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Collecting Nautical Antiques

Diamond Shoals Lightship No. 69

By Jim Claflin


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We recently obtained a wonderful, large, detailed photograph of the Diamond Shoal Lightship No. 69 grounded at Creeds Hill, North Carolina in 1899, which prompted us to look more closely at the vessel’s history.

By 1800 mariners were already complaining to Congress about the difficulties navigating the treacherous waters off North Carolina. Diamond Shoals extend off Cape Hatteras in a southeasterly direction for roughly nine miles and include Hatteras Shoals, Inner Diamond Shoal, and Outer Diamond Shoal. With a covering of only three feet of water in places, Diamond Shoals is one of the most dreaded dangers on the Atlantic Coast.

The area has come to be known as “The Graveyard of the Atlantic”, and has been a deadly one for sailors for centuries. This stretch of shore is home to more than 600 shipwrecks off the constantly shifting sandbars. The first recorded shipwreck in the area was reported in 1526, off the mouth of Cape Fear River, while the most recent just last year in 2012.

In response to these dangers, the first lighthouse was completed on Cape Hatteras in 1803 to help mark the dangerous shoals, but neither this nor the later 1870, 187 foot (focal height) lighthouse, was sufficient to be seen far enough out to sea to warn mariners from the shoals.

The Lighthouse Board had earlier placed whistling buoys on the shoals but found it impossible to keep them in position. Thoughts of a lightship moored on the site were entertained, but the Board believed that anchoring a lightship would be even more troublesome than the buoys.

Finally in 1899 the Board satisfied itself that a lighthouse could be built and maintained on the shoals, and soon requested $500,000 from Congress to permanently mark the shoals. The lighthouse was to have a focal plane 150 feet above low water, contain eight stories, plus a watch room and lantern room, and be set atop a solid and massive foundation sunk into the shoal.

The contractors started constructing the iron caisson foundation and it was initially sunk in twenty-five feet of water. Over the next few days the caisson gradually settled into the shoal until by July 4, only five or six feet remained above the water. The contractors commenced increasing the height of the caisson until a storm on July 8 destroyed the caisson and ended this first attempt to build a lighthouse on Diamond Shoals. After repeated tries and more test borings, Congress finally directed that the remaining portion of the appropriation for Diamond Shoals Lighthouse be used for construction a lightship to be placed in the area and the remainder be returned to the treasury.

The first Cape Hatteras Lightship was stationed on the offshore shoals in 1824, where it remained until 1827 when it was blown ashore and wrecked near Ocracoke Inlet. In 30 months, storms had snapped the anchor chain three times. Twice her captain managed to bring her into Norfolk, where she spent a total of 16 months undergoing repairs. The third time, the storm drove her over the shoals and high onto the beach. The crew survived, but the lightship never floated again. The station then remained vacant, marked only by a buoy, for the next seventy years.

In 1897 Construction was begun on Lightship No. 69 at Bath Iron Works in Maine, at a cost of $79,500 and using monies in the 1889 lighthouse appropriation. The vessel was a steam screw design with composite hull (steel frame with wood bottom and steel plated topsides). She was 122’ 10” in length and displaced 590 tons. Her propulsion consisted of steam-one cylinder surface condensing engine, with a coal fired main boiler. She was equipped with a 4 bladed 8’ diameter propeller and could obtain a maximum speed of 8 ½ knots. She was also rigged for sail as a backup.

Her illuminating apparatus consisted of two masts with lantern galleries, each rigged with a cluster of three 100cp electric lens lanterns permanently mounted in a gallery at each masthead. Her fog signal consisted of a 12” steam chime whistle with a hand operated 1000-lb bell as backup. She was launched on January 17, 1897.

In August she was delivered to the Staten Island Lighthouse Depot, fitted out and supplied, and then towed to Portsmouth, Virginia, to receive a special submersible mooring buoy to relieve strain on the anchor chain. The special mooring arrangement was described as having the chain led thru center of a cubical mooring buoy at 45 fathoms, which when drawn under water would relieve the anchor from direct strain by the vessel. However, this innovation was found unsatisfactory in February 1898 when chain chafed through the hawsepipe of buoy, which then sank. The unit was replaced with 1st Class can buoy shackled on at 45 fathoms but this caused problems with vessel fouling the chain and buoy. A spherical buoy was then proposed and designed, but no results were recorded.

The new vessel was towed to Diamond Shoal station and positioned by Lighthouse Tender Maple at about midnight on September 29. She activated the lights by 0200 that same morning. Soon after arrival on station construction defects were discovered - deck leaks made the living quarters unusable; donkey boilers were improperly insulated and unusable due to fire hazard, and they were not adequate to power the fog signal. In addition, the electric plant was found to be inadequate.

On March 9, LV-69 was relieved for examination and repair by LV-71. During the brief time that LV-69 had been on station, 3,878 vessels were recorded as passing the lightship.

