Category Archives: history

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

Graveyard Run

Much to the jubilation of local skateboarders, the Graveyard Run Skate Park officially opened on May 5th at the Rodanthe-Waves-Salvo Community Building. Two years in the making, the skate park was built with community funding and well received.

The interesting name recalls our rich island heritage of shipwrecks and rescues. Next to the park is the headstone of William D. Pugh born 200 years ago in 1818. Across the street is the Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station, this year celebrating the centennial of the famous Mirlo Rescue. The name also refers to the offshore waters as the Graveyard of the Atlantic.

The inaugural was attended by enthusiastic skaters of varied ages and abilities. My participation was limited to showing support and snapping a few photos. The skate park is open for the public to enjoy with other planned improvements like a sheltered picnic area added in the near future.

So when planning the next vacation to Hatteras Island, you might pack a skateboard or two.

Nostalgia

The older one gets, the more nostalgic they become. I look back with a more appreciable perspective. My photographs shot years ago have a deeper meaning than when I first took them. Maybe that’s because the moments are gone and can never happen again. They become a window into the past.

Lately I’ve studied old photographs more than I’ve shot new ones. Some are technically flawed, but that doesn’t diminish the value much. I was young and learning the ropes of photography. Images and equipment improved over time, and subjects evolved.

When I moved here 45 years ago, I was the only photographer in town. That had results that I didn’t anticipate. Consequently, I shot nearly two hundred weddings, portrait sessions and other events. Yearning to be out in nature, it was work that I was never truly comfortable with.

In 1975 I was asked to take a picture of local women who worked at the restaurant at the Rodanthe Pier. It was the beginning of the tourist season and they were outfitted in their very best homemade dresses. As I recall, they are from left to right: Laura Scarborough, Thelma Midgett, Mellie Edwards, Wilma O’Neal and Elizabeth Gray. They all wanted to have me make prints for them.

Midgett Day was a local event begun in 1972 to celebrate the heroism and lifesaving of the Midgett family, so renown in the annals of Coast Guard history. It was culminated with a memorial wreath thrown into the sea from Rodanthe Pier. The man in the blue jacket is Don Edwards, and the woman in white Maggie Smith, both members of the Midgett family. This was taken July 1978, and I think it was the final celebration of Midgett Day.

Don Edwards incidentally, was the one arranging most of my wedding and social jobs. The striking aspect of this photograph is the lack of oceanfront development south of the pier.

The vehicle that brought me here was a 1964 VW Microbus. I paid $900 for it in 1968, and it took me on a number of trips, including several to the Outer Banks. I outfitted it to modestly accommodate one or two people on overnight sojourns. It was in constant need of maintenance and tune-ups. Whenever it broke down, I knew how to fix it, including rebuilding the engine 3 times. It originally had a 1500 cc engine and ended up with a peppier 1600 “pancake engine”. With the tires deflated to 15 pounds, I could go anywhere on the beach. I drove it 15 years until the corrosive salt air took its toll. Mac Midgett hauled it away to his junk yard and I replaced it with a Datsun pick-up truck that also rusted away to the same junk yard.

 

Some Outer Banks Photographers

When I made Hatteras Island my home 44 years ago, there were hardly any working photographers around. The few established photographers were folks like Charles D’Amours who ran a little studio in Manteo. He and his wife also sold art supplies, and that’s where I started getting all my mat board. They were an elderly couple and several years later retired and left the scene.

The most well known photographer was Aycock Brown. He photographed extensively and I regarded him more of a publicist than an artist. He shot social events and could always be spotted at the marina when charter boats arrived. His straw hat was a signature trademark and his images have become an important historical record of times gone by. I can still see him peering down into the viewfinder of a Yashica twin lens reflex.

In Buxton, Ray Couch owned and operated The Red Drum. It was a full service gas station and tackle shop. Located near Cape Point, he specialized in recording fishermen’s catches. His photographs promoted the island’s great fishing and doubtless brought many anglers to Hatteras Island. My understanding is that much of his work was either lost or destroyed.

