Wreckage May Be That of "Crissie Wright"

Carteret News-Times, Wednesday, June 8, 2011
Cheryl Burke
1939 Post Office Mural by Simka Simkhovitch Portrays Crissie Wright 

BEAUFORT — A nonprofit marine archaeology company here thinks it may have found a legendary shipwreck off Shackleford Banks.

Rob Smith, president of Surface Interval Dive Co., based in Beaufort, said he believes his company has found the three-masted schooner Crissie Wright, which ran aground and partially sank in shallow water off Shackleford Banks on Jan. 8, 1886, near the now-vanished community of Wade’s Shore. All but one of its crew perished in the wreck.

“I’d been looking for the wreck on and off for the last 12 years,” he said Tuesday. “Then in April we found a debris field. And on our last trip on May 29 our magnetometer started singing like Ethel Merman. Our readings showed a large wreck and it’s in the right location. I’m 85 percent sure it’s Crissie Wright.”

Mr. Smith said his company discovered the wreck largely because of information about the location of the Wade’s Shore graveyard, provided by archeological consultant Dave Moore, who is also the curator of nautical archaeology at the N.C. Maritime Museum in Beaufort. Historical records indicate the wreck was located due south of that graveyard.

Based on that information, SIDCO researchers found the large wreck where expected, just outside a surf line, about 8 to 10 feet below the surface and buried in sand.

Mr. Smith said he plans to have a partner salvage company assist with removing sand from the site and using diagnostic equipment to help confirm the wreck’s identity. He hopes that will take place during the summer.

Mr. Moore, who has done extensive research on Crissie Wright and is in the process of completing a research paper and book on her history, said it wouldn’t surprise him if the ship were indeed the Crissie Wright.

“When you compare all of the personal accounts and wreck accounts in papers and folklore, the wreck is in a high probability area,” Mr. Moore said. “All of the accounts agree on the ship’s location.”

Based on his research, which includes numerous newspaper clippings and other historical documents, Mr. Moore said Crissie Wright was a merchant schooner that was carrying a cargo of guano from Baltimore, Md., to Savannah, Georgia. It got caught in a bad storm off Cape Lookout and was trying to reach safer harbor near Beaufort, but couldn’t make it.

The ship made it close enough to shore that the seven-man crew, which had survived the partial sinking, could be seen by a crowd gathered on the beach. But seas were too rough for fishermen to reach them, and temperatures began to drop into the single digits.

Those on shore built bonfires in preparation of receiving the crewmembers, but it wasn’t until three days later that anyone could reach the ship.

During those few days, crewmembers, soaked and freezing, attempted to climb into the rigging to avoid being swept out to sea. At least three crewmembers either fell or were swept out to sea, and the others began freezing.

By the time rescuers reached the crew, they found only one survivor – and he was barely alive. He was under the rigid bodies of three other shipmates, all of them wrapped in a sail.

The three are buried in a common grave in the Old Burying Ground in Beaufort, and the story of Crissie Wright has become famous county folklore.

The scene of the wreck was immortalized in a mural in the former Beaufort Post Office and in a county saying related to frigid temperatures: “Cold as the night Crissie Wright went ashore.”

Mr. Moore said his research shows that indeed much of the nation was in a deep freeze during those fateful days, including Eastern North Carolina.

“One account says that in New Bern they had to rescue people from a rowboat because the river had iced up around them,” Mr. Moore said. “And nearly 200 ships wrecked along the Eastern Seaboard during that storm. It was huge.”

Mr. Moore said he has also located a surviving family member of a crewman who died during the tragic event.

As for Mr. Smith, he’s excited about finding the wreck, but is cautiously optimistic that it is Crissie Wright.

“I don’t normally jump to conclusions, but I’m pretty certain it is. Even if it’s not, it’s still a major wreck discovery.”