The Great Hurricane of 1899
Six years after the l893 season, North Carolina was again ravaged by two
hurricanes in the same year. And, once again, these great storms made
landfall in August and October. this time, however, both hurricanes made
direct hits on the north Carolina coastline: one across the Outer Banks
and the other just below Wilmington.
The Great Hurricane of August l899 is often referred to as San Ciriaco
and was one of the most powerful cyclones to move through the western
Atlantic in the nineteenth century. It was named by the people of Puerto
Rico, where it crossed without warning on August 8, killing hundreds.
The following day, the hurricane swept over the Dominican Republic and
then brushed northern Cuba on the tenth. Its north-westward movement brought
it near Florida's prized oceanfront resorts, and on August l3, the gently
curving storm swept past the Fort Lauderdale region. As it followed the
warm waters of the Gulf Stream, its continued movement might have carried
it east of Cape Hatteras and out of harm's way. But on the morning of
August l6, its forward speed slowed considerable, its direction changed
to the northwest, and it increased in strength as it moved toward Cape
On the morning of August l7, l899 San Ciriaco swept over the lower banks
near Diamond City. Reports of great destruction from Beaufort to Nags
Head were later printed in newspapers across the country. In Carteret
County, the island communities of Shackleford Banks, Diamond City, and
Portsmouth were especially hard hit. These fishing villages were settled
by hardy families who were accustomed to foul weather and remote lifestyles.
But numerous hurricanes and northeasters near the end of the century had
tested the endurance of the people known as "Ca'e Bankers."
these storms left drifts of barren sand that replaced the rich soils of
their gardens, and saltwater overwash killed trees and contaminated drinking
wells. These communities had begun to see a decline in population prior
to l899, largely due to the unwelcome effects of hurricanes.
For the residents of Diamond City and Shackleford, the San Ciriaco hurricane
was the final blow. Few if any of the homes in these island villages escaped
the rushing storm tide that swept over the banks. First, the waters rose
from the soundside, as northeast winds pounded the islands during the
hurricane's approach. Then, as the storm passed, the winds shifted hard
to the southwest, surging the ocean's tide over the dunes until the waters
met. Cows, pigs, and chickens drowned, all fishing equipment was destroyed,
and many homes were ruined. The aftermath was a truly ghastly scene, as
battered caskets and bones lay scattered, unearthed by the hurricane's
menacing storm surge.
Following the San Ciriaco storm, the people of Diamond City and Shackleford
Banks gathered their remaining belongings and searched for new places
to live. Many moved to the mainland, settling in Marshallberg, Broad Creek,
and the Promised Land section of Morehead City. Others moved down to the
island of Bogue Banks and became squatters among the dunes of Salter Path.
But most chose to relocate within sight of their former community, three
miles across the sound on Harker's Island. Some even salvaged their island
homes, floating them across the water on barges and repositioning them
on new foundations.
One of the great tragedies of the hurricane of August l899 fell upon
several families from down-east Carteret County. August was mullet fishing
time, and a large group of men gathered their nets, tents and provisions
for a two-week expedition to Swan Island, just as they did each summer.
Their means of transportation was a small dead-rise skiff, twenty-one
feet long and above five feet wide. Each shallow skiff could carry two
men and their equipment, and each craft featured a small sail on a removable
mast. These shallow draft boats provided effective transport around the
protected waters of Core Sound.
This particular August, the group of twenty fishermen had already established
their camp on the remote island, when the first signs of the San Ciriaco
hurricane were recognized. At first, the brisk winds and gathering clouds
appeared to be just a good "mullet blow," which would get the
fish moving. But on the morning of August l7, the tide was unusually high,
and heavy rains began to sweep through the sound. Alarmed by the rising
water, the fishermen considered leaving but chose to stay on the island
for fear of the ever-increasing winds. They were forced to pack all of
their nets and supplies aboard their skiffs, as the tides washed completely
over the island. They moored their skiffs as close together as they could
and crouched under their canvas sails for protection from the driving
rain. This proved useless, however, as they soon had to bail the water
that rapidly filled their boats.
