A few years ago Ocracoke natives Philip Howard and his cousin Blanche Howard Jolliff gave me a typewritten manuscript of one woman’s account of the great 1899 hurricane on Ocracoke Island. The woman’s name was Irla Bonner Litchfield Ticknor and she was 19 years old when the hurricane swept across the North Carolina coast.
Irla Bonner Litchfield– she later married the Rev. Henry W. Ticknor, an Episcopal minister– was from Aurora, a village on South Creek, a tributary of the Pamlico River, 40 miles west of Ocracoke Island. She and her family were on holiday at an Ocracoke boardinghouse when the hurricane hit.
The devastation left on Ocracoke by Hurricane Dorian made me remember Mrs. Ticknor’s account of the 1899 hurricane. I’m going to print it in full here, and at the end I’ll add a few background notes on the people, places and incidents that she mentioned in her account.
The flooding from the 1899 “San Ciriaco” Hurricane was some of the worst on Ocracoke in the last two centuries, with water levels comparable only to the great hurricanes of 1846, 1933 and now Dorian.
The 1899 storm destroyed all but a few of the village’s houses. The floodwaters also washed away two churches, a pair of schoolhouses, at least one boatyard and most of the village’s few stores. Water covered the island for three days.
The Ocracokers recovered from the 1899 storm, and I know they will recover from Dorian, too.
I’ve edited Mrs. Ticknor’s punctuation and capitalization in a few places, and I’ve also broken up her paragraphs so they’re a bit shorter.
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THE STORM AT OCRACOKE
Thursday, August 17, 1899
By Irla Bonner Litchfield
(Mrs. Henry W. Ticknor)
On Tuesday, August 15, Mr. Tavie Hooker sent over to see if Miss Bessie and I wanted to go fishing. We went over to Mrs. Helen’s and took breakfast and then went fishing in Trout Slough. After we had been fishing awhile, a squall came up; we hadn’t time to get to the house so we crowded together and Mr. Hooker put the sail over us.
It rained and blew and got so dark we could hardly see anything. Miss Bessie had been sitting nearer the front and was right wet. I was dry. We saw it was likely to rain all day so Mr. Hooker took up the sail to fix it and emptied about a gallon of water in my shoes.
It was still raining and blowing but we got back all right—just a little wet and cold.
Instead of the clouds dispersing, they kept gathering. By night it was blowing a gale. The next morning (Wednesday) the wind blew the ocean water on us. The beach was covered and we were expecting a big storm. Minnie, Blanchard and myself put all of the wood on the side piazza. Some said there was no need, but it proved to be a wise thing.
The captain of the Annie Wahab took his boat and went away to get out of the storm. All of the little boats were pulled up except one of Captain Bragg’s pilot boats which he left out in case one was needed.
The Willis of Durham’s Creek and the Helen Roxy of Ocracoke were the only boats anchored there. The Willis took a crowd down from Washington [N.C.] and they were staying on her.
All were on the island now except six men. They were so frightened they didn’t know what to do. All day long Wednesday they waved for men to go after them. Captain Bragg said if he could get four men to go with him that knew how to sail a boat he would go. Cousin Bonner offered to go, but he didn’t know enough to do any good.
All day we watched the Willis dragging her anchor. While standing at the window upstairs Minnie and I saw the topmast break. It looked like the masts would break out at any minute.
The rigging was torn loose and flying in the wind. We watched until it was so dark we couldn’t see her.
No one had any idea any of them could live through such a storm. The same evening we watched the Roxy go out. She was going in a hurry, her head would go clean under the water. There was only one person on her, and he was a boy. The boy’s father could see him but couldn’t get to him.
Thursday morning the wind was blowing harder and it was raining faster. Cousin Bonner came over to see how we were getting along. He found us better than he expected.
Mr. Hooker went from us to Miss Helen’s all day until evening; then he got to Mrs. Hooker’s and couldn’t get away.
That morning (Thursday) the wind changed around and blew the sound water on us. We watched the water creep up nearer and nearer. The ocean water was rising steadily too. At last it began to creep under the fence on the ocean side and then on the other side.
It was exactly in front of the door. Then it kept rising slowly until it was almost even with the piazza floor.
The families that lived near the shore had to leave their homes Thursday morning, all except the ones that left Wednesday.
Mr. Taylor and his wife with their seventeen boarders were taken in boats and carried by us over to Mrs. Styron’s.
There was one woman that went there and it didn’t suit her so she took her two little children and a great big box and started over to Mrs. Hooker’s. Her poor little children were up to their necks in water and were crying and shivering, and she let them go the best they could.
She had a large box and we were wondering what was in it.
After we pulled the boy and girl into the house she ordered a room to put dry clothes on her children. She got the much-desired room and while she was dressing I heard cats mewing; about that time Mrs. Hooker said, “I hear a cat.”
That got Maggie and I laughing; but when Minnie heard them she couldn’t stand that. So we kicked the box and turned the wet things out.
Later we kicked them under the house, and as I kicked one that white headed boy kicked me as hard as he could. I started to pop his head off but thought in time so I just tapped him a little.
Although the water and wind were rising I never thought of being scared. Thursday evening Mrs. Styron’s house was about to go down so Mr. Hooker moved the whole crowd over with us.
As darkness came on the wind and rain increased. We couldn’t see a thing, and everything in the house except babies were perfectly quiet. Poor little Minnie was coiled on a corner of the bed expecting to be washed away.
Mrs. Hooker read a chapter in the Bible, then Miss G. Styron prayed, then Mrs. Booker.
