Diamond City, NC Storms

The Great Hurricane of 1899
August l6-l8

Jay Barnes

Six years after the l893 season, North Carolina was again ravaged by two hurricanes in the same year. And, once again, these great storms made landfall in August and October. this time, however, both hurricanes made direct hits on the north Carolina coastline: one across the Outer Banks and the other just below Wilmington.

The Great Hurricane of August l899 is often referred to as San Ciriaco and was one of the most powerful cyclones to move through the western Atlantic in the nineteenth century. It was named by the people of Puerto Rico, where it crossed without warning on August 8, killing hundreds. The following day, the hurricane swept over the Dominican Republic and then brushed northern Cuba on the tenth. Its north-westward movement brought it near Florida's prized oceanfront resorts, and on August l3, the gently curving storm swept past the Fort Lauderdale region. As it followed the warm waters of the Gulf Stream, its continued movement might have carried it east of Cape Hatteras and out of harm's way. But on the morning of August l6, its forward speed slowed considerable, its direction changed to the northwest, and it increased in strength as it moved toward Cape Lookout.

On the morning of August l7, l899 San Ciriaco swept over the lower banks near Diamond City. Reports of great destruction from Beaufort to Nags Head were later printed in newspapers across the country. In Carteret County, the island communities of Shackleford Banks, Diamond City, and Portsmouth were especially hard hit. These fishing villages were settled by hardy families who were accustomed to foul weather and remote lifestyles. But numerous hurricanes and northeasters near the end of the century had tested the endurance of the people known as "Ca'e Bankers." these storms left drifts of barren sand that replaced the rich soils of their gardens, and saltwater overwash killed trees and contaminated drinking wells. These communities had begun to see a decline in population prior to l899, largely due to the unwelcome effects of hurricanes.

For the residents of Diamond City and Shackleford, the San Ciriaco hurricane was the final blow. Few if any of the homes in these island villages escaped the rushing storm tide that swept over the banks. First, the waters rose from the soundside, as northeast winds pounded the islands during the hurricane's approach. Then, as the storm passed, the winds shifted hard to the southwest, surging the ocean's tide over the dunes until the waters met. Cows, pigs, and chickens drowned, all fishing equipment was destroyed, and many homes were ruined. The aftermath was a truly ghastly scene, as battered caskets and bones lay scattered, unearthed by the hurricane's menacing storm surge.

Following the San Ciriaco storm, the people of Diamond City and Shackleford Banks gathered their remaining belongings and searched for new places to live. Many moved to the mainland, settling in Marshallberg, Broad Creek, and the Promised Land section of Morehead City. Others moved down to the island of Bogue Banks and became squatters among the dunes of Salter Path. But most chose to relocate within sight of their former community, three miles across the sound on Harker's Island. Some even salvaged their island homes, floating them across the water on barges and repositioning them on new foundations.

One of the great tragedies of the hurricane of August l899 fell upon several families from down-east Carteret County. August was mullet fishing time, and a large group of men gathered their nets, tents and provisions for a two-week expedition to Swan Island, just as they did each summer. Their means of transportation was a small dead-rise skiff, twenty-one feet long and above five feet wide. Each shallow skiff could carry two men and their equipment, and each craft featured a small sail on a removable mast. These shallow draft boats provided effective transport around the protected waters of Core Sound.

This particular August, the group of twenty fishermen had already established their camp on the remote island, when the first signs of the San Ciriaco hurricane were recognized. At first, the brisk winds and gathering clouds appeared to be just a good "mullet blow," which would get the fish moving. But on the morning of August l7, the tide was unusually high, and heavy rains began to sweep through the sound. Alarmed by the rising water, the fishermen considered leaving but chose to stay on the island for fear of the ever-increasing winds. They were forced to pack all of their nets and supplies aboard their skiffs, as the tides washed completely over the island. They moored their skiffs as close together as they could and crouched under their canvas sails for protection from the driving rain. This proved useless, however, as they soon had to bail the water that rapidly filled their boats.

