Saturday, July 7, 2018

Massive Storm Creates Inlets
Outer Banks of North Carolina

            It was the middle of the night when the tempest first descended on the lower Outer Banks without warning. The shrieking winds and thundering waves made sleep impossible for the people who lived up and down the narrow islands. The storm continued from September 7th to September 9th, 1846, destroying property, wreaking havoc on unsuspecting ships at sea, and cutting two new inlets between the Atlantic Ocean and the North Carolina coast.
            In a12/21/2017 article, Birth of Two Inlets: Accounts of 1846 Storm, Kip Tabb wrote:         “[O]n Monday, Sept. 7, Portsmouth Island [was] battered. Sarah Clark was there, visiting friends, and the letter she wrote to her husband, Samuel, gives a chilling firsthand account of the storm’s severity. ‘You could hear the tide slopping against the floor; you cannot imagine how bad it did sound. The inhabitants say that it was the hardest wind that they have had in twenty years. The highest tide was at ebb. They say that it would have been one and a half foot higher if it had been flood … I can count ten or twelve vessels ashore around here and I have not heard how many on Ocracoke.’”
            According to Early American Hurricanes, 1492-1870 by David M. Ludlum, “the small community of Hatteras just south of the Cape had all but six houses flattened by the storm. At Nags Head the tide rose about 9 ft higher than common tide (Ludlum. 1963).
            “…On Sept. 8, 1846, Calvin Midgett, an Outer Banks farmer, fisherman and part-time employee of the U.S. Coast Survey, [who lived at Hatteras] … watched helplessly as the fury of the hurricane created Oregon Inlet at his home’s doorstep. … A sudden squall came from the southwest, and the waters came upon the beach with such fury that Mr. Midgett, within three quarters of a mile of his house when the storm began, was unable to reach it until four in the afternoon. He sat upon his horse, on a small sand knoll, for five hours, and witnessed the destruction of his property, and as he then supposed of his family also, without the power to move a foot to their rescue, and, for two hours, expecting every moment to be swept to sea himself.
            “Midgett’s house was damaged; his family members, though, were alive and well. …”
Other Eye Witness Accounts
            Reuben Quidley lived through the hurricane and remembered it vividly many years later. Quidley lived in the village of Hatteras and piloted vessels through the inlet at Ocracoke. Before the storm, he always walked along the beach from Ocracoke to his home at Hatteras. There was no open water between the two villages except in the heaviest of storms. After the storm, the villages of Hatteras and Ocracoke were separated by a wide swath of water.
            In New Bern Daily Journal on April 15, 1888, Quidley told the reporter that the tide was waist deep in his house and he expected to be swept away. During the night, when he and his family had lost all hope, the tide suddenly went down and he knew something great had happened, but he did not know what; but in the morning he found the water 25 feet deep where there had been a high beach the day before … . [As the water was drawn out of the creeks and bays, “the tide in Pamlico River was seven feet below normal. The stumps in the bottom of Tranters creek and Chocowinity bay were plainly visible.”
            In a letter to Gov. Jarvis in 1884, Quidley recalled: “The day the inlet was cut out, there were several families living where the inlet is now, and they had no more thought of seeing an inlet there than of any part of the beach, but to their great surprise, in the morning they saw the sea and sound connected together, and the live oaks washing up by the roots and tumbling into the ocean. I was well acquainted with the growth of the land where the inlet now is. I lived with my brother where the inlet is now. I have worked with him cutting wood and chopping yaupon where now, I have no doubt, there is three or four fathoms of water; the growth was live oak principally, did not grow tall, but large trunks and spreading limbs. I had an old uncle lived about where the inlet is, who had a fine fig orchard, and many peach trees on his lot, with fine potato patch and garden.”

            Another witness to the hurricane was H. B. Ansell who lived on Knotts Island near the Virginia border. He recalled that an earlier spring storm had already devastated the coastline. “On the 8th day of September, of the same year (1846), another storm arose. It was said it blew stronger than the previous one, and would have done the same damage if there had been anything left to damage. The few cattle and hogs put on the marshes and beach from the high land and gotten during summer from elsewhere were swept away as before. …
            “The sound, and especially the island bay, kept salt and saltish for years thereafter, so much so, that small oysters were found along the bay shore.
            “Schools of porpoise promenaded daily the island channel and many kinds of salt water fish were abundant.”
At Sea
            An article in The Raleigh Register on September 22, gives the particulars of the damage to shipping caused by the storm.
            The U. S. brig Washington had spent a month along the eastern U. S. coast charting the Gulf Stream. As they made their way to the Virginia Capes, “the weather appeared threatening; the wind fresh and blowing on shore, great anxiety was felt to reach an anchorage.” The ship never made it to the Capes of Virginia.

