The Graveyard of the Atlantic
Cape Point, the intersecting stretch of beach which divides Hatteras Island's north and south facing beaches, is known today as the East Coast's surf fishing Mecca, attracting fishermen from all over the world. But, the same conditions that consistently lure in the blues, spot and drum, specifically the meeting of the artic Labrador Current and the Gulf Stream current, have also caused the waters off Cape Hatteras to be a deadly trap for mariners for centuries. The shifting sandbars, colliding waves and unpredictable currents located off Hatteras Island earned the nickname "Graveyard of the Atlantic" for this stretch of shore, and it is the final resting place of more than 600 ships.
The first recorded shipwreck off the North Carolina coast was in 1526 at the mouth of the Cape Fear River. During the 1500s, the excitement of the New World attracted a number of explorers to the treacherous waters of the Outer Banks, in search of the rumored riches to be found at the new American colonies. This was the beginning of Hatteras Island's reputation as a deadly destination for ships, and over the next 400 years, this reputation only grew.
The Civil War
During the late 1800s, when commercial shipping was enjoying a rejuvenated business following the Civil War, the number of shipwrecks off the North Carolina coast peaked, and the area had gained national attention and government response.
In 1837, the steamship Home was destroyed in a hurricane off Ocracoke Island. One hundred people, including many prominent figures, were lost at sea due primarily to a lack of life preservers. As a result of this tragedy, The Steamboat Act was passed, which required all ships to have life preservers available on board for all passengers.
The area known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic generated national attention again in 1877 when a Navy warship, Huron, wrecked off the coast of Nags Head. The lifesaving station was closed for the winter season, and because of this lack of aid, the wreck resulted in a loss of 100 lives. Just a few months later, even more lives were lost when a passenger ship, Metropolis, wrecked off the coast near Corolla. Flooded with horror stories of shipwrecks off the North Carolina coast, the government passed bills establishing year-round lifesaving stations to be located every seven miles along the Outer Banks. These flagship lifesaving stations would later become the United States Coast Guard.
But, treacherous waters alone weren't the only cause of the innumerable shipwrecks in the Graveyard of the Atlantic. War played a significant role, and the German U-Boats of both World War I and World War II which were lost to the waters off Hatteras Island are modern reminders of the Graveyards of the Atlantic's dark history. Depending on the tides, several of these ships can be spotted off the shoreline in Buxton, and a number of these lost U-Boats can be discovered and explored by the adventurous scuba diver.
Perhaps the most famous military ship that calls the Graveyard of the Atlantic home is the USS Monitor. A relic from the Civil War, the USS Monitor was designed by John Ericsson, one of the most innovative engineers of the 19th Century. At the time, the Confederate Army was gaining ground in the battle to stop the Union Army's blockade of Southern ports, which essentially stopped all goods and supplies from being shipped into the Southern states. The biggest tool the Confederates had in the fight was the ironclad Virginia, a revolutionary warship because it replaced the wood and sail boats with a ship of iron and steam.
The USS Monitor, a 987-ton turret gunboat, left New York for Hampton Roads, Virginia to fight against the Virginia. On March 9, 1862, (just one day after the Virginia had sunk two US Navy ships, the Congress and the Cumberland, killing 240 of their crew,) the Virginia and the USS Monitor came face to face. The ensuing battle between the two ironclad warships ended in a stalemate, but compared to the one-sided victory the Virginia had savored just the day before against the ironclad's predecessors, the battle was an indication of things to come - the triumph of industrial age warfare. And, ultimately, the USS Monitor helped the Union keep its stranglehold on the South's ports, playing a big role in the North's victory in the Civil War.
In late December of 1862, the USS Monitor headed south for other missions and was caught in one of the winter storms at Cape Hatteras. On New Year's Eve of December 1862, the USS Monitor sank off the coast of Cape Hatteras.
The wreckage was discovered in 1974 by John G. Newton and a survey team from Duke University. Scanning the ocean floor, The USS Monitor was found lying just 16 miles South-Southeast of The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. Soon after its discovery, the Governor of North Carolina and the U.S. Secretary of the Interior helped to designate the USS Monitor as a National Marine Sanctuary and it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Over the past several years, NOAA has made extensive efforts to retrieve artifacts from the USS Monitor, and work is presently underway to recover major components of her structure and machinery.
While the USS Monitor is arguably the most recognized battleship stranded on the ocean floor off the Cape Hatteras coast, it certainly isn't the only one. Nearly a century after the USS Monitor met its demise, the Graveyard of the Atlantic earned itself a secondary nickname - Torpedo Junction.