Friday, August 12, 2005


Shipwreck stories at Graveyard of Atlantic Museum


By Martha Waggoner
August 08, 2005

Visitors to the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum
in Hatterras, N.C., walk past the museum entrance.
Joshua Corsa, AP Photo.

HATTERAS, N.C. -- From its entrance, the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum makes it clear that this is a museum more interested in what's below the water's surface than above it.

The building itself resembles an 18th century ship resting on its side, with timbers surrounding the outside to represent the frame of the ship. Its floors are a composite of latex, sand, paint and concrete over a wire mesh, designed to resemble the ocean's floor.

"The more sand that gets tracked in, the more authentic it looks," museum executive director Joe Schwarzer said.

Authenticity is Schwarzer's aim, with a focus on the long history of shipwrecks along the treacherous Hatteras coast.

He wants to the tell the story of sailors like those who sailed aboard the Civil War ironclad USS Monitor, whom Schwarzer describes as "sailor(s) in a big iron box."

"The ocean is tossing you up and down and sideways," Schwarzer said. "The pump's stopped working. The coal is wet. You're in cold water up to your knees. You know the ship is going to go down. The sky is lit only by lamplight. You feel hopelessness and terror, strengthened only by your own experiences."

The Monitor, which fought to a draw with the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia -- formerly the USS Merrimack -- in March 1862, later sank in a storm off the Hatteras coast. Its engine and gun turret were raised earlier this decade; government scientists are now working to preserve them.

The museum gets its name from the moniker given the Hatteras coastline because of the approximately 600 shipwrecks that litter the area. Most are blamed on Diamond Shoals, an area of shifting sand bars that extends 14 miles into the Atlantic.

Close by, the remnants of the cold Labrador Current meet the warm waters of the Gulf Stream, causing strong seas.

Although exhibits take up just 1,500 square feet of the total 7,000 square feet of display space the museum will have once it's completed, about 48,000 visitors tracked sand through the incomplete facility in their flip-flops, Teva sandals and sneakers last year.

For now, museum hours also depend on the availability of volunteers, although Schwarzer works to keep the attraction open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily during the peak tourist season.

Schwarzer, who moved to Hatteras a decade ago to open the museum, estimates he needs to raise another $1.7 million to finish it. He's spent $6.7 million so far.

"Fund-raising is slow," he acknowledged. "If we were in a major metropolitan area, this would have been finished five years ago."

The limited space includes a model of the original 1803 Cape Hatteras light, which used oil lamps, and the first lens installed in the lighthouse, in 1853. There also are ship models, including one of the Hamlet, an early-20th century boat that took the first porpoise in captivity to the New York Aquarium for display.

The replica, crafted in the late 1950s or early 1960s by Dixie Burrus Browning, is so accurate that it has removable stays and masts that come down. Her grandfather, Dozier Burrus, was captain of the Hamlet.

The cabin Gen. Billy Mitchell filed his radio report
detailing the success of his first demonstration of
naval airpower sits as the centerpiece of the
temporary exhibit at the Graveyard of the Atlantic
Museum in Hatterass, N.C.
Joshua Corsa, AP Photo.

Schwarzer's main exhibit, though, is not about a sailor, but an aviator -- Gen. Billy Mitchell, who proved in the 1920s that airplanes could sink battleships, an idea that was openly ridiculed by other military leaders of the time.

In tests conducted off the Virginia capes in 1921 and two years later at Hatteras, Mitchell proved his detractors wrong. In the September 1923 tests, Mitchell's bombers sank two obsolete U.S. warships -- the USS New Jersey and USS Virginia -- from the air.

Mitchell's campaign for increased air power caused him to be increasingly critical of his superiors, until he was court-martialed in 1925 on a charge of conduct of a nature to bring discredit on the military service. He was convicted and suspended from duty for five years; he immediately resigned from the military.

Among the artifacts on display at the Graveyard are photos from Mitchell's 1923 bombing tests and the radio shack he used for them. The items were first shown during the 2003 First Flight Centennial celebration.

Mitchell, whose 1924 prediction that the Japanese would start a war in the Pacific with an air and sea attack upon Pearl Harbor and an aerial attack on the Philippines came true 17 years later, was posthumously awarded a special Congressional Medal of Honor in 1946.

"Mitchell was a tireless promoter of airspace, but he ignored military protocol," Schwarzer said.
With that attitude, he likely found acceptance on Hatteras Island, where locals are known for an independent streak combined with a healthy skepticism about authority.

Eventually, Schwarzer said, his museum also will include artifacts from the Monitor and from wreckage found near Beaufort Inlet that is believed to be the Queen Anne's Revenge, flagship of the notorious pirate Blackbeard.

The main haul of Monitor relics, including its engine and gun turret, have been given to the Mariner's Museum in Newport News, Va.; once Schwarzer's museum is complete, it will receive about 25 major artifacts from the Monitor that tell the story of its wreck.

It also will get a few relics from the wreck believed to be the Queen Anne's Revenge -- most are going to the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort -- to teach visitors about the age of piracy along North Carolina's coast.

North Carolina is late to the game of valuing its maritime history, but people like Schwarzer are trying to make up for lost time.

"I hear people say that Virginia has so much maritime history, but North Carolina has as much if not more," he said. "North Carolina is trying to do the best it can in a catch-up capacity. There's a growing awareness that this is important."

If You Go ...
59158 Coast Guard Road, Hatteras; or (252) 986-2996. Open Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. until Sept. 2 (with occasional early closings on slow days). After Labor Day, call to check hours.

GETTING THERE: Take N.C. 12 south along North Carolina's Outer Banks, past the ferry docks. Museum is on the right at the end of Hatteras Island. Or, take the ferry from Cedar Island to Ocracoke Island (2.25 hours, reservations at 800-856-0343) or from Swan Quarter to Ocracoke (2.5 hours, reservations at 800-773-1094), and then from Ocracoke to Hatteras Island (40 minutes, free ferry, information at 800-345-1665). Ferry schedule:


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