A Delayed Letter of Gratitude Opens New Doors in Lighthouse Research

By: Meghan Agresto, Currituck Beach Lighthouse Site Manager & Historian

After its illumination in 1875, the Currituck Beach Lighthouse supplied a need “long felt by the commerce of the country” after 56 vessels had gone ashore “in a period of less than twenty-two years.”[1] The tower was considered “one of the most important works constructed by the lighthouse department for a long time.”[2] Newspapers lamented its late arrival and extolled its benefit. Nevertheless, in the three years following its illumination, the Currituck Beach Lighthouse saw several major maritime tragedies. While blame was placed on many for the nearby wreck of the Metropolis in 1878, the lighthouse and its keepers were never implicated. Two years prior, however, a significant shipwreck took place along Currituck Beach, in part because the lighthouse itself had just been built.

Currituck Beach Light Station in 1941

This was news to us!

OBC recently gained access to digitized articles from the Baltimore Sun, which revealed a treasure trove of new information for us. Currituck Beach Lighthouse was part of the 5th district of the Light-House board, whose headquarters were in Baltimore so the finding these Baltimore Sun articles was, if you will, illuminating.

The Nuova Ottavia had enjoyed smooth sailing from Genoa, Italy almost all the way to Baltimore. The keepers journal from the rescue noted she was a “bark” (so 3-masted, but an 1876 Italian list of ships lost called the vessel a brigantine, so perhaps 2-masted) and from newspapers we learn she was sailing “in ballast” as she came west. The trip probably took the crew about 60 days[3], and it was not the first time the Nuova Ottavia had come to the U.S. However, on the night of March 1, 1876, just as she was approaching land, the “sea [was] rather rough and the surf rather high, heavy and winding.”[4] “Being unacquainted with the coast and unable to see the sun that day to take their observations, they mistook the Currituck light-house for the light at Cape Henry, and were on the proper course to clear it under that supposition; but they soon found out that they had miscalculated their locality and were in peril of their lives. The mate says the lighthouse, which is new, is not down on the old charts by which they were sailing.”[5]

On that date, the Currituck Beach Lighthouse was four-months old exactly, hardly enough time for a Notice to Mariners to have reached Genoa. Can you imagine? The lighthouse, which was meant to mark this sand bar very specifically, did – albeit in a storm – the exact opposite, for having just been built.

All the surfmen from the nearby Jones Hill Life Saving Station (#4 at the time) went out “in the life-boat, passing beautifully through the breakers.” All, that is, except one, who was absent from the station.George W. Wilson, who was working at the Currituck Beach Lighthouse at the time, “volunteered to go…[He] was a much stronger and more athletic man [than the Superintendent of Construction, Lewis, who had also volunteered], and presented himself… just as the boat got afloat.”[6] George Wilson was probably building the Keepers’ House – first framed in Baltimore[7] we just learned – given the date. The lighthouse was finished in 1875 and after its illumination, work on the Keepers Dwelling began and was finished in May, 1876.

All of the men who went out on the rescue died. This we knew.

But we knew nothing of the individual workers here, except that they had “rendered most useful assistance, and worked night and day, and it is hoped their services will be recognized in some official manner.”[8] A November 27, 1876 Baltimore Sun article that we had never seen before, detailed the apology of Lot Morrill, the Secretary of Treasury at the time, for not recognizing the brave crew at the Currituck Beach Lighthouse sooner:

The department deeply regrets that through inadvertence the noble conduct of the officers and men of the working party at the lighthouse has not received due official recognition, and desires now to express through you to Messrs. Lewis and Halstead, and to their associates, whose name are not known, its profound sense of their manly behavior, and the value of their self-denying labors upon the occasion referred to, sadly including in its appreciation their gallant comrade, George W. Wilson, who honorably died in the endeavor to save human life. LOT M. MORRILL Secretary of the Treasury.  The names of the employees at the lighthouse station referred to in Secretary Morrill’s letter as having rendered valuable assistance are as follows: Henry L. Tebbets, S. Bowers, L. H. Alton, John W. Cooper, Bennett R. Lawson, Wm. T. Kemp, George Clarke, George I Sauner, Wm. Wallace, Paul Leonard, W.C. Horner, V. M. Capps, Mesick O. Travers, Walter A. Travers, Henry Hubbard, John S. Dunlevy, A.N. Hurdle, Edmund Spry, Banister Hewell and Henry Miner.”

Twenty men, 18 of whom were unknown to us! We had known George W. Wilson’s name through the 1876 Treasury report, and also William Horner, whose signature can be found in the attic of the Keepers’ House: “William C. Horner, a German House Carpenter, of the City of Baltimore, Maryland residence No 6 Little George Street now finishing now finishing (sic) up this jobb (sic). May 8 1876 – WC Horner.”  

