The Metropolis

subtitle: A Day at the Beach.

North Carolina’s barrier islands, the Outer Banks, are essentially big sandbars. There are lots more sandbars submerged in the nearby waters. 

In late January 1878, an overloaded wooden steamship called the Metropolis left Philadelphia. When she hit the ocean off Delaware, the weather turned bad; Metropolis sprung a leak in the propeller well and started tossing coal overboard to lighten the ship. The ship turned south and continued to falter; she was driven onto the sandbars near today’s Corolla, NC. According to the New York Times dispatch, which you can read in their archives,

“At 4 o’clock on the morning of the 31st, word was passed to all hands to provide themselves with life-preservers, and each do the best he could for himself.”

For this reason the government had established life-saving stations on these remote islands. Each day the men of the Life-saving Patrol wandered up and down the beach, either on foot or by horseback, looking for shipwrecks. If he spotted something, a patrolman would have to high-tail it back to his station, rouse the others, and together they would carry their wooden lifesaving boat and oars out of the boathouse, down the ramp and over the beach to the site of the wreck – sometimes several miles. Where they might or might not find conditions amenable to launching the boat, and might have to rely on other measures such as the Life Line (a rope fired onto or near the wreck, and the origin of today’s usage of the term) or the Britches Bouy, a circular floatation device with pants sewn in.

Being stuck on a sandbar doesn’t sound so bad today, but imagine being stuck there offshore in a disintegrating wooden boat getting pounded by heavy storm surge in the middle of the night and you have a good idea why the Outer Banks is also called “the graveyard of the Atlantic”. While the Times correspondent asserts that an earlier arrival by the Life-saving Service would have brought the Metropolis voyage to a happier conclusion, very little was certain under that day’s conditions. At any rate, on the Metropolis, 150 passengers survived; 85 died.

This Life-saving Service (and I am trying to imagine the circumstances that would make this job attactive, living in a shack in the middle of buggy nowhere, waiting for disasters; it reminds me of the folks who operate the dams for Quebec Hydro) later merged with the US Revenue Cutter Service which aimed to enforce tariffs and curtail smuggling. The combined entity was dubbed the Coast Guard.