This paper is part of the Proceedings of the Maritime Cultural Landscape Symposium, October 14-15, 2015, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Anna Gibson Holloway, PhD
Maritime Historian, Maritime Heritage Program, National Park Service

‘Twas a dark stormy day when orders came to sail;
Mountain high the billows ran, fierce winds did screech and wail.
Round the capstan sailors brave the anchor quick did weigh
Of the noble steamer Huron, whose fate was sealed that day.

Our story begins on November 23, 1877 as the vessel (built in 1875), its sixteen officers and one hundred eighteen crew left Hampton Roads, VA bound for Cuba on a survey mission. Shortly after 1 a.m. on November 24, 1877, however, the Huron ran ashore off Nags Head in a gale. Just two hundred yards from the shore, it was well within the range of the Lyle guns typically used by the U.S. Life Saving Service, which had a presence both up and down the shore from where the ship lay. But there was no response from the USLSS – the station was not scheduled to open until December 1, just six days later. Lack of budget and concerted government support meant that the stations were only open between December and April. In the roiling surf, the Huron was a doomed vessel, and most of its men were as well; only thirty-four of its men would survive the night. Fishermen and their families stood helpless on shore as they watched the tragedy unfold – giving aid to those who did make it to shore.

The ensuing inquiry into this tragedy – and national embarrassment caused by this and the subsequent sinking of the steamer Metropolis near Corolla just two months later – ultimately resulted in better funding and longer operating seasons for USLSS stations. Not considered a hazard to navigation, the Huron lies just offshore as the land, the sea, and the world has changed around it.

The title of this presentation, which was delivered at the Maritime Cultural Landscapes Symposium in Madison, WI, in October 2015, serves as an homage to Richard Lawrence, former State Underwater Archaeologist of North Carolina. Richard, along with East Carolina University graduate student Joe Friday, wrote the successful National Register nomination for the wreck site of the USS Huron in 1991. Shortly after, Richard and his team at the North Carolina Underwater Archaeology Unit worked to have the wreck site designated as North Carolina’s first Shipwreck Preserve – essentially an underwater state park. All of this, of course, was a result of recommendations written into the Abandoned Shipwreck Act to offer both access and protection to submerged cultural resources.

The National Register nomination of the Huron indicates that the site of this 175 ft. vessel lies approximately two hundred fifty yards from the beach between mileposts 11 and 12 on North Carolina Route 12 in Nags Head, just northwest of the Nags Head Fishing pier, at the foot of Bladen Street. Lying in approximately twenty ft. of water, the site as described in the National Register nomination extends one hundred fifty ft. from the center of the wreck in a 360 degree circular boundary. I will argue that this physical boundary is correct. I believe, however,  that we can gain a greater sense of the totality of this vessel’s particular maritime cultural landscape by applying a more holistic approach to this wreck, a method I have applied successfully to the USS Monitor.

The Huron, which sank off the coast of North Carolina on November24, 1877, is part of a maritime cultural landscape which is undeniably physical, yet the ship has also created a landscape that can be apprehended in far-flung places: in gravesites and front page headlines, in doggerel verse and in Instagram photos. While the listing on the Register has long been established, what I am talking about is a bit more theoretical. Yes – I will deal with how this site has been successfully managed and made accessible – but I also want to talk about how we can use existing sites to broaden our view of what can be a maritime cultural landscape.

I came to be interested in the Huron in a less predictable way than most. I am not a diver, though I have been able to visit the displays about the Huron in Nags Head. I did not approach it first from a naval history perspective, nor from the perspective of this wreck’s influence upon the reforms that led to an expanded life-saving service, though these are all important aspects of this vessel’s significance. My interest began because of the salvage company I have been researching. This was a company so good at what they did that they rarely left any discernable traces for an archaeologist (or a historian, for that matter) to find. They were the B & J Baker & Company of Norfolk, VA, and they “were not known for doing things by halves.” They were intimately, and tragically, involved with the Huron and are very much a part of that vessel’s story.

But I also come at this from the perspective of a historian interested in the micro-historical approach. I like to take a vessel and reach as far out as I can to tease out the cultural milieu in which it operated and find the cultural memory derived from whatever event associated with it most resonates within the public consciousness. Thus, my vision of a maritime cultural landscape is multi-dimensional, passing through time, space, and memory.