The fishermen worked frantically to keep their skiffs afloat while l00-mph
winds churned the waters and tested their anchor lines. For several hours,
the courageous men rode out the storm, until finally, in the early hours
of August l8, the winds subsided. The tide was now unusually low, as the
hurricane's winds had pushed a surge of water westward up the Neuse River.
Battered but still together, the fishermen debated making a run for the
mainland, as they could not put up sail. They knew that this journey of
less than ten miles would test their skills. Not all agreed to the plan,
but after a few had left, the others soon followed. This proved to be
a great mistake. The lull that gave them the opportunity to leave was
nothing more than the passing of the hurricane's eye over Swan Island.
Within minutes, the storm's winds were again full force, this time gusting
from the southwest. The small skiffs were now out on West Bay, and most
were capsized by the wind and waves when a ten-foot surge of water washed
back from the Neuse River.
Only six of the twenty men who left the island survived. Among those
who were rescued were Allen and Almon Hamilton, who saved themselves by
quickly taking down their mast and sail, throwing their nets overboard,
and lying low in their skiff as it was tossed about. Fourteen others were
not as lucky. Of those who drowned, ten were from Sea Level: Joseph and
John Lewis, and Henry and James Willis, Bart Salter, John Styron, William
Salter, John and Joseph Salter, and Micajah Rose. Four brothers from the
community of Stacy were lost: John, Kilby, Elijah and Wallace Smith.
Ocracoke Island was also hard hit by San Ciriaco. The August 2l edition
of the Washington GAzette reported: "the whole island of Ocracoke
is a complete wreck as a result of the fierce storm which swept the entire
coast of North Carolina, leaving ruin and disaster in its path…
Thirty-three homes were destroyed and two churches were wrecked. Practically
every house on the island was damaged to some extent." The article
also reported that waves twenty to thirty feet high pounded the beach
and that the hurricane's storm tide covered the island with four to five
feet of water. Hundreds of banker ponies, sheep, and cows drowned. The
dazed survivors of Ocracoke endured "much suffering" after the
storm from a lack of food and water.
The residents of Ocracoke and other Outer Banks communities were wise
to the effects of rising hurricane tides. Many installed "trap doors'"
in the floors of their homes to allow rising water to enter, thus preventing
the structure from floating off of its foundation and drifting away. Some
simply bored holes in the floor boards to relieve the water's pressure.
Occasionally, desperate times called for desperate measures. The late
Big Ike O'Neal described his adventure in the '99 storm to Associated
Press columnist Hal Boyle. "The tides were rising fast and my old
dad, fearful that our house would wash from its foundations, said 'Here
son, take this axe and scuttle the floor.' I began chopping away and finally
knocked a hole in the floor. Like a big fountain the water gushed in and
hit the ceiling and on top of the gusher was a mallard duck that had gotten
under our house as the tides pushed upwards."
Hatteras Island was devastated by the August hurricane of '99. The Weather
Bureau station in Hatteras Village was hard hit, as the entire southern
end of the Outer Banks fell within the powerful right-front quadrant of
the storm. Winds at the station were clocked at sustained speeds of over
l00 mph, and gusts were measured at between l20 and l40 mph. Ultimately,
the station's anemometer was blown away, and no record was made of the
storm's highest winds. The barometric pressure was reported at near twenty-six
inches, which, if accurate, would suggest that the San Ciriaco hurricane
may have reached category-five intensity.
One of the most chilling accounts of the storm was a report filed with
the Weather Bureau office in Washington, D. C., by S. L. Doshoz, Weather
Bureau observer at Cape Hatteras. The following excerpt from his report
details the extent of the storm surge and the struggle for survival endured
by the residents of Hatteras Island:
August 2l, l899
This hurricane was, without any question, the most severe of any storm
that has ever passed over this section within the memory of any person
now living, and there are people here who can remember back for a period
of over 75 years. I have made careful inquiry among the old inhabitants
here, and they all agree, with one accord, that no storm like this has
ever visited the island. Certain it is that no such storm has ever been
recorded within the history of the Weather Bureau at this place. The scene
here on the l7th was wild and terrifying in the extreme. By 8 a.m. on
that date the entire island was covered with water blown in from the sound,
and by 11 a.m. all the land was covered to a depth of from 3 to l0 feet.