The fishermen worked frantically to keep their skiffs afloat while l00-mph winds churned the waters and tested their anchor lines. For several hours, the courageous men rode out the storm, until finally, in the early hours of August l8, the winds subsided. The tide was now unusually low, as the hurricane's winds had pushed a surge of water westward up the Neuse River. Battered but still together, the fishermen debated making a run for the mainland, as they could not put up sail. They knew that this journey of less than ten miles would test their skills. Not all agreed to the plan, but after a few had left, the others soon followed. This proved to be a great mistake. The lull that gave them the opportunity to leave was nothing more than the passing of the hurricane's eye over Swan Island. Within minutes, the storm's winds were again full force, this time gusting from the southwest. The small skiffs were now out on West Bay, and most were capsized by the wind and waves when a ten-foot surge of water washed back from the Neuse River.

Only six of the twenty men who left the island survived. Among those who were rescued were Allen and Almon Hamilton, who saved themselves by quickly taking down their mast and sail, throwing their nets overboard, and lying low in their skiff as it was tossed about. Fourteen others were not as lucky. Of those who drowned, ten were from Sea Level: Joseph and John Lewis, and Henry and James Willis, Bart Salter, John Styron, William Salter, John and Joseph Salter, and Micajah Rose. Four brothers from the community of Stacy were lost: John, Kilby, Elijah and Wallace Smith.

Ocracoke Island was also hard hit by San Ciriaco. The August 2l edition of the Washington GAzette reported: "the whole island of Ocracoke is a complete wreck as a result of the fierce storm which swept the entire coast of North Carolina, leaving ruin and disaster in its path… Thirty-three homes were destroyed and two churches were wrecked. Practically every house on the island was damaged to some extent." The article also reported that waves twenty to thirty feet high pounded the beach and that the hurricane's storm tide covered the island with four to five feet of water. Hundreds of banker ponies, sheep, and cows drowned. The dazed survivors of Ocracoke endured "much suffering" after the storm from a lack of food and water.

The residents of Ocracoke and other Outer Banks communities were wise to the effects of rising hurricane tides. Many installed "trap doors'" in the floors of their homes to allow rising water to enter, thus preventing the structure from floating off of its foundation and drifting away. Some simply bored holes in the floor boards to relieve the water's pressure. Occasionally, desperate times called for desperate measures. The late Big Ike O'Neal described his adventure in the '99 storm to Associated Press columnist Hal Boyle. "The tides were rising fast and my old dad, fearful that our house would wash from its foundations, said 'Here son, take this axe and scuttle the floor.' I began chopping away and finally knocked a hole in the floor. Like a big fountain the water gushed in and hit the ceiling and on top of the gusher was a mallard duck that had gotten under our house as the tides pushed upwards."

Hatteras Island was devastated by the August hurricane of '99. The Weather Bureau station in Hatteras Village was hard hit, as the entire southern end of the Outer Banks fell within the powerful right-front quadrant of the storm. Winds at the station were clocked at sustained speeds of over l00 mph, and gusts were measured at between l20 and l40 mph. Ultimately, the station's anemometer was blown away, and no record was made of the storm's highest winds. The barometric pressure was reported at near twenty-six inches, which, if accurate, would suggest that the San Ciriaco hurricane may have reached category-five intensity.

One of the most chilling accounts of the storm was a report filed with the Weather Bureau office in Washington, D. C., by S. L. Doshoz, Weather Bureau observer at Cape Hatteras. The following excerpt from his report details the extent of the storm surge and the struggle for survival endured by the residents of Hatteras Island:

August 2l, l899

This hurricane was, without any question, the most severe of any storm that has ever passed over this section within the memory of any person now living, and there are people here who can remember back for a period of over 75 years. I have made careful inquiry among the old inhabitants here, and they all agree, with one accord, that no storm like this has ever visited the island. Certain it is that no such storm has ever been recorded within the history of the Weather Bureau at this place. The scene here on the l7th was wild and terrifying in the extreme. By 8 a.m. on that date the entire island was covered with water blown in from the sound, and by 11 a.m. all the land was covered to a depth of from 3 to l0 feet. This tide swept over the island at a fearful rate carrying everything movable before it. There were not more than four houses on the island in which the tide did not rise to a depth of from one to four feet, and at least half of the people had to abandon their homes and property to the mercy of the wind and tide and seek the safety of their own lives with those who were fortunate enough to live on higher land.