But, eighteen men who might all tell us tales – that’s big! Here’s what we’ve learned from them so far: Almost all were from Baltimore. We can’t find census records for every one of them, but none, except one, had a local last name – and that one is Edmond Spry. We don’t know for sure if Edmond is a local Curritucker, but because of his last name, it seems likely. And like most things that solve mysteries, it does bring up new questions: what was the role of the lone, likely-local, non-officer person listed?

Another question the list of workers brings up is: was this the same group of men who were the “working party” that constructed the lighthouse tower itself?  We found a clue that perhaps they were, thanks to knowing the names of the working party men! According to genealogical records, Henry Tebbets – the first man listed – named his son born in 1876 “Dexter Stetson Tebbets.” Dexter Stetson was the Superintendent of Construction here during the construction of this tower, whose employment ended on December 1, 1875 when the lighthouse was illuminated. Presumably Henry Tebbets had great respect for the man, perhaps from having worked with him here on site in 1875 building the tower!

And of course, following the life of Henry Tebbets through online primary sources, brings up another question: did Tebbets also work on the St. Augustine tower, a twin to Currituck finished in 1874? Soon after working here, Henry Tebbets moved right outside St. Augustine, Florida according to the 1880 census. It’s not definitive evidence, but perhaps he moved there because he had been there working before! In other words, is this a clue that the working 5th District Baltimore-based working parties traveled traveling outside the 5th District to build these near-twin towers for the US Light-House Board? We’ll keep trying to learn more.

After the shipwreck of Nuova Ottavia, the Consul General of Italy sent $408 in gold to the families of the all the surfmen (and George W. Wilson) who died in the rescue. A Baltimore Sun article from July 15th of that year tells us it was

“…to be distributed to the families of the life-saving crew on Currituck beach, N.C., who lost their lives while attempting to rescue the crew of the Italian bark Nuova Ottavia, March 1, 1876. … Thus, all of the seven gallant men who went to the rescue perished together with nine of the thirteen Italians.”

(We hope to tell you more about these men later. Through the work of William Thiesen, Atlantic Area Historian for the United States Coast Guard, we knew that one of these seven gallant men was the first African American to die in a rescue in the Life Saving Service, but it seems from articles we found that the crew of Station #4 may have had two African Americans working there and dying in the Nuova Ottavia Rescue. Please let us know if you know anything about a man named Lewis/Louis White!)

This wreck, and perhaps the Italian gold, brought national attention to the low pay and bravery of the surfmen of the US Life Saving Serivce. A December 1876 article (from a Tennessee newspaper no less – the Clarksville Weekly…) reports, “The subject of proper compensation for the keepers of life-saving stations also deserves serious consideration. Unless an adequate compensation is provided for these officers, the services must inevitably suffer, and the country be disgraced…”

After the wreck, the four Italian survivors went to Norfolk by steamer and then on to New York but the dead crew members were buried near the lighthouse.

“[T]hose of the ships company lost were Capt Bazzo Davide; Francisco Bozzo, cook Luigi Peracio, Luigi Cogliolo, Antonio Parelo, Bosco Lara, Lorenzo Consigliere, Guiseppe Crovetto and a little son of the captain, aged thirteen years, making nine. The bodies of five of these were recovered and were buried on the beach, which is now strewn with the wreck of the bark for twenty miles.”

A March 4th, 1876 entry in a journal of Life Saving Station #5, stored at the National Archives in Atlanta, tells us that the workers here at the lighthouse “furnished coffins for all the sailors + … the same assistance to those drowned being in the L.S. Service.”

When bodies from wrecks washed up Currituck’s beach could be transported home, they were (though not always immediately), but that was probably not the case for the Italian dead after the Nuova Ottavia. After the wreck of the Huron a year later, an article in the New York Daily Herald[9] tells us that bodies of shipwreck victims were at first buried at the poles on the telegraph pole road. While we have often heard and read about shipwrecked victims being buried on the beach (and even stories locals coming upon them later), this we did not know:

“All the bodies were buried at the poles of the government telegraph line, the poles being numbered systematically, the number of miles from Norfolk being designated by numerals and the poles in each mile by Roman Characters…” and “[a]ll the bodies recovered were in an advanced state of decomposition, rendering metallic cases necessary for transportation.”

It’s incredible what these original sources can teach us, and we always want to know more! If you have more information about those involved in the Nuova Ottavia, or have corrections to this, we would love to hear from you!

[1] 1874 Annual Report of the Light-House Board and The Wilmington Morning Star· 21 Dec 1875

[2] The Baltimore Sun (Baltimore, Maryland) · 13 Sep 1875, Mon · Page 4

[3] 1874 May 24 New York Herald p. 12

[4] Annual Report of the Secretary of the Treasury, 1876

[5] Baltimore Sun, March 9, 1876, p.1 (emphasis added)

[6] