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The Wreck of the Metropolis
The "Metropolis", a picture from the Mariner's Museum, Newport News, Va.
The State - November 3, 1951
article by Bill Sharpe
submitted by Kay Midgett Sheppard
The catastrophe that shook America and led to establishment of all-year beach control by our Coast Guard
Nothing good could come out of such a ghastly, pitiful wreck as that of the Metropolis, it seemed. The steamship came ashore in a heavy sea below Whaleshead (Currituck) Light January 31, 1878, and 102 lives were miserable lost.
Everything about the tragedy was shameful. The owners were charged with concealing defects in the ship, inspectors with collusion, the chartering company was accused of overloading her, the captain was accused of imprudent handling of his ship. The Life-Saving crew reached the wreck late, and then without sufficient equipment.
Worst of all, natives of the Bank as well as passengers were accused of inhospitality and looting. Coming on the heels of the scandalous wreck of the warship Huron in 1877 off Kitty Hawk, the disaster threw the county into an uproar. The New York Tribune carried columns of the story on its front pages, and even months later, reverberations, in the form of charges, counter-charges, investigation and reports, were being heard.
It is not unlikely that this wreck and that of the ill-fated Huron, the two of them remarkably similar, started the legend that North Carolina bankers preyed up castaways. Almost certainly, the two wreck hastened, if they did not indeed prompt, the creation of our modern Coast Guard with its year-around vigil and modern equipment. So even this black cloud had its silver lining.
The Metropolis had a sad sailing from Philadelphia. She was loaded with 500 tons of rails and machinery and 200 tons of stores, destined for the Madeira and Mamore Railway, then building in the jungles of Brazil. Also aboard were some 215 passengers--laborers and foremen recruited to work on the railroad. These were mostly simple people, unaccustomed to travel, and it is easy to imagine the scenes on the dock as mothers, wives and children bid tearful farewells to their menfolks embarking on such a long journey. Bur the contemporary reporters left nothing to the imagination.
"The incidents were frequently exceedingly pathetic," said the Tribune. "One fine-looking woman, wife of one of the foremen, after a dozen passionate farewells, finally clung to her husband with such intense sorrow that the latter was compelled to remain on the wharf."
The Metropolis had been built in 1861 and used by the Navy in blockading Confederate ports. After the war the vessel was cut in two, lengthened 40 feet and rebuilt with a length of 1981/2 feet and a 34-foot beam. She was brig-rigged and powered with two engines.
For months debate rages as to why she foundered, why she broke up so quickly in the surf, and why so many lives were lost, but the stark fact is that shortly after clearing the Cape of Delaware, the ship began to leak. She had put to sea in heavy weather, but no heavier, said the Captain, than he had braved before. Before long she was in a violent southeast gale and the master, Captain J.H. Aukers, kept away from the Virginia Capes, intending to make Hampton Roads. However, he fell to leeward and the weather worsened. The pumps would not discharge water as fast as it was coming in and the captain, no doubt now thoroughly aware of his grave situation, decided to lighten ship by throwing coal overboard. At midnight on the 30th, his circulating pump gave out.
Aboard the ship the passengers' mood changed from one of restive anxiety to clamorous fear. Little by little the early reassurances given by crew members were dissipated by the grim activity aboard ship. The vessel pitched in the darkness, throwing the passengers around. They saw the efforts of the sailors redoubled, and head the hoarse shouts of the captain as he gave orders through his speaking trumpet. They heard the pumps cease, they sat the effort to throw coal overboard.
At 3 a.m. a heavy sea boarded the vessel, carrying away smokestack, lifeboats, engine rooms and doors of the forward saloon, and flooding the ship with a large quantity of water.
Now panic reigned. Having boarded the vessel with apprehension, the men finally gave way to an uncontrollable frenzy. All discipline was gone even before the fires of the boilers were extinguished. Captain Aukers, in a desperate attempt to save lives, knowing now that his ship was doomed, decided to beach her beneath Currituck light.
The Metropolis was all but unmanageable, but at 6 a.m. the vessel reached land under her sails. But instead of relief, both crew and passengers screamed at the frightening prospect they saw. The surf they entered was a crashing hell and at 6:15 a.m. the ship struck the outer reef and failed to ride over it, as the captain had hoped.
Now began the worst ordeal of all. Within sight of land, with safety only a few hundred yards away, those who survived helplessly watched as their companions one by one were dashed to death in the icy waters, or crushed by the crumbling ship as it was ground to pieces by the waves.
Currituck now is a lonely beach, but it was even lonelier in 1878. At about 8 a.m. on the morning of Jan. 31, N.E.K. Jones and James E. Capps happened along the beach and through the fog glimpsed the wreck. Capps immediately went to borrow a horse to ride to the Life Saving Station with the news, and Jones went to work hauling men, living and dead, out of the surf.