Using Keith Muckelroy’s work as a starting point, and expanding on it with Brad Duncan and Martin Gibbs’ incredible exploration of responses to “shipping mishaps” in Australia, which Josh Marano discussed in his paper at this conference, I have applied a modified framework with which to view the maritime cultural landscape of the USS Huron. The “shipping mishap,” in this case the wreck of the Huron, forms the center of the landscape, and is both an event and a place. The event, however, does not need to be confined to a proscribed moment in time, nor should the place be confined to a single set of coordinates. In addition, the significance of the wreck has acquired multiple layers of meaning in the ensuing years. Those layers stretch far beyond that 360 degree circle that extends one hundred fifty ft. from the center of the wreck.

This is very much in keeping with Jim Delgado’s remarks at this conference concerning the Titanic as well as Hans Van Tilberg’s discussion of the potential global reach of the Hawaiian cultural landscape. Delgado declared that the maritime cultural landscape is not always tangible and that the cultural landscape extends far beyond the wreck site. Von Tilberg challenged us all by asking, “How much are we willing to include in a maritime cultural landscape?” and “How far is too far, and where do we draw the line?” I will argue that by pushing that line further out to the intangible and cognitive and by embracing the layers of memory associated with this “shipping mishap,” we can protect and manage sites such as the Huron far better for the benefit of the resource as well as for the benefit of the public.

  1. Pre-impact (threat): This aspect could stretch back to the building of the vessel (or before), the training of the crew, any maintenance, or changes to the vessel, etc.
  2. Pre-impact (warning): This is the more immediate threat, and involves weather systems, immediate surroundings, environmental conditions, decisions made by officers and crew, etc.
  3. Impact (crisis salvage): The wrecking event itself. Immediate decisions made concerning safety of crew, passengers, vessel, and cargo.
  4. Rescue: Attempts to bring people, cargo, etc. out of harm’s way. This also involves any survivor camps that may arise as a result of the wrecking event.
  5. Post-impact (systemic salvage and immediate public response): This stage involves the attempts at salvage at the request of marine underwriters, ship owners, etc. Immediate public response includes in-person response as well as news reporting, courts martial, etc.
  6. Post-impact (opportunistic salvage and long-term public response): Long-term public response involves editorial commentary of event; art, literature, poetry, or music associated with the event; mementos or popular culture items; memorials, etc. Opportunistic salvage is associated with either deliberate action or happenstance. This phase continues into the present.
  7. Current Disposition: The current state of the wreck site at the present time. This stage also involves present protections, management, and access.

Figure 1.

At the center of this landscape is the Huron itself. Built in Chester, PA by John Roach & Sons, this Alert-class iron hulled sloop-rigged screw steam gunboat was commissioned in November 1875. This class (also Alert and Ranger) would be the last iron-hulled steam vessels that would carry sail. The Huron was thus a compromise: it was a vessel caught between the old and new navies. Likewise it carried both old and new ordnance. Civil War relics sat next to a fifty-caliber Gatling gun.

Its length was one hundred seventy-five ft.; its beam, thirty-two ft., and depth of hold, fifteen ft. Relatively small, it displaced only 1020 tons. Serving first off Mexico under Commander Charles C. Carpenter, it returned to Boston in late 1876 where it was overhauled. There it received its new commanding officer, George P. Ryan. Under Ryan’s command, the Huron headed south to conduct cartographic surveys of the Caribbean and the Gulf, touching in Barbados, Trinidad, Curacao, Aspinwall (now known as Colón, Panama) Mobile, AL., and Port Royal, SC., before returning to Hampton Roads. In Mobile, the crew surveyed the site of a tragic shipwreck; that of the monitor Tecumseh in Mobile Bay in which ninety-four U.S. Navy personnel lost their lives on August 5, 1864. After a brief stay in Hampton Roads, the Huron sailed north to New York in the late summer/early fall of 1877. There it was once more hauled out and received a new propeller. This, then, is the Huron that makes up the center of our landscape.

To continue with the template:

Pre-impact (threat)

The Huron returned to Norfolk, Virginia on November 17, 1877. The officers made the social rounds and were fondly received by the local community. But their time in Norfolk was to be brief. Rear Admiral Stephen D. Trenchard, commander of the North Atlantic station at Hampton Roads, issued an order to depart when ready to Captain Ryan. That departure was delayed, however, until a draughtsman could be brought on board for the survey mission. Even with the draughtsman safely aboard, however, the vessel was perhaps not as ready as it should have been. The compass had not been corrected since leaving New York. Moreover, while the standard deviation of the compass had been given to the commanding officer, the deviation calculated for when the ship experienced an extreme heel had not been supplied. Professor Benjamin F. Greene later testified that “The heeling coefficient was so small, and that her southern cruise would take her where the heeling deviation would become less and less.” Thus, the Huron’s officers were already operating on insufficient information.

