Beneath Our Waters

 

Sunken Ships provide a look into the past

STORY BY: KASS FINCHER

Though they are often very different personalities, fishermen and SCUBA divers will agree they share one common interest – locating shipwrecks. The fishermen know that’s where the fish congregate; the divers know they will see spectacular marine life and catch a glimpse back in time. LOOKING BACK
When Southport resident and avid diver Wayne Strickland heard from some local fishermen about a possible wreck they had fished on off Frying Pan Shoals, he set out to locate it. Strickland describes the find as the most exciting dive he ever made. “It was July 1987. We were looking at a number of spots the fishermen had given us. It was at 95 feet, at that depth you can stay down about 20 minutes. The first thing I found was a doll’s head. There’s a single cylinder steam engine that goes up really high. We started looking around, did some research and found that the City of Houston had sunk in that area in 1878.” The City of Houston was an ironhulled steamship that carried passengers and supplies from New York to Texas. The people on it were preparing to move out west, and a steamer voyage was faster than the weeks-long uncomfortable stagecoach ride. But as they approached the NC coast that October of 1878, they encountered a northern-moving hurricane with gigantic waves. The bilge pumps could not keep up; the engine died and the boat began to sink. Though they had lifeboats, the captain did not feel his 34 passengers could survive the stormy seas and make it to shore. Their hopes were fading, when a steamer – the Margaret – approached. Everyone was rescued safely as the City of Houston sank. Strickland and his dive buddies were able to bring up many artifacts from the wreck. Most of them are on display at the NC Maritime Museum in Southport. They include toys – dolls,
marbles, rattles, wooden farm animals, building blocks, tin soldiers. And simple household goods like bottles of drugstore stock, snuff, sewing machines were found. They also recovered a trunk with the wedding gifts of one traveler, and framed family pics. Estimates are that we have hundreds of wrecks off our shores. Back in the days when captains had to navigate by the stars and the sun, the foggy or stormy weather off our coast – combined with extensive shoaling – would result in boats running aground and eventually sinking. And blockade-runners attempting to elude union boats would sometimes be forced ashore. Many of the wrecks are mere remnants of their original structure. Others are remarkably intact. Two of those nearby are the Raritan and Mount Dirfy’s. The Raritan was a 250’ steel freighter carrying a cargo of coffee to New York. It ran aground in 1942 on Frying Pan Shoals. In two pieces in 90 feet of water, the bow and stern are intact and marine life abounds. Mount Dirfy’s was a 400’ freighter steam ship. In 1936, the boat came from India with a cargo of iron ore. It was supposed to be going to Wilmington Delaware but headed for Wilmington N. C. instead, and ran aground at Frying Pan Shoals. Inman Campbell, owner of Blackbeard Scuba in Southport describes the Raritan and Mount Dirfy’s appeal for divers. “They are amazingly intact. The Mount Dirfy’s has a lot of swim-throughs, loads of fish, including sheephead, flounder, amberjack, tau-tog (“poor man’s grouper”). Generally you can see sand tiger sharks on Mount Dirfy’s and the Raritan. They’re the most prevalent shark in this area, but they have no interest in us – our bubbles and equipment put them off.” Campbell describes the dangers of boating near Frying Pan Shoals. “There might be 30 or more wrecks out there, but many of them are just remnants or the visibility is not great. And it’s so shallow – if you’re 15 miles out you should be in 60+ feet of water. But there it can be 11 feet of water – it is super shallow.” Other wrecks are documented at the Maritime Museum. The Kate was a steamer originally running from Charleston to Florida. Local legend suggests the boat was responsible for bringing yellow fever into Wilmington. It was purchased during the Civil War for blockade-running and completed 20 runs before hitting obstructions and sinking near Bonnet’s Creek in 1862. The Ranger and Ella were also blockade runners that were driven ashore by Union boats in 1864. The Ranger sank near Lockwood’s Folly Inlet; Ella off Bald Head Island. Both are shallow and can become obstructions at low tide. Another blockade runner, Bendigo, had only completed two runs and was trying to avoid the wrecked blockade runner Elizabeth when it was forced ashore by the USS Iron Age near Lockwood’s Folly Inlet in 1864. As the Union boat tried to salvage Bendigo, it too ran aground. All three boats lie together to this day. In the last century, WWII submarines from Germany chased U. S. tankers all along our coast. One of the most tragic incidents involved the John D. Gill. It was 528’ long and carrying a cargo of fuel from Texas when it was torpedoed in March of 1942 and sank 25 miles off the shore. The oil from the ship caught fire and the boat, as well as the water around it, was engulfed in flames. A Coast Guard cutter rescued some of those who got out in lifeboats, but 23 of the 43 seamen died in the fires. The U-boat was eventually hunted down in the Gulf of Mexico and lost its own crew in an aerial attack. Seaman Edwin F. Cheney, Jr. was awarded the Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medal by President Franklin D. Roosevelt for his actions the night the John D. Gill sunk. The citation read in part: “he released and launched a life-raft from a sinking and burning ship and maneuvered it through a pool of burning oil to clear water by swimming under water, coming up only to breathe. Although he had incurred severe burns about the face and arms in this action, he then guided four of his shipmates to the raft, and swam to and rescued two others who were injured and unable to help themselves.“ Each shipwreck has its own dramatic story. But they all remind us of our maritime history – rich in both tragedy and valor. In our waters lie the remnants of all those stories.

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