“On November 29, 2014, I received a phone call from an officer of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission named John Beardsley. He was investigating a missing boater, he said, and explained that some duck hunters had found a canoe and that my phone number had turned up among the gear in the boat. He wanted to know where it had come from — he hoped, in fact, that I might be the canoeist. It took me a second or two to realize that the boat must have been Dick Conant’s. It had come practically from Canada, I explained — from Plattsburgh, New York, 20 miles south of the border….
“I explained to Officer Beardsley that I was a journalist, and that I had written a short article (in this magazine) about Conant’s ambitious voyage [to Florida]….
“The canoe had been spotted floating upside down near the mouth of Big Flatty Creek, by a father who was fishing with his young boy and feared what they might discover if they drew their boat any closer. Big Flatty discharges into the not so flat brackish waters of Albemarle Sound, about 20 miles west of the Outer Banks….
“Among the canoe’s contents were 17 toothbrushes, three Louis L’Amour Western novels, a frying pan, a digital camera, and some soggy stapled papers, on the back of which I’d written my e-mail address and phone number, more than 400 miles up the coast….”
“Dingbatter, a term used on the Outer Banks for ‘outsiders and nonnatives,’ is a regionalized word within the state and most concentrated in Ocracoke….
“On the 1970s sitcom ‘All in the Family,’ the term ‘dingbat’ was used by Archie Bunker to refer to his wife, Edith…. It was appropriated and extended by residents of Ocracoke when islanders first received access to regular television during that period….. It seemed like a perfect way to describe the lack of common sense sometimes exhibited by tourists, replacing earlier terms for outsiders such as ‘foreigner’ and ‘stranger’. While it is still in use today, it is losing ground to the blended term touron, a combination of ‘tourist’ and ‘moron’…..”
“When the United States chose Nevada as the site for atmospheric tests of nuclear weapons four decades ago, Government officials knew the choice would mean that more people would be exposed to radiation than at an alternative site in North Carolina, a new study asserts.
“But officials chose the Nevada site because it was already under Government control and could be used sooner and because it was closer to bomb production plants….
“The study cites documents of the Atomic Energy Commission, the predecessor to the Department of Energy, from 1948 that it says show a preference for testing nuclear bombs on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where prevailing winds would carry the fallout over the ocean. But in the midst of the Cold War, the Government believed it could begin tests more quickly in Nevada, because the site was already in military hands.”
The waters off the North Carolina coast have long proved treacherous for ships. By some estimates more than 3,000 vessels have met their fates in the area commonly known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” A particularly dangerous location along the North Carolina coast is known as Diamond Shoals. Here, cool water from the north and warm water from the south collide to create a maze of sandbars, small islands, and inlets extending miles out to sea. Though a lighthouse was constructed at Cape Hatteras in 1802 (the current Cape Hatteras Light was rebuilt in 1870), its light did not project far enough to warn ships away from the outer Diamond Shoals.
In 1889, United States Lighthouse Board officials decided that a lighthouse should be built on the outer Diamond Shoals to augment the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. The Board provided $500,000 for its construction.
An article from The Charlotte Democrat, dated September 19, 1890 and available through Chronicling America, relates the excitement with which North Carolina residents and mariners alike greeted the possibility of the new Diamond Shoals lighthouse:
“Should it be a success, it would be a cheap accomplishment at any price, for there is no other place on the seacoast of the United States, where so many noble ships have been lost, so many valuable cargoes destroyed, and so many human beings swept into eternity as in the raging waters of Outer Diamond shoals. Should the enterprise prove successful, all maritime men of every nation and all our countrymen will owe a debt of gratitude to Senator Ransom, of North Carolina, who, placing implicit confidence in the statements made by eminent engineers that the work could be accomplished, and knowing the inestimable boon it would be to humanity and to commerce, employed his great popularity with the older members of both houses of Congress to induce them to pass a bill authorizing this stupendous undertaking, national in design and purposes, but international in its prospective benefits.”
Unfortunately, the same shifting sandbars that made it difficult for mariners to navigate the area also created problems with the construction of the lighthouse. After several attempts, workers abandoned efforts to build the lighthouse and a lightship was anchored there instead. A permanent lighthouse was not constructed on Diamond Shoals until the 1960s. A light remained in that location for more than 30 years. The lighthouse suffered significant damage from Hurricane Fran in 1996, making it difficult for workers to repair. The light was finally extinguished in 2001, though the structure remains and is a popular fishing spot. In 2012, a Minnesota man bought the lighthouse for $20,000 and announced plans to use it as a research, development, and product testing facility.
While browsing The Independent, an historic newspaper from Elizabeth City, I was intrigued by an advertisement for The Shad Man. Although the nickname amused me, I questioned the ad’s presence in a North Carolina newspaper. The advertisement was for a vendor at the Dock Street Fish Market in Philadelphia—some 300 miles north of Elizabeth City!