From May 23-September 18, 1898, LV-69 served as a lighthouse tender during Spanish American War (when the tender Maple was taken over by Navy), steaming 3,400 miles in the process. Upon release from the Navy, she was towed to Baltimore for overhaul, and replaced on Diamond Shoal on November 24, 1898.

1899 would be a fitful year for the crew of Light Vessel No. 69. From January to April 10th, she was dragged off station in gales no less than five times. The difficulty in anchoring a lightship on the shoals is demonstrated by the fact that LV-69 broke its anchor on January 8 and dragged her replacement anchor one mile on January 25, and again on February 1. But this would not be the last storm that the crew endured.

On August 15, 1899, a powerful hurricane had worked its way up the coast and began to buffet Cape Hatteras. Lighthousefriends.com notes that: “Captain Howling ordered the lightship’s main engine to full steam to relive the strain on the anchor chain. The monstrous seas stove in the skylight, broke the fire-room ventilator, and eventually drove the vessel off station. On August 17, after sounding and finding no bottom, Captain Howling decided to slip the anchor chain and give the vessel all possible steam. The lightship, however, was no match for the hurricane, and the vessel was driven ashore at Creeds Hill, four miles southwest of Cape Hatteras lighthouse, at 3:30 a.m. on August 18. The Creed Hills life-saving crew appeared on scene … and, with seas going completely over the vessel, safely removed the exhausted crew….”

The Annual Report of the Operations of the United States Life-Saving Services for the Fiscal Year Ending June 30, 1900 tells of the rescue of the crew best: Light Vessel No. 69 “Parted moorings during the terrible storm and stranded at 3.30 a.m. 1 mile SSW. of station. Surfmen hastened to the scene with the beach apparatus. They fired a shot line across the wreck and safely landed the crew of 9 men in the breeches buoy. Took them to station in a much exhausted condition and provided them with dry clothing from the supplies of the Women’s National Relief Association. They were succored at station until the next day, when, having recovered their strength, and the storm having abated, they boarded their vessel again. Wreckers were sent for, and efforts were made to save the vessel. On September 12, the weather being rough, the life savers assisted the crew to land, and succored them at station until the next day, when they were able to return to the wreck. On September 19 it was necessary for the crew to quit the wreck once more, and the station crew hauled them ashore. This time they stayed at the station until the 21st, and then went back on board. Soon afterwards the Merritt Wrecking Company succeeded in hauling her off the beach and towed her to Baltimore for repairs….”

The lightship crew was most appreciative of the efforts of the men of the Life-Saving Service that morning. In appreciation, the lightship crew penned the below letter to the men of the Creeds Hill station: (to) “CREEDS HILL LIFE-SAVING STATION, August 26, 1899. Sir: In behalf of the crew of the Diamond Shoal Lightship, No. 69, which stranded near Creeds Hill Life-Saving Station on the morning of August 18 in the hurricane from the southeast, we, the undersigned, wish to thank the Life-Saving Service for the timely assistance which was rendered us by the Creeds Hill life-saving crew….

At 5 a.m. we discovered the life-savers coming to our rescue. The weather was thick and rainy and blowing a hurricane. All hands were in the rigging and the seas were breaking completely over the vessel. We were all landed safely and taken to the station in an exhausted condition, where we were kindly treated by Captain H.W. Styron and his crew, for which we desire to tender our thanks. J.I. Bowling, Master; H.D. Ruley, Assistant Engineer; Jerry Perry, Fireman; Geo. H. Willis, Cook; Henry Addicks, Seaman.”

Note in the photo, the crew can be seen standing at the rail, except the cook, who appears to be on the foremast ratlines. Also quite visible are the clusters of lens-lanterns at each masthead.

The lightship was freed by the Chapman-Merritt Wrecking Company and towed to port at a cost of $15,000. After extensive repairs to underwater planking, boilers and machinery, LV-69 returned to Diamond Shoals on September 2, 1900.

LV-69 would serve on Diamond Shoals station until 1901, when she was transferred to Overfalls station (Delaware). She would serve on Overfalls until 1925, then to the Scotland station in New Jersey until 1936, when she was retired at age 40.

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Jim Claflin is a recognized authority on antiques of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, Life-Saving Service, Revenue Cutter Service and early Coast Guard. In addition to authoring and publishing a number of books on the subject, Jim is the owner of Kenrick A Claflin & Son Nautical Antiques. In business since 1956, he has specialized in antiques of this type since the early 1990s. He may be contacted by writing to him at 1227 Pleasant Street, Worcester, MA 01602, or by calling 508-792-6627. You may also contact him by email: jclaflin@LighthouseAntiques.net or visit his web site at: www.LighthouseAntiques.net

This story appeared in the Sep/Oct 2013 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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