that must have been very difficult.

Well into the demolition, I can only imagine what was going on in Miss Elsie’s thoughts. Her past hopes, dreams and memories going into a pile of rubble. The heartfelt values of any thing left are intangible and within her soul.

Amanda comforts her grandmother.

Elsie looks on with daughter Sharon, and son Jimmie. Nothing could prepare you for something like this, yet I was amazed at their resolve and strength.

A few things were saved, like this beam taken from a shipwreck.

Jimmie Hooper holds some of the hand carved wooden pegs that held the roof rafters together. He plans to make a coat rack with them, for the new home that he’ll build for his mother.

Miss Elsie combs the ground for anything that will give her good memories. Knowing my affinity for oyster shells, she dug some up from around the house and handed them to me. She mentioned that she and Les had shucked and eaten many big oysters there.

Elsie’s new house will be built on the same spot as the old home. The concrete walk ways from the old house were once part of the long-gone Gull Shoal Coast Guard Station. They will be reused for the new house.

Considering the predictions of rising sea level and potential of future storms, I would venture to say that this new home may not have quite the longevity as the old one.

Ship Timbers

The treacherous waters off of Hatteras Island are known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic. Remnants of old shipwrecks can still be seen periodically as the shifting sands reveal these artifacts. Interestingly, these ships were frequently salvaged for their timbers.

Timbers from the Loring C Ballard rest on the beach south of Salvo.

Years ago, I watched Pete Covey replacing a sill of a home built in the late 1800’s. The old sills were timbers from a shipwreck, and a piece was discarded. Back then I used a wood stove to heat my house, and when I put a chain saw to it, the sparks flew, and the saw would barely cut the wood. As it turned out, the wood was very old heart pine. I gave up cutting and had to replace the ruined chain. That wood was extremely tough.

Since Hurricane Irene, I’ve noticed a couple of other homes built incorporating the timbers savaged from wooden sailing ships.

Levene Midgett’s home was built in the 1920’s. Levene was a keeper at Chicamacomico Coast Guard Station. This building’s sill is framed with 4×16 heart pine timbers, and is in beautiful condition. It was flooded to the first floor windows during the storm, and has been raised significantly to avoid future flooding.

This massive timber supports an exterior deck.

Floor framing detail under Levene’s house.

Looking up at the main sill supported by new pressure treated lumber.

The massive beams look as good as the day they were salvaged.

There’s still a lot of work to be done so that Levene’s descendants can reoccupy the house.

Another home affected by the flooding was Elsie Hooper’s place in Salvo. I have recently learned that this building is well over 100 years old, and unfortunately is scheduled for demolition. The inside was stripped out in hopes of saving this relic, exposing parts of it history.

A beautiful heart pine timber acts as a post next to a steep narrow stairway.

A floor frame still has a hole in it for a wooden peg.

Two vertical beams (left) meet where the original building had an addition built to meet it.

The walls were braced for extra strength.

Another 4×6 ship timber of heart pine.

The yard is decorated with the bones of large whale, collected many years ago.

By next week the old homestead will be no more.



Modern Day Shipwrecks

Often referred to as the Graveyard of the Atlantic, the ocean off the coast of the Outer Banks is  littered with hundreds, if not thousands of shipwrecks. Before modern modes of sailing, navigation and weather forecasting, commercial shipping was a more dangerous proposition than it is today.  Vessels transiting these waters however, still encounter problems.

I was reminded of this as I wrote a previous blog entry about the Sheila Rene running aground at Oregon Inlet. Similarly in October of 1977, as I was driving over the Bonner Bridge, south to Hatteras Island, I noticed a capsized trawler in the water next to the bridge. It was the fishing vessel Tosco. It was coming in the inlet with a 10,000 pound catch of flounder, when it ran aground and crashed into one of the bridge’s concrete piers. With a gaping hole in the hull, it sank right there on the spot. The boat was an estimated $100,000 loss, and the bounty of fish was also lost.

The Tosco at Oregon Inlet in 1977.

When most people think of shipwrecks along our shores, they think of the wooden sailing ships of the distant past. One of the last such wrecks was that of the GA Kohler. Built in Delaware in 1919, it was a 4-masted schooner, just over 200 feet long. Washing up in a 1933 storm, it is significant as marking the end of an era. It lay upright on the beach and was stripped in the war effort for materials, and subsequently burned. Some of the old artifacts, like wooden timbers, compass and even dinnerware, are in local homes today. The remains of the GA Kohler are currently buried beneath the beach sands near Ramp 27, but on rare occasions the remnants are uncovered by the ocean.

This photo from 1989 shows my friend Robin Gerald inspecting the stern section of the GA Kohler.

Since then, maritime mishaps have become less likely, and rare. Most of the activity on coastal waters nowadays pertains to sport or commercial fishing boats, and private yachts, among others. 

One exceptional event though, occurred in January of 1976 . It was during a freezing northeaster. I awoke in a bitter cold mobile home and couldn’t open the north door to get out. It had been frozen shut during an ice storm. The entire north side of the trailer was coated solid with 2 inches of ice. Once I got outside, I looked toward the beach and saw a sight that I could not believe. A 500 foot World War II liberty ship, Betelgeuse was washed up and towering on the beach. The moth-balled ship was being towed by a tug offshore when the storm hit with a vengeance. The tug, unable to handle the situation was forced to cut it loose. The ship sat on the beach for over a month until salvagers managed to move it, but not before Mac Midgett tied a line to it, claiming salvage rights. It was said that he made a few thousand bucks for his effort.

The World War II Liberty Ship washed in during an ice storm in 1976.

1987 was a banner year for stranded fishing boats. Here the Sweet Lady sits on the beach at Rodanthe, just yards from the pier. It was abandoned offshore during a storm as the crew evacuated via Coast Guard helicopter. It came short of hitting the pier, and was eventually salvaged.

The Hard 8 came ashore in “the hook” at Cape Point that same year.

When the Miss Manhattan washed ashore in 2000, it had hit the Rodanthe pier, and was dismasted in the process. It was salvaged.

The Sly Fox came ashore on Pea Island around Christmas of 2004… not so sly any more.

They say that one problem on the water, especially during severe weather, can turn into multiple problems very quickly. With distressed vessels in the Graveyard of the Atlantic this seems to be a common denominator.