Why was a Philadelphia fish merchant seeking shad from North Carolina? It’s hard to say with certainty. Clearly there was a demand. That’s confirmed by the number of ads appearing in The Independent from other fish merchants in Philadelphia, as well as those in New York and Baltimore. All are seeking shad.
An article in the June 14, 1925 issue of The News and Observer, hints at one reason the merchants had turned their attentions southward. The writer notes,”The waters here, unpolluted as they are, have a tremendous advantage over the waters of the sounds to the north, with their vast cities.” Pollution, it seems, was causing a decline in shad in the north.
In fact, by the time the article appeared in The News and Observer, shad were already dwindling in North Carolina waters, too. The reduced supply had caused the price to increase from 25 cents to $2.50 per pound, according to the article.
The number of shad continued to decline into the 1930s. Writer and conservationist Rachel Carson was among those who raised the alarm. As a junior aquatic biologist for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, Carson was responsible for studying fish populations and writing brochures and pamphlets to educate the general public. An article she penned on shad appeared in the February 28, 1937 edition of The News and Observer. She wrote:
Many of the major rivers of New England, where shad once furnished a commercial catch of two million pounds are no longer considered shad streams. From New York to Delaware the catch has dropped from nearly 22 million pounds in 1901 to less than a million in 1934. Shad fishermen of the Chesapeake, center of the industry, took 17 million pounds annually in the late 1890s; in 1934 the catch failed to total five million pounds. On the South Atlantic coast the yield had dropped from 11 million to 2 1/2 million pounds.
The amazing picture of depletion is the product of the triple menace of overfishing, obstructing dams and polluted waterways. In narrow-mouthed bays and river estuaries the maze of nets and traps obstructing the passage upstream takes a heavy toll of fish before they have spawned. Dams for industry and navigation have spelled the destruction of the shad runs in the upper and middle reaches of the rivers. Fishways, providing a graded ascent, have been built into certain of the dams, but the shad, in contrast to the aggressive salmon, is a shy and retiring fish and will not use the ladders. In other areas lumber mills have dumped sawdust into the streams, choking their channels; silt washed from eroded hillsides covers the spawning beds, smothering the eggs and fry; industrial and municipal pollution has poisoned other waters so that shad will not enter or spawn in them.
As the shad population dwindled, state and federal officials along with fishermen attempted to find remedies. Their solutions included altering the length of the fishing season and restricting the types of nets that could be used. Some even suggested killing cormorants, a protected bird known to attack the nets of caught shad.
Today, thanks to federal and state regulations as well as the removal of some dams, shad are again returning to North Carolina waters. And each spring shad lovers can again enjoy their favorite fish and its roe. Perhaps there’s even a shad man somewhere in Philadelphia at this very moment doing his best to find some North Carolina-caught shad.
“[In March 1867] the steamer Flambeau drove ashore on Hatteras Island near New Inlet….No lives were lost, but the ship was destroyed [and] her cargo floated out and washed ashore.
“She was laden with 10,000 stovepipe hats! They were beaver hats, no longer stylish, having been replaced by silk high hats, and they were practically unsaleable. Two promoters had bought up all they could find and shipped them to South America, whee they were still in fashion.
“Cape Hatteras wrecked their plans. The promoters, unwilling to give up their sartorial coup, turned to political influence. Every man, woman and child on Hatteras had one or more of those hats until the officers of the Military Government, on orders from Washington, began a house to house search, intent on returning the hats to their rightful owners. One Hatteraser was quoted as saying that even the porpoises wore stovepipe hats that spring.
“The final accounting of the promoters’ hat venture is not known.”
–– From “The Civil War on the Outer Banks” by Fred M. Mallison (1997)
On this day in 1927: The schooner Maurice R. Thurlow runs aground during a storm off the Outer Banks. It signals for help, and its crew of nine is taken ashore in a Coast Guard surfboat.
Few ships stranded on Diamond Shoals are ever refloated, but after the storm the Coast Guard can find no trace of the Thurlow. Thirteen days later a Dutch tanker will sight it in the North Atlantic. Every few days the wayward schooner is reported in a different location but is never overtaken. Its fate remains unknown.
“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 [Carroll A. Deering in 1921] have a way of serving as points of personal reference. One venerable gentleman who lives on Hatteras recalled that when the barkentine [a sailing ship with at least three masts] 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 [a barge] 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…. I bought a case of white hats, a dozen, 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….’
“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 “How Cape Hatteras earned its evil notoriety….” by Hamilton Basso in American Heritage, February 1956
Basso, a journalist and novelist (“The View from Pompey’s Head,” 1954), lived for a time in a cabin in Pisgah Forest, where he sometimes hosted Thomas Wolfe.