Diamond City, NC Lifesaving Stations
The Wreck of the Crissie Wright
By Grayden and Mary Paul
The mural hanging in the Post Office in Beaufort depicts the 800-ton, three masted schooner, CRISSIE WRIGHT, which fetched up and foundered on January 11, 1886, abreast the Banker village of Wades Shore Shackleford Banks, with the loss of all hands except the ship’s cook. Could you have stood at noontime on that date at the front door of this Post Office, you could have seen the tops of the masts of this vessel above the woods of Shackleford Banks. Even today, on an extremely low tide, you can see the keel and ribs protruding through the sand.
There have been many ships wrecked along the shores of North Carolina, since Ralph Lane, the English explorer, first landed at Cape Lookout in 1585; but the tragic story of the CRISSIE WRIGHT has lingered longest in the minds of the residents of Carteret County, and has been kept alive by the colloquialism, which even now, almost a hundred years, you will hear whenever the temperature dips below twenty degrees, “It’s gonna get colder than the time the CRISSIE WRIGHT went ashore.”
This beautiful three-masted schooner was eighty-four days out of Rio de Janeiro, headed for her home port of New York, with a full cargo of phosphates. As she passed Cape Fear and headed north along the North Carolina coast, she was making good time, with a stiff ‘sou’wester’, and the Gulf stream both in her favor.
The crew began to dream of the happy reunion with their families and the bonus pay they would get for delivering their cargo safely in New York. However, destiny was about to change their luck.
As they approached Cape Lookout, Captain Zeb Collins, with his “weather eyes” peeled, noticed a dark cloud forming in the northeast, and called the crew together for consultation. Aboard the CRISSIE WRIGHT, besides the Captain, were First Mate, John C. Blackman, Second Mate, Samuel E. Grover, Carpenter, James Boswell, Seaman Samuel Dozier, Ship’s Cook, Robert Johnson, and Cabin Boy, Chester Simmons. The weather was already getting blustery and they knew a shift was in the offing.
Diamond Shoals off Cape Hatteras had already become known as “The Graveyard of the Atlantic,” so Captain Collins, being a prudent sailor, decided to take shelter in Cape Lookout bight. They were then about five miles offshore, east of Cape Lookout, so they made a larboard tack and stood in toward the beach.
As they approached the hook of the Cape, the wind was about to shift and was baffling when suddenly the sails were caught aback, and this parted the main brace. The ship would not answer the helm and was unmanageable. She paid off and would not come about. There was nothing for the crew to do but to heave-to and shorten the sail.
To keep from going immediately on the beach, they anchored. The weather conditions became more boisterous, and the sea became very rough. By taking bearings on objects ashore the Captain realized that he was dragging anchor and was slowly being driven ashore by the screaming gale. There was nothing that they could do but watch their ship approach the outer break which was about two-hundred yards from the beach.
CRISSIE WRIGHT came ashore stern first, and the crew felt their ship grind into the outer reef. Her bow slowly fell off the larboard until she was breached larboard side to, with every sea breaching her from stem to stern.
What a plight for a ship to be in! Broached side-to, stove and taking water faster than any pumps could ever de-water her. The only alternative that Captain Collins had was to give the order for the crew to lay aloft on the foremast shroud and lash themselves to the ratlines. That evening the wind veered to Nor’-west and freshened to full gale force, and the temperature dropped to eight degrees Fahrenheit during the night. Those poor crew members, soaking wet and lashed to the rigging on that heaving mast with that gale sucking the breath out of their lungs–what could have been a worse predicament for human beings to be in? Imagine the sight that greeted the eyes of those people there ashore–seven men silhouetted against the red sky of dawn. They were slowly freezing to death with no help available even though they were within sight of a roaring fire on the beach and the people there. It would have been very foolhardy to have attempted to launch a dory in that raging surf.
That day Captain Collins simply froze to death and fell from aloft into the boiling sea, never to be seen again. Mr. Blackman and Seaman Dozier were swept overboard to instant death while attempting to get forward to the forecastle. Somehow the second mate, carpenter, cook and cabin boy managed to get under protection of the jib boom and wrapped themselves in the stay sail and jib.
While this tragedy was going on, about half of the population of Diamond City, had gathered on the shore to watch as Captain Seef Willis and John Lewis and their whaling crews tried in vain to launch their whale boats in the face of ten foot waves and go to the rescue. But darkness fell, with no hope in sight of saving the crew, so they built a big bonfire and waited for the coming of dawn. During the night the wind and the waves subsided. With first ray of light, they launched their boats and headed for the wreck. As they neared the ship, they saw no signs of life. After boarding, they saw a big bulge in the jib sail, and discovered four men wrapped together in the sail. They were all frozen stiff, but the man underneath, covered by the other three, showed some signs of life. This was the ship’s cook, Robert Johnson.
They brought them all ashore and thawed Johnson out slowly by the fire. Later, they were all brought to Beaufort, and Johnson was sent to the Naval Hospital at Charleston, South Carolina, where he recovered somewhat physically, but never mentally. He died a year later. The other three men were buried in a common grave in the old burying ground in Beaufort. Mr. Sam Darling, now dead, was a ten-year-old boy at the time, and just before he died, he told me that he stood there, holding his mother’s hand, and watched them dig a hole in which they placed the three bodies. This unmarked spot is near Purvis Chapel, and near the grave where the English Sailor is buried standing up.
This wreck hastened the decision of the Government to build “Life Saving Stations” along the North Carolina Coast–and many brave men have lost their lives in an effort to save others.
The following song tells the story of one of these brave men and his children.
From "Our Shared
Past" prepared for the Diamond City & Ca'e Bankers Reunion, August
1999 as a collection of writings, research and recollections to tell the
story of the Banks communities.
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