Storm of 1913 crushed ships, rescue led to charges

A wreck believed to be the George W. Wells is shown on Ocracoke Island after being exposed by waves produced by the passage of Hurricane Teddy in September 2020. Photo: Cape Lookout National Seashore

In a year with very few tropical systems, Hurricane Four of 1913 barely received a notice from the Raleigh office of the United States Weather Bureau.

“Although located off North Carolina at the start of September 3, the cyclone peaked with maximum sustained winds of 85 mph… and minimum barometric pressure of 976 mbar… A few hours later, it touched down land near Cape Lookout at the same intensity, ”Lee A. Denson, section director in Raleigh for the office, wrote in his annual report. “Shortly after moving inland, the system weakened into a tropical storm. On September 4, it deteriorated to a tropical depression before dissipating over northeast Georgia.

Denson also reported winds of up to 74 mph at Hatteras, noting that “the worst property damage occurred near New Bern and Washington … Winds from the northeast to the southeast pushed the rivers upward. 10 feet above previous high water. Large railroad bridges in New Bern and Washington were washed away, as were many other small bridges. Many low streets were flooded… ”

What Denson did not include in his report, however, was the impact of the storm on the immediate coast, where telephone and telegraph lines were down, and rumors circulated across the country that everyone on Ocracoke Island had perished. “Tidal wave kills 500 on island” was the headline of the Wilmington, Delaware, Evening Journal.

The Weather Bureau report also did not include the fact that the British steamboat Glenaen had run aground at the southern tip of Ocracoke Island, or the four ships the rescue service reported lost between Rodanthe and Cape Lookout.

Schooner Richard FG Hartley, bound for Charleston, South Carolina, was the first to found on September 2 after being “overtaken by bad weather … 20 miles off Bodie Island,” said the Life-Saving Service in its annual report.

With the ship damaged and clearly sinking, the report noted that “the captain chose what was arguably the lesser of two evils and headed for shore, hoping to save the lives of his crew and himself, if not his ship “.

It was at this point that the schooner was discovered by the watch surfer at Chicamacomico station around “about 2 p.m.”

Crews from Gull Shore to the north and New Inlet to the south received a phone call and came to assist with the rescue. The wind was blowing full east at 70 mph “making the prospect of putting a line over the schooner extremely questionable”.

As the waves crashed over the ship, the crew were thrown into the sea. Clinging to the wreckage, the men were brought ashore by the men from the Life-Saving Service who braved the waves to rescue the survivors. Of the seven crew, two were lost overboard.

Still, the rescue was considered a success. “The survivors, from master to bottom, were of the firm opinion that the body did all that was humanly possible on their behalf,” according to the report.

Although the Hartley was the only known fatal shipwreck during the hurricane, it was not the shipwreck that caught the nation’s attention in the aftermath of this hurricane. Rather, it was another shipwreck and the rescue of its crew, followed by accusations of piracy.

George W. Wells at the port. Photo: Cape Hatteras National Waterfront

A dramatic rescue

When launched in 1900, the George W. Wells was the first of its kind: a six-masted schooner and one of the largest wooden sailing ships ever built. Thirteen years later, as Hurricane 4 hit the shore of Ocracoke on September 3, 1913, the ship was dying. The sails were torn from the masts and the ship grounded securely on a shoal 400 to 500 meters from the beach.

The US Hatteras Inlet gas station, located at the northern end of Ocracoke Island, first reported the sinking of the ship. Knowing that the Wells was stranded on a reef well offshore, station warden David Barnett enlisted the help of Durants station on Hatteras Island.

At 3:00 p.m., the Hatteras Inlet crew were at the scene. Twenty minutes later, the crew of the Ocracoke Rescue Service arrived, “after seeing the ship off shore and following it to the beach as it sped before the gale.”

There is no record of why help was not sought at the Ocracoke Rescue Station, but it is possible that Barnett knew that this station was attempting to save the British steamboat Glenaen which s ‘was beached at Ocracoke.

While not mentioned in the Life-Saving Service’s annual report, it is possible that the Ocracoke station crew were at the site of the stranded ship. When the tide receded, it was evident that the steamboat was undamaged and had run aground so badly that there was no danger of being washed away by the sandbar. With the strong southeasterly wind blowing, the George W. Wells, which was bound for Florida, would have been pushed northwest, parallel to Ocracoke Beach and visible to the crew of the Ocracoke Life- Saving Service.

Related: Wrecks Connect Researchers to Bygone Times

With crews from three stations in place, the attempt to rescue the 14 crew and six passengers began. It would be a difficult mission.

“The schooner was lying four or five hundred yards from the beach and, as the weather was thick with the wind blowing landward, it was a very bad mark for the Lyle cannon” which was used to throw lines over the sea. stranded ships.

“Several attempts, all ineffective, were made to put a line on her,” noted the rescue service.

Wells’ Captain Joseph York responded by tying a rope to anything that could float, an effort to use the waves and currents to carry it to shore. It worked, and the Rescue Service team waded through the angry waves to retrieve the floating equipment.

While lines were attached to the breech buoy that would put the crew and passengers to the safety, one of the lines broke and was quickly replaced. Then on the beach, “the tackle on the ground separated. With this incident also repaired, the breach buoy finally raced towards the schooner and in no time every soul on board – 20 people in all – was safe on the beach.

Rescuers accused

Although the Life-Saving Service called the efforts to save the Wells’ crew “exceptionally meritorious,” York, the ship’s captain, was not satisfied.

Two weeks after his rescue, he made his dissatisfaction known.

“Saved by rescuers, he now calls them pirates … Captain Wells threatens to lay charges,” read the front page of September 17, 1913 in the Washington Daily News.

York was angry with the cost of salvaging the ship.

“They are a bunch of pirates,” said the Beaufort County newspaper as quoted by him. “They formed a combination, a trust, between them to buy all the wrecked ships. They agree not to bid against each other and in this way they prevent competitive bidding. When the Wells were auctioned, I had to let her go for $ 800. I should have had $ 1,500.

He went on to say that there had also been a mass looting of the ship while it was lying on the beach.

“My mate, Gus Green, and I had to hunt the natives at gunpoint to keep them from robbing the whole ship,” York said, quoting the Daily News.

The ship burned down two days after it ran aground. York claimed he was set on fire for “an argument over the price”.

York’s accusation of rescue service personnel colluding to fix the price of rescuing his ship also emerged on September 15, 1913, in an interview with the Washington Post, which would be quoted in a letter to the House of Representatives from Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Bryon Newton dated November 29, 1913 and read in the Congressional File.

The rescue service was part of the Treasury Department and, according to Newton, York was asked to grant its request.

“A telegram was … sent to Captain York by this department, asking him to justify his accusation or to withdraw it, but although diligent efforts were made to reach Captain York, the department was unable to obtain a response from his share, “according to the letter.

Although the captain could not be contacted, the Treasury Department deemed the charge serious enough to warrant an investigation.

“Each warden has formally denied that there was any truth in Captain York’s complaint,” the investigation revealed, and “the wrecked vessel was purchased by Mr. Adolphus Burrus, a person in no way connected with the service of rescue”.

The investigation exonerated the service of any wrongdoing, writing: “It is considered very unfortunate, as well as an injustice to the rescue service, that the false and misleading statements contained in the mentioned press clipping have ever been published. . “

It should be noted that the older brother of Adolphus Burrus was Roscoe Burrus, Hatteras Inlet Surfman. The brothers were close in age, both born in 1882.