The Life-Saving crew did not reach the wreck until about noon. It is easy to imagine the bitter hours in which the survivors on the wreck looked for help. They had seen the two men on the beach and had supposed aid would come immediately.
When the crew reached the scene it was on of "terror and wild confusion, of struggling heroes and perishing victims in the greedy seas, while the air was filled with encouraging shouts and despairing shrieks."
The surf now was running high and it was full of deadly wreckage and swimming people, some washed overboard, some who deliberately cast themselves in the water in an effort to reach shore. The surfmen and other natives waded out and saved many--a hundred or more, said an affidavit.
"Even a noble Newfoundland dog, incited by the example before him, plunged into the surf and brought to shore a half-drowned man," says one eye-witness report.
What effort was made to save those clinging to the wreck? When the Life Saving cart reached the scene, the men prepared to shoot a line aboard so as to rig up a breeches buoy. The first shot carried too high, but the second shot lodged a line in the fore-topsail yard. What a shout of mistaken joy went up from the poor survivors still on the wreck! One clambered up and obtained the light line, and with it the men hauled the cable aboard, working with waning strength and numbed fingers.
And now came the heartbreaking incident. The line was pulled across the forestay wire, and it chafed the rope. Just as the "block of the whip" (the pulley needed to operate the buoy), was half way to the boar, the rope parted and an anguished scream rose from the ship, striking despair into those fortunate few who had reached shore and were looking back at their kin and comrades still aboard. The line was "faked"--coiled--again and fired, but the shot line parted. Another shot, another line parted.
There were no more efforts, because the powder was gone. In the excitement of the departure for the wreck, the keeper had failed to check his supply and had only half a horn of powder. A man was dispatched for more but it was too late, and this omission echoed for years through the controversy aroused by the disaster.
Fires had been built on the beach, and from time to time exhausted rescue workers came to them to renew their strength. The wind and surf roared loudly, but even above it could be heard the pitiful appeals for help from the ship and the sobbing of those on the beach. At about 3 o'clock the rescue work slacked up since those on board, seeing so many who had jumped overboard drowned before their eyes, were holding to their dangerous refuge.
However, one man on board took a light line in his teeth and jumped overboard, hoping to take it ashore, and thus set up the means of hauling the breeches buoy aboard. But those on board did not play out the line fast enough and so it jerked from his mouth, though he himself made land safely.
Shortly after this the foremast fell, killing a number and crippling others and knocking still others overboard, the fallen sail covering the miserable wretches still alive, many of them now about to die.
Then the ship broke up rapidly and began to disappear. At this, all on shore rushed into the water as far as they dared to save the last of the passengers.
Was there looting of the crippled and the dead? There can be little doubt that there was. N.E.K. Jones himself said that he customarily went out on the beach after a hard blow to see if any wreck or flotsam was to be found, and after seeing the vessel go under, he testifies that he "went up the beach to look for wrecked stuff, the fragments of which was strewn as far as Whales Head."
Old Whaleshead Light at Corolla was burning, but she was unable
to keep the Metropolis from doom. (Photo by Aycock Brown)
He also saw a trunk broken open, but says that one of the passengers looted it. Other passengers later testified that people--white and Negro--came over from the mainland and joined in stripping the bodies of clothing and jewelry and in picking up trunks and other personal belongings.
The Life-Saving Service conducted a lengthy on-the-spot investigation and published affidavits from many witnesses. These indicate that while there was both indifference and looting on the part of some--both by survivors of the wreck and by natives--there also were examples of extraordinary heroism and generosity. All passengers were taken in, clothed and fed, and it must be considered that the resources of the local people were very slender indeed.
It also must be remembered that the delay in the rescuers reaching the wreck, which the terrified passengers mistook for indifference, the magnitude of the calamity and the hysteria incident to such a disaster led to many wild and unfounded or exaggerated reports, many of which were printed and faithfully believed.
"If" was a big word around which debate raged so hotly. If the captain had delayed sailing, and if he had stood out to sea, and if he had plunged his ship across the outer reef onto dry land, as he forlornly hoped to do, things would have been different. And if the cart had reached the wreck by 8 o'clock instead of at noon, all would have been save, witnesses said, for the wreck was still in fair shape at that hour. If the cart had been adequately supplied with powder, and if a line, once landing on the tossing vessel, would have remained intact, few would have been lost.
But no matter. As long as men trod that lonely, violent beach, they will always remember the Metropolis as one of the too-often times when man's mistakes and inadequacies and greed coincided with a cruel mood of nature to shock the nation with a brutal episode of the sea.
In all the hundreds of thousands of words written about the Metropolis, then and since, no single person involved in the tragedy escaped ugly charges or bemoaning insinuations.
Even today, 73 years later, it seems that the only unblemished hero of the wreck of the Metropolis was that nameless Newfoundland dog of Currituck Bank.
© 2003 Kay Midgett Sheppard