Then there was Jim Lee. Anyone taking pictures here at that time was sure to know him. He had the only camera store within 50 miles. Jim’s Camera House was where we all went to buy film, chemicals, cameras or to have film processed. I think Jim took pride in being a sage, elder statesman of local photographers. It was the gleam in his eye that said it all.

Henry Applewhite was another. He lived in Manteo and did mostly commercial photography using medium format. I remember watching him do some advertising food shots with studio lights at the Seafare Restaurant, where I worked briefly as a dishwasher.

A photographer that really caught my eye though was Foster Scott. He was about my age and was fully involved doing promotional work for the Dare County Tourist Bureau. His pictures were always in the Coastland Times and they stood out both from a technical and artistic perspective. He was a master at photographing people, scenery and landscapes.

All these photographers were shooting almost exclusively in black and white. I aspired to shoot and print in color, and good fortune connected me with Ray Matthews. He also worked at the Seafare Restaurant as a waiter. We hit it off becoming close friends, and we both desired to make photography our life’s work. It was fortuitous that our birthdays landed on the same day.

Ray and I frequently celebrated our birthdays together. On that day in 1979, I made his portrait with a 4×5 view camera alongside a water cistern at Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station.

In 1980, Ray Matthews, Foster Scott and I embarked on a 3-day camping trip to Beacon Island in Pamlico Sound. From our base camp there, we made excursions in a 14 foot skiff to other islands, including Portsmouth Village. I used the self-timer on my Nikon F2 to make this shot of the 3 of us resting on the front porch of the Henry Pigott house. Foster is on the left with me in the middle, and Ray crashed out on the right. We were famished.

This shot of Ray was taken on that same trip. Sometimes we worked in the same competitive market, but over the years, Ray has been a big influence on my own photography.

Another photographer soon began to make his mark on the Outer Banks. Drew Wilson worked as a staff photographer for the Virginia Pilot. I admired his coverage of the region, and I still regard him as one of the best. In 1986, I made this photo of him while he was shooting an assignment about bird banding. Totally immersed in his subject, he worked hands-on handling this young pelican while John Weske crimped a band over the leg of the bird. Drew has since moved on to the New Bern area for his journalistic work.

Now in the digital age, photography has spread to the masses. Today everyone can be a photographer, however making it a livelihood is another thing.

 

Vintage

The way photography is today, you can’t believe every picture you see. Images can be enhanced or altered relatively easy. My photography has been pretty straight forward. I’ve always tried to make prints how I shot them. In the real darkroom tools were fairly limited compared to digitized versions.

Last year I had a commission to work on a book cover with the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and Keepers Quarters as it’s main theme. It needed to look like it could have been the early 1900’s. The historical fiction book entitled Seaspell was written by local author Bronwyn Williams and published by Chapel Hill Press.

I scoured through thousands of images before I came up with a working concept. In 1996 I was using a medium format camera producing negatives measuring 2 ¼ x 2 ¾ inches. The larger negatives yielded some pretty sharp prints compared to 35mm.

The main shot I used was taken from an unusual northwest angle near the old coast guard base. Visible to the right was the original keepers quarters. To make it look more dated, I removed a utility pole, some shrubs and the boardwalk extending from the lighthouse over to the beach.

Other items needed to be added though. In the original photo, the sky was clear and featureless. I had taken another photo as Hurricane Edouard passed offshore on September 1 that same year. It showed the lighthouse from another angle, but displayed gorgeous clouds as a result of the nearby storm.

I selected those clouds and pasted them into the featureless sky, and it made a dramatic difference. To give a little more depth to the composition, a strip of blue ocean was added between the dunes from a third photograph. The publisher later added a figure walking down the path.

It took some time to throw it all together and still appear genuine, but it illustrates you just can’t believe everything you see.