Monday, June 27, 2005


Graveyard of the Atlantic


Winston-Salem Journal
By David Rolfe
June 24, 2005

Museum's relics give poignant testimony to the history of N.C.'s treacherous shoals
HATTERAS - At the end of the road on Hatteras Island stands a building that is slowly filling with the remnants of dashed hopes, broken dreams and tragedy - the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum.

The shallow waters off the North Carolina coast, long known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic, are littered with the hulks of broken ships. The beaches were once strewn with timbers, cargo and castaways, caught by the trap of hidden shoals and the powerful Gulf Stream just offshore.

The tragic stories of those victims of the sea, the bravery of their rescuers and poignant relics from the proud ships that came to grief off the Outer Banks live again within the walls of the museum, which sits next to the Coast Guard station and the Hatteras Ferry landing.

The design of the 18,000 square-foot museum offers a clue to the treasures behind its doors. The entrance portico is framed by weathered timbers resembling the naked ribs of a shipwreck, topped by a row of flagpoles that look like masts.

Visitors will find a World War II Enigma machine submerged in a transparent tank of greenish water. The machine, a famous encryption device used by Germany, was recovered from a sunken U-boat, the U-85, which sits in 100 feet of water off Cape Hatteras. The U-85 has the doleful distinction of being the first U-boat sunk in U.S. waters during World War II and is a war grave of 46 German sailors.

Relics from the loss of the USS Huron, which wrecked off Nags Head in 1877, rest on maroon fabric in a glass case. They are mundane things - silver tablespoons, brass keys, coins, a leather shoe. Even a lump of coal can raise a lump in the throat when you realize it was on a ship that was pounded to bits one night and that a hundred men met their death in the freezing surf.

Nearby is a wooden model of the Carroll A. Deering, carved by a local barber from a piece of that wreck. The Deering, known today as the Ghost Ship of Diamond Shoals, was found stranded on the shoals in 1921 with her sails set and crew missing. Theories abound, but no one really knows what happened on the proud white ship, just three years into what should have been a long career at sea.

The largest relic currently on display is the radio shack used by Gen. Billy Mitchell, the father of the U.S. Air Force. Mitchell came to the Outer Banks in 1923 to prove that aircraft could sink warships. Taking off from an improvised airstrip at Buxton, Mitchell's biplanes bombed two obsolete battleships and sent them to the bottom in less than an hour.

The museum is also home to the lamp assembly from the 1803 Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, removed and hidden by Confederates when Union forces overran the area during the Civil War. Lost and scattered for more than a century, the delicate prisms of the Fresnel lamp are still finding their way into the museum.

Other relics of Outer Banks history and lore, mementos of tragedy and heroism, are still coming to the museum from closets, attics and mantels of island homes. Eventually, artifacts from the Union ironclad USS Monitor, lost in a storm off Cape Hatteras and only recently salvaged, will join the exhibit.

Getting there: The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum is about 370 miles east of Winston-Salem in Hatteras Village.

Hours: The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is free until construction is completed. For more information and directions: Call (252) 986-2995 or go to


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