A low pressure system, which had entered the Pacific Northwest on November 16, moved across the country and strengthened when it made its way offshore near the Georgia/South Carolina border on November 22. The daily weather observations dictated that cautionary flags fly in Hampton Roads, Kittyhawk, and Cape Hatteras stations. Those flags had been flying since the Wednesday before Huron’s departure. The barometer, however, though falling slightly, gave no one cause for concern. It had held relatively steady. Feeling no apprehension at the time, Ryan asked for permission to leave Hampton Roads. Trenchard responded, “Use your discretion.”

At 10 a.m. on November 23, the Huron left Hampton Roads, passing Cape Henry between 1 and 2 p.m, at which time the harbor pilot was discharged to return to Hampton Roads. Once on the open sea, Ryan ordered a course of south by east one-quarter east. The Huron was making six and a half knots with her jib, fore, and main trisails and spanker set. Ten miles south of Cape Henry, it passed by a buoy that B & J Baker had left on a wreck site, a marker which confirmed that their course was true. Some crewmen unbent the anchor chains and secured the anchors (which was not standard procedure), while others shoved jackasses into the hawsepipes to minimize water intrusion. Several vessels passed the Huron – all headed north. By 6 p.m. Currituck Lighthouse was off the starboard beam, about seven or eight miles distant, but the winds began to increase. The air temperature as well as that of the water hovered between the upper 50s and lower 60s.

Pre-impact (Warning)

Shortly after 6 p.m. both the jib-stay and the flying jib-stay carried away. The men “secured the sail and set the fore storm staysail; took in [the] spanker” and by 8 p.m. had “put a single reef in [the] fore trysail, and a double reef in the main trysail.” The vessel moved on under both sail and steam at a slower five and a half knots. The officer of the watch reckoned the wind at east-southeast at force seven or eight, which indicated a moderate gale at 26-33 knots to a fresh gale at 33-40 knots. Ryan’s course was calculated to take the vessel far enough from shore to not imperil the vessel, but not so far as to enter the Gulf Stream, a mistake he had made off Port Royal and did not wish to repeat. Constant soundings with the lead line were consistent with the assumed course. The gale was not considered alarming, and officers were more concerned with whether they would be able to sleep while off watch, since the course would take them into a heavy sea. The barometer remained steady at 30.04 inches. The strong currents, though noted, were not considered a matter for concern. But the storm intensified. At midnight, Master French asked one of the quartermasters what was the state of the weather. The response was simple. “Bad,” the man replied.

Impact

Shortly after 1 a.m. on November 24, 1877, a heavy shock awoke sleeping sailors and startled those on watch. Many initially thought that there had been a collision with another vessel as there was the clear sound of water rushing over the rail. The next thump, however, told a worse story. The vessel was aground, keeled over on her port side 30 degrees to windward, but quickly settling at an angle of 40 to 45 degrees. The men could not stand upright without holding on. The impact swept away all of the ships boats on the port side. The main gaff fell and drove an awning stanchion through the starboard ship’s cutter. Escape by boat was rendered nearly impossible. Yet the hole was not so severe, and some of the men believed they might be able to take the boat to shore, carrying a line which would help effect the escape of the rest of the crew. But how far away was the shore? The air was thick with spray and the men could not see clearly. Some declared that they had struck a reef some eight or nine miles off the coast, while others felt that they were aground very near the shore. Captain Ryan, who firmly believed the former theory, asked the men to point to where they believed they saw the shore. As he looked through the flying spray and foam, he saw a chilling sight: they were on no reef, they were near the breakers. The shore lay scarce two hundred yards from their location. He moaned, “My God! How did we get in here?”

