When Bankers lived to ‘go wrecking’

“In talking with some of the people who live on the Outer Banks—Bankers, they are called—I soon discovered that wrecks like that of the Deering have a way of serving as points of personal reference. One venerable gentleman who lives on Hatteras recalled that when the barkentine J. W. Dresser came ashore on July 23, 1895, it was his 12th birthday; a lady told me that she well recollected the wreck of the schooner Catherine M. Monahan off Ocracoke on August 24, 1910, because she had the worst toothache in her life; another lady remembered that some of the nicest hats she ever owned were acquired at a salvage auction on Nags Head beach after the steamer Elizabeth was blown ashore on March 19, 1919.

“ ‘There was everything aboard the Elizabeth,’ she said. ‘She was on her way from Baltimore to the Canal Zone and she carried everything from three automobiles to a case of silk shirts. The men had a lighter and a schooner boat and they unloaded her cargo in that. Soon as they’d get a load of stuff ashore, it would be auctioned off on the beach. I bought in a case of white hats, a dozen, and they were the nicest hats you ever saw. There was much more on the Elizabeth than the men could get off. A big tide came in and she floated herself on the fifth day and that was the end of the auction. There’s been nothing like the Elizabeth to come ashore since. Those hats lasted me for I don’t know how long.’ ”

“Few events in the more recent history of the Outer Banks, I gathered, exceeded the Elizabeth auction in importance. The achievement of the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk, only a few miles from where the Elizabeth grounded herself, was obviously nowhere in the same class. And I gathered, also, that there was a certain amount of nostalgia for the days when ‘going wrecking’—plundering wrecked ships—was the leading cottage industry of the Outer Banks.”

— From “If Tortugas Let You Pass” by Hamilton Basso in American Heritage (February 1965)