At the southern tip of Hatteras Island — on seven acres of land just south of the ferry dock and adjacent to U.S. Coast Guard Station Hatteras Inlet — is a large unusual, building composed of sweeping curves and a wooden skeleton meant to resemble a capsized ship. Within the walls lives the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum.
Opened in October 2002, the museum began the long road to establishment in 1986.
“It all actually began in 1986, when the National Park Service (NPS) encouraged the Hatteras Village Civic Association (HVCA) to compete for artifacts recovered from the USS Monitor,” says Josh Nonnenmocher, administrative coordinator for the site.
“The artifacts were eventually awarded to the Mariner’s Museum in Newport News, Virginia, as there were no appropriate facilities in North Carolina.”
Thus, the wheels were set in motion. Through decades of work and a series of grants and donations, the museum was able to acquire land and, finally, ground was broken on Dec. 10, 1999.
“Our current collection comes from numerous sources all over the country and beyond. They all have one thing in common — they all must have a direct connection to the North Carolina Outer Banks and its maritime history,” Nonnenmocher says. “Some are from private collections, some are from local families, some are from historical sources, some are from divers who recover them from shipwrecks, some are from people who may have been at the actual shipwreck and purchased or salvaged them, some are from the NPS, some are from NOAA, we actually received our Enigma Machine from the Federal Republic of Germany, after it was recovered by public-spirited local divers from the wreck of the U-85.”
Nonnenmocher says visitors should definitely check out the museum's updated Carroll A. Deering Exhibit: The commercial schooner had run aground off the coast of Hatteras Island in 1921. When the U.S. Coast Guard reached the ship, the discovered it eerily abandoned — personal items and the ship’s log book were gone, but the galley was left as though someone had just been there, ready to prepare a meal. The only life left on the schooner was a polydactyl cat, ancestor of the island’s six-toed cats.
The museum also features a large number of events that are free and open to the public:
• Each May, the museum co-hosts the British War Graves ceremony at the British cemeteries in Buxton and Ocracoke, honoring the seamen who died aboard the HMS Bedfordshire and San Delfino, both sunk off the islands’ coasts by German U-Boats during WWII.
• From April through September, the museum offers its Salty Dog Lecture Series The event, which is at 2 p.m. each Tuesday — includes lectures and discussions about maritime history and culture, including shipwrecks, diving, maritime music, cooking Hatteras Style, and piracy reenactments.
• From May through September, the museum hosts Maritime Crafts for Kids at 2 p.m. Wednesday, and on Friday, local artist Sam Green demonstrates how to create and paint old-fashioned, canvas-backed, duck decoys.
“We have some book signings and one-off events that occur or are added to our schedule throughout the year,” he says.
Currently on display is a photojournalism exhibit by award-winning local photographer Daniel Pullen (danielpullenphotography.com). The exhibit examines the independent watermen of North Carolina and the preservation, and sustainability of the seafood industry.
At 11 a.m. Thursday, July 25, Outer Banks author David P. Hope will discuss his adventures (and near tragedy) on the high seas and sign copies of his book, "Summer Heat."
The museum also hosts a volunteer meet-and-great in April, and an appreciation luncheon in November. Anyone who would like to volunteer at the museum is welcome — and encouraged — to sign up, regardless of the time of year.
“Volunteers are the lifeblood of our museum,” Nonnenmacher says. “We are a small but dedicated full-time staff of four. Our front desk is operated by our dedicated and knowledgeable group of volunteer docents.”
When asked about his favorite parts of the museum, Nonnenmacher is quick to offer his Top 3: The silver cup awarded to Captain John Allen Midgett of Chicamacomico, a Kriegsmarine oatmeal bowl from 1941 with the stamp of Hitler’s Third Reich on the bottom, and the William E. Sell coin collection.
His absolute favorite part, though, is the museum's location.
“Every morning, I get to breathe in the sea air and feel the sea breeze coming off the ocean at Ramp 55 — and the window of my office has a view of the ferry dock, so I get to see the boats come and go all day,” he says. “It’s Hatteras at its finest.”