Language is inadequate to express the conditions which prevailed all day on the l7th. The howling wind, the rushing and roaring tide and the awful sea which swept over the beach and thundered like a thousand pieces of artillery made a picture which was at once appalling and terrible and the like of which Dante's Inferno could scarcely equal. The frightened people were grouped sometimes 40 or 50 in one house, and at times one house would have to be abandoned and they would all have to wade almost beyond their depth in order to reach another. All day this gale, tide and sea continued with a fury and persistent energy that knew no abatement, and the strain on the minds of every one was something so frightful and dejecting that it cannot be expressed. In many houses families were huddled together in the upper portion of the building with the water several feet deep in the lower portion, not knowing what minute the house would either be blown down or swept away by the tide. And even those whose houses were above the water could not tell what minute the tide would rise so high that all dwellings would be swept away.

At about 8 p.m. on the l7th when the wind lulled and shifted to the east and the tide began to run off with great swiftness, causing a fall of several feet in less than a half hour, a prayer of thankfulness went up from every soul on the island, and strong men, who had held up a brave heart against the terrible strain of the past l2 hours, broke down and wept like children upon their minds being relieved of the excessive tension to which it had been subjected all through the day. Cattle, sheep hogs, and chickens were drowned by hundreds before the very eyes of the owners, who were powerless to render any assistance on account of the rushing tide. The fright of these poor animals was terrible to see, and their cries of terror when being surrounded by the water were pitiful in the extreme.

Officer Doshoz also reported on his personal ordeal and struggle through the hurricane flood:

I live about a mile from the office building and when I went home at 8 a.m. I had to wade in water which was about waist deep. I waited until about l0:30 a.m., thinking the storm would lull, but it did not do so, and at that time I started for the office to change the wind sheet. I got about one-third of the distance and found the water about breast high, when I had to stop in a neighbor's house and rest, the strain of pushing through the water and storm having nearly exhausted my strength. I rested there until about noon when I started again and after going a short distance further I found the water up to my shoulders and still I was not half-way to the office. I had to give it up again and take refuge in another neighbor's house where I had to remain until about 8 p.m. when the tide fell so that I could reach the office. I regret that I was unable to change the wind sheet so that a record of the wind could be made from the time the clock stopped running until the [anemometer] cups were blown away, but I did all that I could under the circumstances.

The San Ciriaco hurricane also affected the northern Outer Banks with high winds and storm flooding. At Nags Head, the rising waters of the Atlantic met the wind-driven waters of Albemarle Sound, flooding the entire area, even in places where the beach was one mile wide. Overwash from the storm covered many portions of the Outer Banks, destroying dozens of homes and cottages. Some of the residents of Nags Head refused to leave their homes as the storm approached, as they were confident the rising flood would soon subside. The but water kept coming, and at last some families had to be moved to safety by patrolmen from the Life-Saving Station.

In the nineteenth century, hurricanes were often compared by the number of ships they caused to be wrecked or lost at sea. Powerful storms frequently battered the North Carolina coast and earned the region its nickname: Graveyard of the Atlantic. So many vessels and sailors were lost through the years that young captains were often given special rewards for their first safe passage by the Hatteras coast.

The Great Hurricane of '99 scuttled or sank numerous ships from Wilmington to the Virginia line. In his book Graveyard of the Atlantic, author David Stick lists seven vessels that were wrecked on the North Carolina coast during the storm: The Aaron Reppard, Florence Randall, Lydia Willis, Fred Walter, Robert W. Dasey, Priscilla, and Minnie Bergen. Also, the Diamond Shoals LIghtship was driven ashore after its mooring lines were broken by the storm's mountainous seas. Six other ships were reported lost at sea without a trace: the John C. Haynes, M. B. Millen, Albert Scultz, Elwood H. Smith, Henry B. Cleaves, and Charles M. Patterson.

