Exploring the myths, legends, mysteries and ghost stories of the Outer Banks
By Dave Fairbank | Correspondent
Many places have myths, legends, mysteries and ghost stories. Of course, a small, seaside community whose written history extends back hundreds of years and rests alongside an area called “The Graveyard of the Atlantic” will have its share of tales and mysteries.
The most famous is the Lost Colony, the 16th-century English settlement on Roanoke Island. One-hundred seventeen settlers arrived here in 1587. When British ships returned with supplies three years later, the settlement had vanished, and only a one-word clue carved into a tree remained — Croatoan. The colony and its inhabitants were never found. The story was memorialized by a long-running play held every summer near the site of the settlement.
As All Hallows Eve approaches, here are several more mysteries and ghost stories native to the area. We leaned heavily on the books of Charles Harry Whedbee and various websites for research and details.
Ghostship of Cape Hatteras
The Carroll A. Deering and the fate of her crew remain one of the region’s enduring mysteries. The five-masted commercial schooner was returning to Norfolk from delivering a cargo of coal to Brazil in the winter of 1921.
On Jan. 29, a lightship keeper from Cape Lookout spied the ship and crew and had a brief communication with a crew member. Two days later, a Cape Hatteras Coast Guard station surfman named C.P. Brady saw the ship had run aground on Diamond Shoals, her sails still set, lifeboats missing, and no sign of life.
Rough seas prevented anyone from reaching the ship until Feb. 4. It was as if the crew had vanished. The ship’s log, navigational papers, and personal belongings were gone. In the galley, it appeared that food was being prepared for a meal.
Five government departments conducted investigations and considered everything from hurricanes to piracy to mutiny to smuggling to communist/Russian interference, a popular conspiracy theory of the day, even a paranormal, Bermuda-Triangle possibility.
No conclusions were reached, and the crew and its papers never surfaced. The remains of the ship were dynamited in March to prevent it being a navigational hazard to other ships, and the Deering’s capstan and ship’s bell are on display at the Graveyard of the Atlantic museum in Hatteras.
Gray man of Hatteras
Dating back to the early 1900s, Hatteras Island residents periodically spot a spectral image of a man as hurricanes and heavy storms approach. He’s often seen on the beach between Cape Point and the lighthouse. He never speaks, sometimes motions, and vanishes if anyone comes close.
Some think he’s the ghost of a sailor from the island who died during a hurricane, according to the website North Carolina Ghosts, and that he shows up to warn residents of impending danger. Others say he’s a force of nature, an extension of the coming storm.
In 2018, a video from Avalon Pier in Kill Devil Hills during Hurricane Florence appeared to show a figure at the end of the pier walking back and forth while the wind howled and rain came down. It created a bit of buzz on social media at the time, and was viewed 500,000 times on YouTube. Critics say the video was a fake or double exposure or someone inside the building reflected off the glass.
Queen of the sounds
Following the Civil War, a former Army corporal named Pierre Godette settled here and amassed a tidy sum from a federal job during Reconstruction. He believed that the area needed entertainment to satisfy residents and to attract visitors, and he commissioned the construction of a palatial showboat that he christened “Queen of Sounds.”
The boat, with multiple decks, ballrooms, lavish appointments and an immense player piano, traveled the sounds and inland waterways and docked for days at a time at various coastland towns.
Godette eventually took up with a woman who claimed to be a witch and was said to be increasingly intrigued by witchcraft, even hoping to enlist Satan as a partner. He docked the boat near Wanchese, but the townfolk wanted no part of a man who openly endorsed and welcomed witchcraft.
One Sunday night, at the stroke of midnight, with sounds from the player piano echoing across the water, a piercing scream was heard, and the boat exploded into thousands of flaming pieces. No bodies were ever found.
Some wondered if Satan caused the explosion, or perhaps God struck down the boat with a lightning bolt from an approaching squall. A more reasoned explanation is that the boat’s massive boiler blew up.
Regardless of the cause, some people say that if you stand on the causeway between Roanoke Island and Nags Head near midnight on still, summer evenings, you can hear the player piano and perhaps even see reflection of the Queen’s lights on the water.
Haunted lighthouse keeper’s quarters
The north bedroom of the Currituck Lighthouse Keeper’s Quarters in Corolla has a checkered history.
Keeper George Johnson’s adopted daughter Sadie often stayed in the North room. One day in 1927, she didn’t come home, and the next day, her body washed ashore. Later, a visitor who stayed in the North bedroom became ill and died in the room. A new keeper’s wife contracted tuberculosis and was quarantined in the North bedroom, eventually losing her life.
Visitors have told stories of experiencing a peculiar, chilled feeling upon entering the room. Some who have stayed there spoke of feeling bed sheets pulled and hearing voices.
The flaming ship of Ocracoke
Each September, on the night the new moon makes its first appearance, an old ship appears just off the coast of Ocracoke Island and sails northeast until it’s barely a glow on the horizon. It’s said that eerie wails accompany the sighting, the sound of mournful souls who were killed on board.
The origin of the story takes place in the late 17th century when an English vessel brought a shipload of German immigrants bound for what is now New Bern and anchored just off Ocracoke.
When the captain, a one-time pirate, and his crew discovered that the immigrants possessed a sizable amount of gold, silver, jewels and treasure, they plotted to kill the passengers and steal their valuables.
The night before the passengers were to disembark for their journey inland, the first night of the new moon that September, the crew murdered them, gathered their treasure and boarded a longboat to come ashore. The captain weighed anchor so that the ship would drift away on the light winds. He set fire to bags on deck, which would gradually burn the ship and its contents, and create an alibi for the murderers.
Except the ship didn’t drift away. The fire spread to the sails, which appeared to be giant sheets of flame, and the vessel sailed directly into the longboat, demolishing it and causing most of the men to drown. The few who survived saw the boat come about, with no one at the helm, and set a course to the northeast and sail away aflame.
Today, it’s said that on that particular September night, the ghost ship glows as it sails away, and if the wind is right, one can hear the wails of those who reached the New World, but not their final destination.