The winter of 1877-1878 was one of the most tragic there ever was on the Outer Banks. Two ships ran aground in heavy seas—the USS Huron and the steamer Metropolis. The loss of life shocked the nation. Perhaps most tragically, the tragedies could have possibly been prevented.
The Huron was launched in 1875 and had already sailed almost around the world when she left port in Hampton Roads on November 23, 1877. Almost immediately the ship ran into heavy seas and encountered a storm moving up the coast from the south. Either a faulty compass or a slight error in navigation brought the ship too close to the Nags Head shoreline, and the ship ran aground 200 yards from the beach. The crew elected to stay with the ship—the seas were far too violent to chance and the crew may have thought aid would be coming from the recently completed lifesaving station just two miles away. However, inadequate funding from Congress had forced the Life-Saving Service to staff their stations seasonally, and the Nags Head crew was not due to be on site until December 1. Over the course of the morning hours the sea pounded the ship into an unrecognizable hulk as witnesses watched helplessly from the shore. Of a crew of 141, only 34 survived.
Unlike the Huron which was a well-founded ship with a professional crew, the Metropolis should never have left port. Built for the US Navy during the Civil War, the ship had been sold as surplus when the war ended. Years of shoddy maintenance and bribing to inspectors left the Metropolis unfit to sail, but that didn’t stop the owners from loading it with 500 tons of steel rails for a railroad and 215 passengers who would be laborers when the ship made port in Brazil. Leaving Philadelphia in late January 1878, the ship began encountering heavy seas as it passed Chesapeake. Caused either by the seas or improper loading, the 500 tons of rail shifted, causing some of the ship’s seams to leak. The captain, believing the pumps were strong enough to keep the water at bay, opted to continue sailing south. Sometime during the night, the pumps gave out and sea water flooded the engine.Now powerless, the ship was driven before the wind, and at 6:45 she ran aground just 100 yards from the Currituck beach. The nearest lifesaving station was five miles away, and by the time word reached the station and the crew had gathered their equipment to reach the wreck, five hours had passed. The lifesaving personnel, who were at that time political employees, were ill-trained and had rushed to the site without checking their equipment. As a consequence they were only able to make two attempts to run a line to the ship that would have allowed passengers to be brought to shore. Both attempts failed. Adding to the air of incompetence, Head Lifestation Keeper John Chappell had concluded that the seas were too rough for a surf boat, so there was nothing that could be done as the ship broke apart. It was perhaps a miracle that only 85 lives were lost.
The sinking of the Huron and Metropolis caused a national uproar. Change was already in the air of the U.S. Life-Saving Service. Sumner Kimball, superintendent of the Service, had presented his findings to Congress earlier that year, noting political cronyism, lack of training, and excessive distances between stations. The disasters and ensuing public outcry forced Congress to fully fund the U.S. Life-Saving Service and to do away with political appointees as lifestation keepers and crew. Congress also mandated that the Service would be a part of the Treasury—a move that eventually led to the absorption of the Life-Saving Service into the US Coastguard.