In a heave of the ocean, the cutter swamped and was carried away with no men on board. That avenue was now closed, though there still remained a few boats. After the near-paralysis of the first seconds of disbelief, the men quickly sprang into action. Captain Ryan gave orders to lower the sails. Executive Officer Simmons likewise issued orders to batten down the hatches, using the sails as covers on those hatches that could not be battened due to downed spars and rigging. Those proved imperfect covers, allowing water to rush below decks to the engine room. The men also made ready to throw the guns overboard. As the vessel continued to thump against the seabed, it became clear that the masts should be cut away to keep them from becoming deadly pile drivers which would hasten the demise of the vessel. Men began hacking at the starboard lanyards of the fore-rigging. The foremast fell to windward, taking with it the jibboom and main topmast. The guns, however, remained where they were. Throwing them overboard would risk stoving a hole in the side of the vessel.

There was equal action below decks. Ensign Lucien Young retrieved two boxes of Coston flares and rockets and sought a sheltered place from which to light them: the captain’s water-closet. Using lit candles as ignition, he and Lieutenant Lambert Palmer fashioned launchers for the rockets out of wood stripped from the decorative trim in the cabin. They were able to launch five rockets and burned over a hundred flares before their position became untenable. They moved forward.

In the engine room, engineers stopped the engine briefly after a signal from the deck. Lieutenant Palmer then called down to them, “Can you back her?” The chief engineer replied, “We can!” and engaged the reversing gear. The engine began to back, but to no avail. After a little more than an hour, the engine stopped on its own and would not restart. With each thump of the vessel, the hull buckled inward, shifting the boilers. Still, the engineers and machinists remained in their precarious post, attempting to keep the boilers fired to provide steam for the bilge pumps. By 2:15 a.m. it became clear that the engine room could soon become deadly, so the fires were hauled. The bilge pumps ceased operation, and the steam whistle, which had been blowing a distress call, slowly fell silent. Captain Ryan ordered all hands on deck. With the mechanical life leaving the vessel, the sea moved in to dismantle it.

Only a few small boats remained on the vessel – the ship’s launch and a knock-down bolsa that required assembly and inflation. The bolsa was packed away below. Crewmen scurried below to retrieve it, and to extinguish any lights. The risk of a fire from an overturned lantern was too great. The vessel settled into darkness as the flood tide rose around them. Men began to make their way to the forecastle and into the rigging to escape the churning seas as the waves broke over the vessel. Those who did not have a firm grip were soon washed overboard.

Near dawn, Captain Ryan ordered the launch lowered. He and several men, including Lieutenant Palmer were going to attempt to get a line to shore. As they were attempting to lower the boat, the sea carried it away to leave it dangling stern down from one davit. Ryan fell between the boat and the Huron and disappeared. Lieutenant Palmer and another man clung to the davit until they too were swept away. The launch and the remaining dinghy then vanished in the roiling sea. Broken apart by the force, the remains of the small boats washed ashore, next to the bodies of the men who had been washed overboard. Only the bolsa now remained on board

Just before dawn, the men on the Huron saw a light appear on shore. They would be saved! Giving three cheers for the light, the remaining men briefly found renewed energy. Ensign Lucien Young and seaman Antoine Williams volunteered to take a line to shore in the fragile bolsa. However, the foremast rigging and spars which had been cut away were dangling over the starboard side. The bolsa became tangled in the mess and Young and Williams had to use precious moments to cut it free. The lifeline attached to the bolsa – the very thing that might bring relief to the remaining men on board, was also the very thing that hindered the bolsa from leaving the vessel intact. At the insistence of the men still on deck, Young cut the line with a penknife and he and Williams were swept to the stern where they capsized. Regaining the bolsa, the two used it as a flotation device, pushing it before them while swimming behind it. Though continually pummeled in the surf, the two made for the light they had seen on shore and for the telegraph poles which they first took for masts of a fishing fleet. They reached the shore at the same time, exhausted but alive.

Yet still, the men left aboard the Huron did not believe that the men of the lifesaving stations they knew to be nearby would not rescue them. With Coston signals having lit up the sky and, for a time, the steam whistle having sounded, and now with Young and Williams ashore, there was no way that help would not come.

And yet it did not.

They began to go overboard – some falling from exhaustion and some leaping deliberately. Those remaining on board watched helplessly as their shipmates were swept out to sea. They could not know from their vantage point that the currents set back in towards shore, delivering a few men to safety. Flotsam and jetsam from the vessel afforded those lucky few who survived the plunge into the sea assistance in their journey to shore. Some men remained lashed to the rigging, waiting for rescue as the cold and relentless sea slowly sapped their strength.

Rescue

Local fishermen heard the steam whistle and saw the Coston flares, almost from the first minute they were fired, but stood helpless (either in reality or by design) to assist. They gathered in clusters to watch the tragedy unfold, too afraid to break into the Life Saving Stations that were a few miles away. The Kittyhawk station was seven miles up the beach from the wrecksite, and the Nags Head station was three miles to the south. The stations were not due to open until December 1, exactly one week later. The stations were locked, and the crews were safe at their homes, many over on Roanoke Island. Though word had been sent, the distance meant that the crews would be unable to arrive in time to save those who could be seen feebly waving from the rapidly disintegrating rigging. Those who made it to shore quickly apprehended the situation, and those who were physically able fanned out across the landscape to retrieve lifesaving equipment, to retrieve one another, and to retrieve the dead.

Ensign Young, barefoot and bruised, ran to the Nags Head station where he broke down the doors and took out the Lyle gun, lines, and powder. Sheriff Brinkley, driving a mule team, met him there. Brinkley rushed Young and the equipment toward the wreck. They were less than a quarter mile away when they saw the last mast go over, taking with it all of the men lashed or clinging to the rigging. The equipment would be useless.

Ninety-eight men had lost their lives only two hundred yards from shore – well within reach of the Lyle gun, and thus, safety, had U.S. Lifesaving Service crews been on duty. But only thirty-four survivors found their way to land, and they did so under horrific circumstances, with no assistance from the shore.

Once ashore, however, they found clothing, warmth, and food, readied for them by the locals. While they may have been too afraid to break into the Life Saving Stations, the local inhabitants were not the heartless “wreckers” the papers made them out to be, at least not to the living. The exhausted, cold, and wounded men of the Huron found shelter in beach shanties, huts, and private homes where they were given clothing, blankets, and warm food. Ensign Young recalled eating warm canned tomatoes and corn supplemented by bread that had washed ashore from the vessel. By Saturday evening, all thirty-four survivors were moved to central locations; the four officers were taken to Sheriff Brinkley’s house while the men were housed in the Life-saving station. Wreckage from the vessel, along with personal items and papers continued to wash ashore. Only eight bodies had been recovered at that point, however.

While the Lifesaving Stations may have been closed, the weather observer from the signal corps was at his station. He telegraphed to Norfolk for assistance, sending messages to the Navy and to B & J Baker & Co. Naval vessels Powhatan, Swatara and Fortune prepared to leave for the wreck.

The old wrecker Captain Joseph Baker ordered his partner Ebenezer Stoddard to ready the B & J Baker for the journey south. Messages went out around the waterfront in Norfolk, Berkeley, and Portsmouth for the most experienced divers and surfmen, for “the company well knew the highly dangerous service they were about to enter on.” Simultaneously, Baker telegraphed the Secretary of the Navy in DC to find if there were any special instructions for the wreckers. Baker soon received a dispatch from the Secretary asking the Bakers to consult with Rear Admiral Trenchard before departure. This Stoddard did, and left for the wreck, stopping first at Old Point Comfort to take on two passengers: Captain John Julius Guthrie, superintendent of the Sixth Life-saving District, and Henry L. Brooke, a reporter for the Norfolk Virginian.

The B & J Baker was first on the scene the next morning, the naval vessels arriving shortly after. Unfortunately, the fate of the Huron was already sealed by the time this rescue fleet arrived, the vessel having already begun breaking up with no living souls still visible on board. By means of wigwag signals from ship to the small survivor camp, Stoddard discovered that those who had made it to shore believed there might be sailors still trapped inside the vessel. Guthrie wanted to gain the shore as soon as possible, to deploy lifelines and life cars from the shuttered Lifesaving stations, as no vessels could approach the Huron in the current sea state. Though the surf remained rough, Stoddard launched a surfboat from the B&J Baker to bring Guthrie to shore. Nine men, including Stoddard and Guthrie were aboard. Henry Earle, James Saxton, Stephen Bell, Dennis McCoy, Willis Walker and James T. King were all divers and surfmen for the Baker company. Brooke, the reporter, asked to be taken along. Brooke recalled:

When we had gotten within two hundred yards of the beach the surf rose high, and the boat gained speed. Further on an immense boulder swept along, and on this it was attempted to go in. Capt. Stoddard cried out, “pull for your lives,” and the men bent to their oars. It was too late, however, the billow passed, and the succeeding wave swept the boat along at a prodigious rate. The oar in the hands of Saxton broke, and in an instant the craft was thrown sideways into the trough of the sea, where she was struck by a huge mass of water which completely capsized her and hurled her occupants into the surging waves.