U. S. Brig Washington in 1846 Hurricane
Coastal Review Online
              Lieutenant Stembel reported later: “Sea and current (forced the vessel) upon Cape Hatteras … the gale, now increased in volume, howled ominously through the rigging, and already our little vessel swaggered under her canvas; the sky was obscured by flying masses of dark clouds; the crests of the waves heaving their dark volumes to the sky, flashed with the ghostly phosphorescent light often observed in storms … the barometer fell rapidly, and everything foretold a terrible strife of the elements.”
            The ship barely survived. “The brig lay over completely on her side; the water boiling over the lee rail. For hours the crew held to the rigging, but around noon a heavy sea broke on board …washing overboard nearly every soul.”
            Most of the officers and men were rescued, but the Captain, George Bache, and 10 crew members were lost in the turbulent sea.
            Badly damaged, the ship remained afloat and was rescued by the USS Constitution days later. The traumatized crew was given 75 gallons of water and 7 ½ gallons of whiskey and a tow to Philadelphia for repairs.
Other Losses
            The Raleigh Register, on Sept. 22, listed ships lost to the storm:
  • Sch’r Charles Slover—from Newbern bound to N. York, loaded with Naval Stores—sunk and bilged.                 
  •  Sch’r Defiance—sunk and bilged.
  •  Sch’r Frances Simpson, of Newbern—sunk and bilged.
  •  Sch’r Sophia Doane—sunk and bilged.
  •  Sch’r Patrick Henry, from Plymouth, bound to West Indies with lumber—sunk and bilged.
  • Sch’r Conquest—bottom up—two of the crew lost.
  • Sch’r Emeline—driven to sea with only two men on board.
  • Two Lighters belonging to Capt. Tilman Farrow—one driven ashore, the other to sea.
  • Sch’r G. C. Merchant—ashore.
  • Sch’r Paragon—ashore, loaded with wheat.
  • Sch’r ______, of Philadelphia, loaded with cork—sunk.
  • Harbor Island Light Boat, Capt. Robinson—ashore.
Two New Inlets
            The September storm permanently altered the coastline, slashing through the fragile barrier islands to create two new inlets: Hatteras Inlet and Oregon Inlet. "A remarkable surge of water, driven by continuous northeast winds, pushed far into the Pamlico and Albemarle sounds, flooding rivers and creeks for miles inland," Merlin S. Berry wrote in History of Northeastern North Carolina Storms ."Then, as the hurricane passed and its winds rotated to the southwest, this massive expanse of water rushed back toward the sea, overwashing the Outer Banks from west to east."
            The Oregon Inlet was named for the first vessel to navigate through it. Catherine Kozak, in The Virginian-Pilot, 11/21/2008, wrote: “Legend has it that the sailing vessel Oregon was caught in the huge storm while it was headed back to Edenton, N.C., from Bermuda. Desperately trying to keep the ship from being swallowed by the sea, the crew was given a reprieve when a tremendous wave lifted the vessel onto a shallow sandbar.
            “As the sun rose, … the weather-beaten Oregon crew members found a huge cut in the island to the east of where they were stranded in Pamlico Sound. Within days, the ocean subsided and the vessel was able to be floated free.”
Pamlico Sound and Hatteras Inlet in 1862
The Sun (New York, New York) ·  Wed, Jan 29, 1862 
            The North Carolina coast has changed immensely since the 1846 storm. However, two reminders remain: Oregon Inlet and Hatteras Inlet. The Hatteras Inlet proved to be a boon to the Outer Banks area. It was easy to get through from the Gulf Stream and it helped commerce to flourish.
            The Oregon Inlet services a number of boats that move between the Gulf Stream and the coast and is the location of the Coast Guard Station. It is spanned by the Herbert C. Bonner bridge. 

Construction on Bonner Bridge replacement
Miami Herald, 2/8/2018

  2. “Birth of Two Inlets: Accounts of 1846 Storm” by Kip Tabb 12/21/2017
  3. Coastal Review Online,  12/21/8017
  5.  NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources
  6. HAMPTON ROADS HISTORY by Catherine Kozak, The Birginian-Pilot, 11/21/2008
  8. North Carolina’s Hurricane History: Fourth Edition, by Jay Barnes, 2013
  9. NOAA History
  10.  Find a Grave
  11. ;
  12. THE HURRICANE THAT OPENEO OREGON INLET John F. Sanders (1) UNC Sea Grant College Program North Carolina State University Raleigh, Ne 27650