The house was rocking and the water was sloshing just like a boat. I wasn’t scared then until I heard Miss Bessie Bell say, “Are you thinking about moving us again, Mr. Hooker?”
Then I felt a cold streak run down my back. He said he was thinking about taking us over on the hills at Springer’s Point.
The water was rising then very fast. It was in a corner where it hadn’t been before.
In a few minutes from the time it came in, Minnie told me to look in the hole and see how fast it was rising. I looked and almost hollered, “It is all out.”
They couldn’t believe me at first, but had to lower the lantern down there and see for themselves—there was nothing but sand and shells.
I thought we were all right then, but if we had started to those hills we would have all been lost.
From eight until ten o’clock nobody but the ones that were there could realize how awful it was. At about ten o’clock it calmed down. We all went out on the piazza and watched the water go out.
After a little while it commenced to rain again, but oh so different from before.
We knew that the danger was over. At fifteen minutes after eleven Minnie got herself something to eat—the first she had had in her mouth since breakfast.
Part had to stand up all night and when daybreak came it wasn’t much better. The boarders stayed all day and also that night. One lady from Greenville had a sick baby and had to walk it nearly all night.
Friday we saw a boat over on Portsmouth [across the inlet]. We saw the Willis but thought all of the men were lost so nobody went to them. Friday we saw a signal of distress on her, then the life men [a crew from the Portsmouth Lifesaving Station] went to her.
Four men were saved, though two were in critical condition. We watched the lifeboat go out and come back. It looked like it couldn’t live through such a thing.
The little boy on the Roxy jumped off and waded ashore. He came shouting.
Saturday morning we started out to see what damage was done. I hope never to see such a wreck again. Captain Bragg’s [boat] yard is just ruined. There was only six whole houses left on Ocracoke. Saturday evening we started to go on the beach but spied [the schooners] Cobb and Brant coming so we had rather go to them. Sunday there was a general leaving. Over a hundred people left on the steamer. The Cobb, Brant and Annie Wahab left with a crowd.
A FEW BACKGROUND NOTES
The Annie Wahab was a 3-masted schooner built by Capt. Tillman Farrow and his enslaved African American laborers on Ocracoke before the Civil War. One of her captains was a local legend, Capt. Tom Gaskins, born on Ocracoke in 1854. The Brant was also a local schooner, sailed by Walter Gaskill. The Cobb likewise was a schooner, but she sailed out of Aurora, on the mainland, not Ocracoke.
Brothers C. A. Litchfield and T. A. Litchfield owned the Cobb. They were shipping merchants and fish house owners based in Aurora, Irla Bonner Litchfield Ticknor’s hometown on the other side of the Pamlico Sound. I presume that they were somehow related to her.
The Helen Roxy, also mentioned by Mrs. Ticknor, was a 38-ft sailing vessel from Elizabeth City, N.C., maybe a sharpie. Maritime records indicate she was built in Branford, Conn. in 1877.
The steamer that Mrs. Ticknor mentions could have been any number of excursion vessels that ran holiday parties between Little Washington, N.C., and Ocracoke in the summertime. Ocracoke did not have anything like the tourism industry it does today, but even in 1899 the little village was home to an inn or two and several boardinghouses. Most visitors came from the town of Washington, N.C. and other communities on the Tar and Pamlico River.
At least one of those excursion steamers, the Ocracoke, ran regularly between Washington and Ocracoke, with a stop at Belhaven on the way.
The vessel that ran aground and got into so much trouble was the small schooner L. A. Willis, Capt. R. S. Griffin. She was trying to ride out the storm with a party of nine passengers and three crewmen from Washington, N.C.
When the storm hit, she parted two anchor chains and drifted three miles. She finally went aground on Dry Point Shoal and began to take in water.
As the hold filled with water, the desperate passengers secured themselves in the schooner’s rigging. One, George Buckman, drowned, and the vessel’s cook, an African American man named Henry Blango, died on deck “of exhaustion and was washed overboard,” according to a U.S. Lifesaving Service report.
The survivors went 3 days and nights without food and water. The crew of a surfboat from the Portsmouth Lifesaving Station eventually spied signs of life on the vessel while on their way to answer a distress signal from a “lay boat.”
The lay boat’s usual job was shuttling passengers between excursion steamers and the village of Ocracoke.
The boat’s captain and his wife had put out a distress signal after the lay boat had come aground on Hog Shoal and broke in half.
The “Capt. Bragg” that Mrs. Ticknor mentions several times was Capt. Gary Bragg (1881-1954), a ship’s pilot, waterfowl hunter and schooner captain who was engaged in the West Indian and coastwise trade for many years. His waterfowl decoys are highly prized by collectors today.
A couple place names: Durham’s Creek is a tributary of the Pamlico River, a little west of South Creek, where Mrs. Ticknor’s hometown of Aurora is.
Springers Point , where Mrs. Ticknor’s party was considering making a last ditch stand, is a wooded knoll at the south end of Ocracoke. It is best known for having been the closest point of the island to where the English pirate called Blackbeard was killed in 1718.
Special thanks to Philip Howard and Blanche Howard Jolliff for sharing Mrs. Ticknor’s account with me. To learn more about Ocracoke’s history and the aftermath of hurricane Dorian, be sure to check out Philip’s blog Ocracoke Island Journal. To support disaster relief and recovery on Ocracoke, you can make donations to the Outer Banks Community Foundation. In addition to supporting the OBCF, I’m also making a special donation to my friend and fellow writer Alton Ballance’s gofundme campaign to restore The Crew’s Inn, one of my favorite places on the Outer Banks.