Clinging to oars and to the capsized boat, the men fought to make it to shore. Brooke and Stoddard, along with King and Earle, succeeded. However, Saxton, Bell, McCoy, and Walker of Stoddard’s crew, as well as Captain J.J. Guthrie of the Lifesaving Service, drowned in the ill-fated attempt. The Huron had claimed five more victims.

Post-impact (systemic salvage and immediate public response)

Stoddard took little time to recover, however. He quickly sprang to action, telegraphing Captain Sumner Kimball of the U.S. Life-Saving Service in Washington DC for permission to “collect the life station men, with the boats and apparatus, to assist in recovering the bodies on the wreck and along the beach. The necessary authority was promptly granted and as there is every indication of settled weather, the wreckers will get to work to-morrow. It is to be hoped that under the skillful direction of Capt. Stoddard, the bodies of the lost officers will be speedily recovered…” In fact, Kimball granted Stoddard the authority to activate all the life-saving stations between Cape Henry and Kitty Hawk to patrol the shores looking for survivors, and bodies. Over the next several weeks bodies of the Huron’s men would come ashore in a 40 mile swath. A surviving crewman marked each one with their names in India ink, that is, if he could identify them at all. They were buried where they were found; their resting places designated by how far they were from Norfolk, and which telegraph pole they were nearest. Unidentified bodies and body parts were similarly listed.

Seas remained rough in the subsequent days, and the Baker vessels had to seek shelter in Hampton Roads. While there, Stoddard met with the commandant of the Navy Yard. He requested plans for the Huron, which would aid his divers and crew in salvaging the vessel. The New York Herald reported that Commandant J. Blakely Creighton remarked, “with a merry twinkle in his eye,” that “There is no use in your going for that strong box, that safe; it will be labor lost. There was nothing in it but some old truck.” Stoddard, clearly not amused with the insinuation, replied, “We are not after that. We merely want the plan, in order to work more intelligently under water, as it is supposed there may be several bodies in the ship.” Though initially rebuffed as a grasping wrecker looking for the paymaster’s safe, this would likely be far from the truth for Stoddard. A former acting master in the U.S. Navy, he had served on board the USS Kearsarge during the Civil War. His attention to detail had helped to bring down the CSS Alabama. That trait was needed in this dangerous operation. The strong box would ultimately be recovered, however. It was seen in front of an antique shop on Taylor Street in Norfolk in 1888, being used as an advertising sign.

Stoddard finally deployed his divers to the wreck as the seas calmed, looking for bodies as well as items to salvage. By December 3, the divers had finished their initial survey of the wreck. Stoddard telegraphed the Secretary of the Navy the following:

Examined Huron aft with divers. Find upper works gone; both decks floated up nearly to spar deck, so that divers could not get in ward room. Will examine forward this afternoon. The undertow and current are very bad. The spar deck is entirely submerged, the port side being eight feet underwater. Will be obliged to blow up spar deck to see if there are bodies in ward room. Ship seems to be hogged about four feet forward. Pivot gun in place.    E.M. STODDARD.

Heavy weather plagued the recovery efforts, but eventually guns, clothing, navigation US Life-Saving Service US Life-Saving Service US Life-Saving Service equipment, machinery, and naval stores began to reach the Navy Yard at Portsmouth.

The New York Herald reported on the ongoing salvage efforts on December 20, 1877. “Such stuff as can be recovered from the Huron is now reaching the Navy Yard. To-day there arrived a quantity of working clothes and thirty packages of clothing, &c., consisting of overshirts, undershirts, drawers, stockings, blankets, flannel, satinet, shoes, sheeting, white pants and ducking; also one twelve-pound howitzer and a quantity of carbines and navy revolvers.” More was expected in a few days.

Though Henry L. Brooke had been through a nightmare, he continued to report on the Huron disaster. Rival papers to the Virginian carried his columns, and the Public Ledger congratulated him on his professionalism and wished him “a long, prosperous and happy reportorial life, and trust that in the future, his search after news may be under a cloudless sky and over an unruffled ocean.”

