The public will soon see the Hatteras Museum’s long-stored artifacts
By Coastal Review on April 17, 2022
HATTERAS — One day, about two years ago, a plastic-wrapped shoebox arrived at the Cemetery of the Museum of the Atlantic. Inside was a manual, written in German and stained orange with diesel fuel. Spookily, it included maps of the North Carolina coast, marked with the location of lighthouses.
With $4.2 million earmarked in this year’s state budget to fabricate and install the Hatteras Museum exhibits, the public could soon see the relic of the horrific Battle of the Atlantic, along with hundreds of ‘Other Historic Maritime Artifacts Never Seen. Bids for the exhibition plan should be launched soon.
“I’m so happy this is being done for Hatteras and North Carolina,” North Carolina Maritime Museums Director Joseph Schwarzer said, referring to the museum’s completion that was inspired decades ago. to preserve the maritime history of the Outer Banks, “because it matters. Once you lose it, you never get it back.
Standing earlier this year in the air-conditioned area behind the museum’s gallery, Schwarzer explained that the bundle of artifacts came from an anonymous diver who had retrieved documents from the wardroom of U-85, a German submarine. torpedoed off Nags Head in April. 1942 – the first American submarine sunk by the US Navy during World War II.
“They had all these books on the shelf,” the director said recently, showing the manual sent by the diver. “Luckily he put it in the freezer.”
“Good stories, and there are many”
Schwarzer was surrounded by remains of many other amazing artifacts that will soon be moved from storage to display space, ranging from trash to whole exhibits and commemorating centuries of dramatic maritime history off the Outer Banks that encompasses piracy, colonization, wars and thousands of shipwrecks, as well as the history shown through its inhabitants – US Life-Saving Service lifeguards, lighthouses and lifesaving stations, commercial and recreational fishing, diving and recovery, and the northeast and hurricanes.
“The point is, there’s nothing here that isn’t historically significant,” Schwarzer said. “It comes down to ‘Let us tell our story.’ These are good stories, and there are plenty of them. As an example, he pointed to the stockpiled equipment that had been used by the US Coast Guard to carry out the last rescue with a breeches buoy, a type of seat developed by the salvage service to transport the castaways ashore.This artifact, along with the Lyle gun that fired the line used to transport it, was interesting to see, but the saga then made it so much more.
In the story summarized by Schwarzer, the Honduran freighter Omar Babun was transiting off the coast near Rodanthe, bound for Havana, Cuba, loaded with heavy equipment for a steel mill. The ship was caught in a gale and ran aground on May 14, 1954. The Coast Guard rescued all 14 crew with the breeches buoy.
The juiciest part happened after the ship ran aground. According to an August 2, 1954, Time magazine article, a Buick dealership in Havelock named Esveld “Nip” Canipe, after flying over the ship in a charter plane, decided to save the 194-foot Omar Babun, with an agreement with the insurance company that he would receive 30% of the value of the recovered cargo.
Miraculously, Canipe and a team of around 30 men, including 25 skeptical Outer Bankers, constructed a route to the ship and managed – with barely and with great effort – to pull the cargo ashore. Canipe then refloated the Babun and brought her to Norfolk harbour. He expected to make about $100,000 in profit, out of the estimated $40,000 cost of the salvage operation, according to the article.
Meanwhile, Babun’s captain, who “may or may not have been working for the CIA,” Schwarzer said, then had one of his boats intercepted by the Cuban government, which may have been unhappy with the cargo not delivered. Another interesting piece of information is that Cuban leader Raul Castro is said to have lived in the captain’s former home in Cuba.
“It’s a wreck of nothing, but when you dive into it, there are all of these aspects,” Schwarzer said.
And that’s what makes Schwarzer so excited to finally be able to finish the work of exhibiting at the museum – the long-hidden artifacts can now tell the stories.
A long incomplete but popular attraction
The genesis of the cemetery at the Museum of the Atlantic dates back to 1986, when the villagers of Hatteras decided it would make sense to have a facility to house artifacts from the wreckage of the Civil War-era Monitor that had been discovered a decade earlier off their village. Most of the items salvaged from the battleship ended up going to the Mariner’s Museum in Newport, Va., but given that an estimated 2,000 or more ships are thought to have been wrecked off the North Carolina coast, mostly along the Outer Banks, the concept of a shipwreck museum nevertheless gained momentum.
In 1999, ground was broken on the proposed $7 million facility, located on a 7-acre site owned by the National Park Service on the south end of Hatteras Island. Initial costs were provided by project partners, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Park Service.
The museum opened to the public in 2003 with changing exhibits, albeit an incomplete exhibition space. The 19,000 square foot museum has proven to be a popular attraction. It was transferred to the state in 2007, joining the system’s maritime museums at Beaufort and Southport. Although NOAA had previously provided $600,000 for the design of an exhibit, the estimated costs for the design of the exhibit started at around $2.5 million and continued to increase over the years and they remained unfunded.
the exhibition planestimated at $4.2 million, was approved last year.
Named in honor of the nickname given to Diamond Shoals, the treacherous area off Hatteras Island where for centuries several hundred ships were wrecked, the cemetery of the Atlantic Museum is dedicated to the preservation not only of shipwrecks , but to the 400 years of maritime history and culture of the Outer Banks.
The museum, which is free to visit and located across from the Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry docks at the tip of Hatteras Island, has featured new themed exhibits on a seasonal basis and offers year-round programs, including popular scavenger hunts for families.
Although incomplete, the museum already has many detailed exhibits in its vast gallery, on the subject of fishing, diving, the Civil War, World War I, World War II, piracy, salvage, Native Americans and storms. Artifacts on display include Civil War battle flags and clothing, the bell from the Diamond Shoals lightship, an Enigma decoding machine recovered from a submarine, the original telegram sent by the Titanic which was discovered in the wall of the nearby weather station, and the partially restored original Fresnel lens of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.
There is also a large window in part of the gallery where visitors can view the collection of artifacts, which Schwarzer says totals over 100,000 objects, in storage, with selected highlights shot in front of the window.
In addition to state appropriation, the museum depends on the $50,000 to $60,000 a year in donations the public gives at the door, as well as funds raised by the nonprofit Friends Group of the museum, for programming and maintenance purposes.
Once the installation is complete, the hope is that members of the community, many of whom have lived on the island for generations and whose family roots go back centuries, will donate valuable items, said Danny Couch, president of the group of friends of the museum.
“We know they’re there,” Couch said, adding that the problem is providing assurance that the artifacts will find a suitable home. “We know we can do it.”
In the past, Couch said, there have been instances where community members have entrusted their family’s memorabilia after promises were made, but the items were never seen again.
“It’s going to continue to be a sell-out to the local community, to make sure the comfort level is there,” he said.
Couch said he’s just happy that after years of struggling to complete the museum, they can now breathe easier and focus on programming rather than fundraising.
“It’s such a feeling of relief,” he said. “After sailing around the world and arriving in port, we are finally docked.”