It is known that at least thirty-five sailors from the wrecked vessels were saved as their ships broke apart in the surf. Newspaper accounts concluded that at least thirty lives were lost in these shipwrecks, but the real number of deaths was probably much higher. A newspaper report from Norfolk, Virginia, following the August hurricane described the aftermath: "The stretch of beach between Kinnakeet to Hatteras, a distance of about eighteen miles, bears evidence of the fury of the gale in the shape of Spars, masts, and general wreckage of five schooners which were washed ashore and then broken up by the fierce waves, while now and again a body washes ashore to lend added solemnity to the scene."

Of all this hurricane's wrecks and rescues, one of the most dramatic was that of the barkentine Priscilla. This 643 ton American cargo vessel was commanded by Captain Benjamin E. Springsteen and was bound from its home port of Baltimore to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. When the Priscilla left port on August l2, its captain was unaware of the fateful hurricane that would soon meet his ship head-on.

On the morning of Wednesday, the sixteenth, the wind began to blow, requiring that the ship's light sails be taken in. As the day advanced the winds continued to increase, and orders were given to take in all but the Priscilla's mainsail. But by late afternoon, the driving wind had blown away or destroyed all of the vessel's riggings, and Captain Springsteen was now adrift under bare poles on a rapid southwest course.

Early on the morning of the seventeenth, after a stressful night of rolling seas and hurricane winds, soundings were made to test the water's depth. With each passing hour, the water became more shallow, and the captain knew that the storm was driving his ship ashore. Through the torrents of rain and wind, the order was passed to the crew to prepare to save themselves as the Priscilla was about to wreck.

After tossing about for the entire day, the ship finally struck bottom at a out 9:00 p.m. on the seventeenth. For the next hour, the Priscilla was bashed against the shallow shoals as huge breakers crashed over its hull. Within moments, Captain Springsteen's wife, his son, and two crew members were swept overboard and drowned. Shortly afterward, and with a loud crash, the ship's hull broke apart, and the remaining horrified sailors held tightly to their wreck. Five more terrorizing hours would pass before the captain and his surviving crew would approach the beach.

Even though the hurricane's winds and tide were ferocious, Surfman Rasmus Midgett of the Gull Shoal Life-Saving Station set out on his routine beach patrol at 3:00 a.m. on the eighteenth. The ocean was sweeping completely across the narrow island, at times reaching the saddle girths of his horse. But Midget knew that disaster was at hand by the scattered debris that was washed about by the surf. Barrels, crates, buckets, and timbers provided clear signs that a wrecked ship was nearby. Although the night was dark and the storm was intense, this courageous surfman knew that lives were in jeopardy.

Finally, after an hour and a half of treacherous patrol, Midgett stopped on the dark beach at the sound of voices - the distressed cries of the shipwrecked men. Realizing that too much time would be lost if he returned to the station for help, he decided to attempt the rescue alone. One by one, he coaxed the Priscilla's crew off the wreck and into the water, where he helped them to shore through the pounding breakers. Seven men were saved in this manner, and they gathered on the beach, exhausted.

Three of the crew remained on the wreck, however, too bruised and battered to move. Midgett swam out to save them and physically carried them to shore, one at a time. The courageous surfman brought the men to a high dune, where he left them to wait. His coat was offered to Captain Springsteen who had received a serious wound to the chest. All of the men were bruised and bleeding, and some had their clothes stripped away by the relentless surf.

Midgett quickly returned to his station for help, and several men were dispatched to retrieve the survivors. In all, he had saved ten lives while risking his own in the treacherous waters of the San Ciriaco hurricane. For his efforts, he was later awarded a gold lifesaving medal of honor by the United States Secretary of the Treasury.

Reprinted from: North Carolina's Hurricane History, by Jay Barnes, pp. 49-57

From "Our Shared Past" prepared for the Diamond City & Ca'e Bankers Reunion, August 1999 as a collection of writings, research and recollections to tell the story of the Banks communities.
Copyright 1995, Core Sound Waterfowl Museum
All rights reserved.

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