Ultimately, much of what was useful from the Huron was salvaged and brought back to Hampton Roads. Yet the dynamic nature of the wrecksite made complete salvage difficult. The strong undertow made work difficult for the divers, and many areas of the vessel were inaccessible. The firm used explosives to open up areas of the vessel. After many weeks of work in difficult conditions, however, the salvage firm made the unusual move to abandon the site, likely at the request of the Navy. The Huron they left behind was a vastly altered vessel. Thus, the Huron became a part of the Graveyard of the Atlantic – and part of the cultural landscape of those shifting sands.

Recovered portions of the Huron create their own landscapes. The guns brought up by the Bakers still maintain a silent vigil at Trophy Park in Portsmouth, VA, while other recovered items can be found in the collections of The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, VA. B & J Baker & Co. received $7,575 for working the Huron.

Bodies were exhumed: some finding their way home to their loved ones in metal boxes; others finding their final resting place on the grounds of the USNA. The inquiry into the causes of the wreck was held in Washington DC in December 1877. The exhausted officers and several crewmen well enough to be questioned were all asked to give their accounts. The superintendent of compasses for the US Navy was questioned. Ultimately, it was determined that “the evidence shows that many well-found merchant steamers, wooden and iron, commanded by experienced navigators of our coast have been wrecked near the point on which the Huron was lost.” Yet she was no merchant steamer. The court found that Commander Ryan was primarily responsible for the grounding and loss of the Huron, as well as the navigating officer, Lieutenant Lambert Palmer. For five years, the latter’s family and friends worked to exonerate the young navigator. Finally in 1883, after an impassioned letter from Palmer’s widow, Secretary of the Navy William E. Chandler agreed to publish the letters exonerating Palmer, but refused to reopen the case.

Post-impact (opportunistic salvage and long-term public response)

The Huron’s story was seared into the public’s consciousness in 1877, commanding front pages for weeks in newspapers across the country. Reporting turned to editorializing with opinions offered about the sorry state of the US Life-Saving Service. A Thomas Nast cartoon in Harper’s Weekly showed the apathetic visage of Uncle Sam staring at the wreckage of the Huron, dead bodies lying in the sand around him. The caption reads “U.S.: I suppose I must spend a little on Life-saving Service, Life-boat Stations, Life-Boats, Surf-Boats, etc.; but it is too bad to be obliged to waste so much money.”

As survivors traveled to Washington to give depositions at the official inquiry, churches held fundraisers in Norfolk seeking to aid the families of those lost in the Baker surfboat. The wreck of the Huron reverberated throughout the nation as large towns and small communities alike mourned the passing of so many young men. An op-ed piece in Norfolk’s Public Ledger summed up the collective grief:

The loss of the sloop-of-war Huron … has stirred the sympathies of our entire community to an unusual degree. Although none of the ill-fated crew were to the manner born, the fact that the lifeless corpses of over one hundred human beings were thrown upon the shores of North Carolina, or whirled and tossed amidst the maddened waves of old ocean, who but the day previous were full of life and hope in our own community, sent a thrill of pain to every heart and carried a settled gloom over our entire community.

This feeling was greatly intensified when, on yesterday afternoon, the telegraph announced that Captain GUTHRIE, of Portsmouth, Superintendent of the Life-Saving Stations from Cape Henry to Cape Hatteras, with four others, residents of the city and Berkley, had been drowned by the swamping of the surf-boat in which they were attempting to go to the aid of the crew of the Huron; for Captain G. was well known and universally respected in this whole section of country.

The expressions of grief turned to music and prose. Poet Edith Thomas entreated the public to

Sing for the brave ship lost;
Chant for the lives that lie
In unknown haven tossed,
Under a sobbing sky.

George A. Cragg of Baltimore, MD. quickly published a song in early December 1877 entitled The Wreck of the Huron, which he “respectfully dedicated to the survivors of the wreck.” Author Frank Taylor of New York’s Daily Graphic visited the scene of the wreck on the 7th of December. After finding a letter on the shore amongst the wreckage, he was moved to pen what is likely the first poem published about the tragedy:

HER LETTER.

We walked at night the wreck-strewn sand,
We walked and watched the dying storm;
With eager eye and ready hand
We sought to find some sea-tossed form

And as we walked the guard and I,
The tide crept out till broad and gray
The shingled sand shone smooth and dry,
Beneath our fitful lantern’s ray.

On either side, and everywhere,
Lay limp and broken bits of wreck,
Of clothing, ropes, of wooden-ware-
All kinds of things one finds on deck.

