Ocracoke nature, flora & fauna

Coal on Ocracoke’s beach

January 2015
By Ken Gliesman

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Coal found on Ocracoke beach.  Photo by P. Vankevich

Over the years, I’ve found many pieces of coal on the beaches of Hatteras Island, Ocracoke Island and Portsmouth Island. I have little doubt that the chunks of coal are spread from Cape Henry in Virginia to Cape Lookout, NC, and probably beyond. The coal seems to be the most concentrated in the bight of Hatteras Island to the south end of Ocracoke Island.

Many decades ago I purchased a map at a National Park Service gift shop titled “Ghost Fleet of the Outer Banks,” (originally published in National Geographic Magazine in 1970) and it still hangs on my office wall.  It shows hundreds of vessels sunk by various means from Cape Henry to the Cape Lookout area. Typically the weather is to blame for most of the shipwrecks.  However, shifting sand, clashing currents, German U-boats and piracy are among the other reasons.

Since coal does not occur in a natural geologic setting anywhere near the Outer Banks, it must come from the myriad of shipwrecks.  One of the Civil War’s innovations in technology created coal-fired boilers to produce steam pressure to move paddlewheels and propellers. Could any of the coal be from the U.S. Monitor, probably the most famous of the American Civil War “Ironclad” ships that sunk in a storm near Hatteras in 1862?  The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum near the ferry landing in Hatteras Village has a piece of coal on display that was recovered by divers, along with the many other artifacts. The Monitor lies approximately 16 nautical miles SSE of the “Point” in a protected marine sanctuary.

Perhaps the coal came from a less famous steamship, such as the General Lyon, that went down in a blazing inferno during a hurricane in 1865. Maybe it’s from a merchant ship sunk by a German U-boat during World War II. Between January and July of 1942 there were over 397 vessels sunk or damaged in this manner, as the area off Cape Hatteras was a popular spot for German U-boat commanders. The area has been given the nickname “Torpedo Junction.

It’s also possible that the coal came from one of the many ships such as the Chas. M. Patterson, Albert Schultz or the Robert W. Dasey that carried cargos of coal and went down in the famous San Ciriaco Hurricane that ravaged the Outer Banks between August 16 and 181899.

The George W. Wells had its hull ripped apart at the seams as it was driven ashore by hurricane force winds on Ocracoke on Sept.13, 1913. The Wells was built in 1900 for the American East Coast coal trade and typically carried coal, lumber and other merchandise. The Wells was a six-master schooner that today lies somewhere on the beach just north of the Ocracoke Pony Pen. Depending on the moods of Mother Nature, it can be covered or uncovered with sand. See Pat Garber’s article published in the Island Free Press.

The coal is the anthracite variety, or hard coal. It has a high luster with the highest carbon content, fewest impurities and the highest calorific content of all the coals. anthracite burns cleanly with little soot. It’s well known that Civil War Confederate blockade runners used anthracite as a smokeless fuel for their ship’s boilers to avoid giving away their positions to the Union blockaders. It probably was originally mined in mortheast Pennsylvania in the famous coal district known for its anthracite. A lot of the natural luster has been worn off because of the scouring action of the sand which typically frosts the coal as with beach glass.

We’ll never know exactly where the piece of coal that you might see while beach combing on Ocracoke comes from. I’m not sure that knowing the exact truth would be as exciting as considering the many possibilities. The historical records indicate that there are more than 600 sunken ships in this unique area known as “The Graveyard of The Atlantic.”  Many of the remnants can be seen today both on land and by divers.

Copyright © Ken Gliesman 2014 For comments or questions: kgliesman@charter.net

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Ken Gliesman lives in Sturbridge, Mass., but has been visiting Ocracoke Island and the Outer Banks since 1973. For the last 15 years, beachcombing and snorkeling have become his favorite ways to get exercise and to continue learning about many of the natural wonders of the unique and ever changing shoreline. Ken also has a strong interest in geology and mineralogy and currently serves as the treasurer of the Worcester Mineral Club.