The first half of the eighteenth century brought several major hurricanes to the Outer Banks. A violent hurricane of 16-17 September 1713 ranged from Charleston, South Carolina northward to the Cape Fear, where its greatest destructiveness was centered, driving ships far inland. Another fifteen years later sank many ships, including at least one a few miles off Ocracoke. A mid-October hurricane in 1749 sank nine ships in the same area.8
The first half of the eighteenth century closed with the Great Storm of 18 August 1750, which Barnes says caused great damage and cut several new inlets.9 Two years later a severe hurricane hit in September 1752, one of which destroyed the Onslow County courthouse. Others followed in 1753, 1757, 1758, and 1761, the last of which opened a deep inlet near Bald Head Island that remained opened for more than a century. Hudgins provides dramatic details of the hurricane of 6-7 September 1769. “Unprecedented tides and winds of terrible force,” he said,
attended this hurricane on the North Carolina coast. . . . [The] Governor spoke of the “calamities arising from the extreme violence of the late storm” and the destruction of the banks of their two rivers. The tide was said to have risen [twelve] feet higher than ever before and the wind blew so that nothing could stand before it. Two-thirds of the effects of New Bern were destroyed; houses in town were undermined by water and floated away or collapsed. One entire street of houses was swept off with some of the inhabitants. Many thousands of trees were blown down. Many houses were said to have blown down in the general area, including the Court House of Brunswick County.10
At least a half-dozen or so hurricanes struck the area, Hudgins reports, between 1775 and the end of the century. Pasquotank County was hard hit in early September 1775, and New Bern took another blow in August 1778 which brought major crop damage and rains that continued for a Biblical forty days and forty nights. Wilmington was hit three years later, but details of damage are lacking. In October 1783, however, another brought extreme damage to the area; its effects reached as far inland as Winston and Salem, blowing down fences, trees, and buildings. The center of a late September hurricane in 1785 passed over Ocracoke Bar, opening breaks in the sand dunes and drowning cattle.
A storm that passed east and north of Cape Hatteras on 23-24 July 1788 destroyed a half-dozen vessels, drove nearly a dozen ashore, and dismasted twice that many. Others were stranded as winds forced water out of Pamlico sound. Less than a year later (10 April 1789), a hurricane in the Albemarle Sound area brought tides nine feet above normal and hit ships headed out of the Chowan River; two lost their entire crew. A hurricane of 2 August 1795 drove eighteen Spanish ships onto the shoals at Cape Hatteras. The century closed with a major hurricane on 5 September 1797, whose effects stretched from Charleston to Currituck Inlet.11
Nineteenth Century Hurricanes
There are dozens of reliable reports of hurricanes striking the Outer Banks during the nineteenth century. Presumably the dramatic increase compared to the previous century had much to do with better data gathering.
Major storms struck around New Bern in 1803, 1815, 1821, and 1825. The last of them drove more than twenty vessels ashore on Ocracoke Island, and dozens more from Wilmington to Cape Lookout. An August 1827 hurricane broke the Diamond Shoals Lightship from its anchors at Cape Hatteras and drove it south to Portsmouth.12 In 1828, another closed New Currituck Inlet, turned Currituck Sound from salt water to fresh, and doomed Knotts Island as a maritime port.13In August, 1830, another hurricane blew every ship from its moorings at New Bern. Three severe hurricanes struck within four months in late 1837, including the October “Racer’s Storm” that wrecked the steamship Home and killed ninety passengers. In 1839, Olson noted, “a gale, long remembered for its severity, washed away almost all of the cattle, sheep, and horses at Portsmouth, in addition to several houses and gardens.”14 A July 1842 storm, one of the severest ever on the Banks, brought heavy damage from Wilmington to Currituck – most severely from Portsmouth northward, and another followed a month later.15
A hurricane that struck in September 1846 had the dramatic effect of creating both Hatteras and Oregon inlets, bringing saltwater (and saltwater creatures) to the sounds, and – Barnes goes so far as to say – “reshap[ing] the geography of the Outer Banks.” A decade later, a major storm cleared Wrightsville beach of its groves of liveoaks, and a November 1861 storm scattered seventy-five Union vessels off Cape Hatteras, sinking two of them. In September 1874, Wilmington suffered major damage, including the destruction of one third of the rice crop.16
Improved reporting after 1875 resulted in better records of storm intensity, tracking and related indicators. The years between 1875 and 1900 witnessed nearly forty hurricanes, a number of them severe.17 One that made landfall on the North and South Carolina line in September 1876 was the worst Wilmington residents had seen in many years. Two years later another brought 100 mph winds to Cape Lookout. An 18 August 1879 storm made landfall around Wilmington, devastated the Beaufort waterfront, and tore up a thousand feet of railroad track in Morehead City before crossing Pamlico Sound. Signal officers at Cape Lookout witnessed the highest winds ever recorded in North Carolina – 138 mph before the anemometer cups blew away, rising to an estimated 168 mph.
A hurricane in September 1881 gave Wilmington its severest impact since those of 1822 and 1838. A violent hurricane two years later pounded the city again before bypassing Cape Lookout. It killed fifty-three people in North Carolina – the most ever by a single hurricane in the state up to that time. An August 1887 hurricane wrecked many vessels in Pamlico Sound, and another six years later brought record high tides to Wilmington, wrecking a number of vessels.
The 1890s were relatively quiet for the Outer Banks, but the decade closed with one of the deadliest hurricanes ever to move through the western Atlantic – possibly a Category 4 Cape Verde storm, dubbed the San Ciriaco by Puerto Ricans, hundreds of whom it killed before continuing northwest.18 The hurricane struck the Outer Banks on 16-18 August 1899 with winds that reached 140 mph as it crossed the Banks near Diamond City. Surges twice (once from the ocean side and once from the sound side) covered some of the Banks in ten feet of water and caused heavy damage to Shackleford Banks and the communities of Portsmouth and Ocracoke – drifting sand over gardens, contaminating wells, killing trees with salt water, drowning farm animals, destroying houses and fishing equipment, and killing between twenty and twenty-five people. The winds also destroyed the Methodist church in Portsmouth; it was rebuilt in 1901.19 [ILLUSTRATION: Portsmouth Methodist church [Untitled-10].jpg. CAPTION: Fig. 3-2: Portsmouth Methodist Church [no date or photographer given]. Southeast Regional Office archive, National Park Service.]
On Hatteras Island, the Weather Bureau station recorded winds in excess of 100 mph and gusts of 120-140 mph before its anemometer blew away, and barometric pressures at Hatteras indicated San Ciriaco may have been a Category 5 hurricane. The storm drove at least eight vessels ashore (including the Diamond Shoals Lightship); six others were lost at sea without a trace. One of the indomitable Midgett family Lifesaving Service surfmen (Rasmus, of the Gull Shoal station) received a medal of honor for his role in rescuing ten seamen from the 643-ton barkentine Priscilla, bound from Baltimore to Brazil.
During the months following the Great Hurricane of 1899, most Schackleford Banks residents moved to the mainland, the majority of them to Harkers Island, but others to Marshallberg, Broad Creek, Salter Path, and elsewhere.20 [ILLUSTRATION: Shackleford Banks after 1899 hurricane.jpg. CAPTION: Fig. 3-3: Shackleford Banks after 1899 hurricane. Jones, Gaskill-Guthrie House Historic Structure Report, 16.]