This tide swept over the island at a fearful rate carrying everything
movable before it. There were not more than four houses on the island
in which the tide did not rise to a depth of from one to four feet, and
at least half of the people had to abandon their homes and property to
the mercy of the wind and tide and seek the safety of their own lives
with those who were fortunate enough to live on higher land.
Language is inadequate to express the conditions which prevailed all
day on the l7th. The howling wind, the rushing and roaring tide and the
awful sea which swept over the beach and thundered like a thousand pieces
of artillery made a picture which was at once appalling and terrible and
the like of which Dante's Inferno could scarcely equal. The frightened
people were grouped sometimes 40 or 50 in one house, and at times one
house would have to be abandoned and they would all have to wade almost
beyond their depth in order to reach another. All day this gale, tide
and sea continued with a fury and persistent energy that knew no abatement,
and the strain on the minds of every one was something so frightful and
dejecting that it cannot be expressed. In many houses families were huddled
together in the upper portion of the building with the water several feet
deep in the lower portion, not knowing what minute the house would either
be blown down or swept away by the tide. And even those whose houses were
above the water could not tell what minute the tide would rise so high
that all dwellings would be swept away.
At about 8 p.m. on the l7th when the wind lulled and shifted to the
east and the tide began to run off with great swiftness, causing a fall
of several feet in less than a half hour, a prayer of thankfulness went
up from every soul on the island, and strong men, who had held up a brave
heart against the terrible strain of the past l2 hours, broke down and
wept like children upon their minds being relieved of the excessive tension
to which it had been subjected all through the day. Cattle, sheep hogs,
and chickens were drowned by hundreds before the very eyes of the owners,
who were powerless to render any assistance on account of the rushing
tide. The fright of these poor animals was terrible to see, and their
cries of terror when being surrounded by the water were pitiful in the
Officer Doshoz also reported on his personal ordeal and struggle through
the hurricane flood:
I live about a mile from the office building and when I went home at
8 a.m. I had to wade in water which was about waist deep. I waited until
about l0:30 a.m., thinking the storm would lull, but it did not do so,
and at that time I started for the office to change the wind sheet. I
got about one-third of the distance and found the water about breast high,
when I had to stop in a neighbor's house and rest, the strain of pushing
through the water and storm having nearly exhausted my strength. I rested
there until about noon when I started again and after going a short distance
further I found the water up to my shoulders and still I was not half-way
to the office. I had to give it up again and take refuge in another neighbor's
house where I had to remain until about 8 p.m. when the tide fell so that
I could reach the office. I regret that I was unable to change the wind
sheet so that a record of the wind could be made from the time the clock
stopped running until the [anemometer] cups were blown away, but I did
all that I could under the circumstances.
The San Ciriaco hurricane also affected the northern Outer Banks with
high winds and storm flooding. At Nags Head, the rising waters of the
Atlantic met the wind-driven waters of Albemarle Sound, flooding the entire
area, even in places where the beach was one mile wide. Overwash from
the storm covered many portions of the Outer Banks, destroying dozens
of homes and cottages. Some of the residents of Nags Head refused to leave
their homes as the storm approached, as they were confident the rising
flood would soon subside. The but water kept coming, and at last some
families had to be moved to safety by patrolmen from the Life-Saving Station.
In the nineteenth century, hurricanes were often compared by the number
of ships they caused to be wrecked or lost at sea. Powerful storms frequently
battered the North Carolina coast and earned the region its nickname:
Graveyard of the Atlantic. So many vessels and sailors were lost through
the years that young captains were often given special rewards for their
first safe passage by the Hatteras coast.
The Great Hurricane of '99 scuttled or sank numerous ships from Wilmington
to the Virginia line. In his book Graveyard of the Atlantic, author David
Stick lists seven vessels that were wrecked on the North Carolina coast
during the storm: The Aaron Reppard, Florence Randall, Lydia Willis, Fred
Walter, Robert W. Dasey, Priscilla, and Minnie Bergen. Also, the Diamond
Shoals LIghtship was driven ashore after its mooring lines were broken
by the storm's mountainous seas. Six other ships were reported lost at
sea without a trace: the John C. Haynes, M. B. Millen, Albert Scultz,
Elwood H. Smith, Henry B. Cleaves, and Charles M. Patterson.
