Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum sounds like a catchy name for an attraction on Hatteras Island. But its name has deep meaning: there really is a graveyard — of ships, and often, their passengers — deep underwater off Cape Hatteras. More than a thousand ships have been lost at sea near Diamond Shoals, a gigantic, shifting sand bar that, to the misfortune of mariners, often encroached on the Atlantic trade route.
Located at the very end of Hatteras Island next to the ferry docks, the museum tells not just the stories of shipwrecks and the people who went down with them. It also depicts the lives and livelihoods of Outer Bankers who interacted with the sea on a daily basis. The museum’s exhibits and artifacts from centuries of seafaring drama off the Outer Banks’ beaches allows visitors to practically taste the sea spray and smell the bracing salt air of the Graveyard of the Atlantic.
“Really, it’s an unrivaled collection of cultural resources,” says Joseph Schwarzer, director of North Carolina Maritime Museums.
Ranging from the early age of exploration and colonial America, through years of piracy and multiple wars, “it’s all here,” he says. “Visitors become absorbed with the stories we tell about the community and 400 years of shipwreck history.”
Until the mid-20th century, shipwrecks were tragically frequent off the Outer Banks. Even if vessels managed to pass unscathed beyond the shoals, there was still the threat of pirates, weather or wars. Over the centuries, lighthouses and lifesavers were provided to help seafarers survive storms. Still, piracy and numerous wars continued to take their toll.
Of all the places in the world, the North Carolina coast has the highest concentration of shipwrecks and some of the most significant maritime history. It is here where the English first explored in the 1580s and established their first permanent — albeit failed — settlement on Roanoke Island. It is here where the pirate Blackbeard prowled in the early 1700s, before being killed in waters off Ocracoke Island. It is here where the hellish World War II Nazi U-boat campaign struck hardest. According to Kevin Duffus, author of “War Zone: World War II off the North Carolina Coast,” of the 5,000 people and 397 vessels lost to the German submarines off the U.S. coast by July 1942, 1,700 people and 78 boats were lost off North Carolina, mostly between Cape Henry and Cape Fear.
When visitors enter the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, which has a distinctive ship-shaped edifice, they will quickly notice the partially-restored first order Fresnel lens from the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, providing a rare close-up of the kind of majestic sea green-colored lenses that had once been atop all lighthouses along the coast.
Although the museum, opened in 2003, is still working to complete its exhibit plan and has limited numbers of its artifacts on display, there are numerous exhibits that provide insight into the maritime history of the Outer Banks. One of the most compelling artifacts is the Enigma machine that was recovered from the U-85, a German submarine that sunk off the coast of Nags Head in 1942. It is chilling to be able to look closely at the actual coding device used by the enemy.
Another notable artifact on display is the original log page sent by the RMS Titanic on April 14, 1912. The message, recorded at the U.S. Weather Bureau Weather Station in Hatteras, is believed to be the earliest communication sent that the luxury British passenger liner had struck an iceberg.
The museum also has engaging exhibits about the Carroll A. Deering Ghost Ship, the Civil War on Hatteras Island, the War of 1812, the submarine Alligator, Blackbeard’s Queen Anne Revenge, Hatteras sport fishing and vintage diving equipment, among others. Some of the displays are rotated or revised throughout the year.
One exhibit called, “Ship Ashore!” shows how residents of the isolated Outer Banks reacted when shipwrecks and their goods would wash up on the beach.
“’It was like a Walmart coming ashore,” Schwarzer says, alluding to the often vast amount of contents.
Even without a completed exhibition area, the 20,000 square-foot museum — admission to which is free — has been consistently popular, the director says, averaging about 90,000 visitors a year. On one recent day, for instance, more than 1,300 people visited, he says.
From Whalebone Junction in Nags Head, it takes about an hour and a half, in good weather, to reach the museum. If conditions are less than ideal, the trek will be a bit slower, but no less interesting.
On the way, there are many historic and natural assets to appreciate about the island, which includes much of Cape Hatteras National Seashore and all of Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. There are unspoiled, wide-open beaches; stellar bird watching opportunities; Chicamacomico Life Saving Station; Cape Hatteras Lighthouse; Cape Point.
For those who continue to the end of the island, the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum will reward visitors with a fascinating peek into centuries of unparalleled maritime history. At its essence, it is the story of the Outer Banks, a sandbar on the edge the continent.