From out this scattered wreckage waste
I stooped and picked a little note:
A dainty monogram was traced
Above the lines the owner wrote:

”My darling:” but it gave no name,
As if he only of mankind
To such sweet title had a claim:
The words were coined her love to bind.

‘Twas written full, and crossed again,
All interlined with afterthought;
‘Twas spotted o’er with salter stain
Than e’en the sea could yet have wrought.

“My darling,” there a fold was pressed,
The words just here were fainter yet,
As though ’twere worn upon his breast,
A prized and sacred amulet.

Anon, she wrote her hopes and fears,
Of fickle fortune’s smile or frown,
Of homelike joys in coming years,
When they were wed and “settled down.”

She spoke of Spring and Easter flowers,
Of silk and satin for her bonnet,
Of sick friends, funerals, marriage dowers,
Her new suit and the trimmings on it.

And so this unknown maiden wrote
Her loving letter to its end,
And little dreamed the waves would float
Her writing to a stranger’s hand.

Somewhere, to-night, a girlish face
Is raised to God in mute despair;
Somewhere, a woman prays for grace
And strength of soul her load to bear.

Somewhere along the wintry coast
Her hopes lie buried in the sand,
While this tells of the love that’s lost
This sea-stained letter in my hand.

Thus, pieces of the Huron were dispersed throughout the country – through salvage, through imagery, in poetry, song, and prose, and in the very bodies of the men who lost their lives on the night of November 24, 1877. That physical and cognitive landscape stretched for countless miles, radiating ever outward from the vessel’s resting place.

As with most tragedies, the nation’s grief began to ease after the first weeks of shock. However, the wreck of the Metropolis just a few miles north of the Huron site on January 31, 1878 raised the specter of the Huron once again. The combined tragedy of these two vessels cost two hundred and five lives, and altered so many more. The embarrassment heaped upon the US Life-saving Service forever altered that agency as well – for the better. Stations were manned year-round, for, as the Huron and other deadly wrecks had proven, disaster at sea has no season.

Current Disposition

Though close to shore, the Huron lay largely undisturbed by man – though quite disturbed by nature – until the advent of the popularity of sport diving in the 1960s. As a near-shore wreck, it is accessible as a beach dive, though the unpredictability of its environment can make it an intermediate to advanced dive at times. Still – it can be apprehended from a kayak, surfboard, and on the right days – as a free dive or snorkel adventure.

But greater attention and unfettered accessibility brought renewed ‘salvage’ efforts, thus leading to a desire to protect this resource in a way that was at once proscribed, yet still accessible. Further still, it was understood that visiting the wreck was not something that a large majority of visitors would be able or willing to do, even on the best of days. Thus, Huron became a site that is both underwater and on shore, accessible to divers as well as beach walkers. Interpretive panels in a gazebo located at the beach access nearest the wreck make her more widely available to all. The Shipwreck Preserve – designated as such on November 24, 1991 – is a partnership between the US Navy, the State of NC, and the town of Nags Head. The wrecksite is marked with buoys in season and lifeguards stationed nearby can make sure no one is walking off with pieces of the vessel. Likewise, they are able to maintain a count of visitors.  Thomas Horn’s recent thesis/study on seasonal corrosion rates on the Huron will be useful in developing a new management plan for the site.

Last summer, there was a day where the conditions for snorkeling the Huron were perfect. Outer Banks diver and historian Marc Corbett took his then 12-year-old daughter out on a surfboard for her first trip to the Huron. He told her the story of the vessel, the horrific wreck, and the subsequent salvage. Armed with her camera, she was able to see all that her father had told her – and to take pictures of several of the features of the Huron that told the story. She was able to marvel at the vibrant forms of sea life that had now made the vessel their home. Physically, she and her father visited the three-hundred foot diameter site just two hundred yards off shore. But the stories that vessel told took them much further away.

So what, then, is the maritime cultural landscape of the Huron? I believe it is multi-faceted and contains both physical and cognitive elements. It is not a landscape tied permanently to one place, nor even one time. I have told you the story – I have expanded our view beyond the boundaries of the designated site – into the clouds, following the telegraph poles up the coast to Norfolk, to DC, to Annapolis and perhaps beyond. How far is too far to look for a maritime cultural landscape?  For my part, I want to keep looking beyond the physical. For me, that is just the starting point.

National Center for Preservation Technology and Training
645 University Parkway
Natchitoches, LA 71457

Email: ncptt[at]nps.gov
Phone: (318) 356-7444
Fax: (318) 356-9119