It is known that at least thirty-five sailors from the wrecked vessels
were saved as their ships broke apart in the surf. Newspaper accounts
concluded that at least thirty lives were lost in these shipwrecks, but
the real number of deaths was probably much higher. A newspaper report
from Norfolk, Virginia, following the August hurricane described the aftermath:
"The stretch of beach between Kinnakeet to Hatteras, a distance of
about eighteen miles, bears evidence of the fury of the gale in the shape
of Spars, masts, and general wreckage of five schooners which were washed
ashore and then broken up by the fierce waves, while now and again a body
washes ashore to lend added solemnity to the scene."
Of all this hurricane's wrecks and rescues, one of the most dramatic
was that of the barkentine Priscilla. This 643 ton American cargo vessel
was commanded by Captain Benjamin E. Springsteen and was bound from its
home port of Baltimore to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. When the Priscilla left
port on August l2, its captain was unaware of the fateful hurricane that
would soon meet his ship head-on.
On the morning of Wednesday, the sixteenth, the wind began to blow,
requiring that the ship's light sails be taken in. As the day advanced
the winds continued to increase, and orders were given to take in all
but the Priscilla's mainsail. But by late afternoon, the driving wind
had blown away or destroyed all of the vessel's riggings, and Captain
Springsteen was now adrift under bare poles on a rapid southwest course.
Early on the morning of the seventeenth, after a stressful night of
rolling seas and hurricane winds, soundings were made to test the water's
depth. With each passing hour, the water became more shallow, and the
captain knew that the storm was driving his ship ashore. Through the torrents
of rain and wind, the order was passed to the crew to prepare to save
themselves as the Priscilla was about to wreck.
After tossing about for the entire day, the ship finally struck bottom
at a out 9:00 p.m. on the seventeenth. For the next hour, the Priscilla
was bashed against the shallow shoals as huge breakers crashed over its
hull. Within moments, Captain Springsteen's wife, his son, and two crew
members were swept overboard and drowned. Shortly afterward, and with
a loud crash, the ship's hull broke apart, and the remaining horrified
sailors held tightly to their wreck. Five more terrorizing hours would
pass before the captain and his surviving crew would approach the beach.
Even though the hurricane's winds and tide were ferocious, Surfman Rasmus
Midgett of the Gull Shoal Life-Saving Station set out on his routine beach
patrol at 3:00 a.m. on the eighteenth. The ocean was sweeping completely
across the narrow island, at times reaching the saddle girths of his horse.
But Midget knew that disaster was at hand by the scattered debris that
was washed about by the surf. Barrels, crates, buckets, and timbers provided
clear signs that a wrecked ship was nearby. Although the night was dark
and the storm was intense, this courageous surfman knew that lives were
Finally, after an hour and a half of treacherous patrol, Midgett stopped
on the dark beach at the sound of voices - the distressed cries of the
shipwrecked men. Realizing that too much time would be lost if he returned
to the station for help, he decided to attempt the rescue alone. One by
one, he coaxed the Priscilla's crew off the wreck and into the water,
where he helped them to shore through the pounding breakers. Seven men
were saved in this manner, and they gathered on the beach, exhausted.
Three of the crew remained on the wreck, however, too bruised and battered
to move. Midgett swam out to save them and physically carried them to
shore, one at a time. The courageous surfman brought the men to a high
dune, where he left them to wait. His coat was offered to Captain Springsteen
who had received a serious wound to the chest. All of the men were bruised
and bleeding, and some had their clothes stripped away by the relentless
Midgett quickly returned to his station for help, and several men were
dispatched to retrieve the survivors. In all, he had saved ten lives while
risking his own in the treacherous waters of the San Ciriaco hurricane.
For his efforts, he was later awarded a gold lifesaving medal of honor
by the United States Secretary of the Treasury.
North Carolina's Hurricane History, by Jay Barnes, pp. 49-57
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.
Copyright 1995, Core Sound Waterfowl Museum
All rights reserved.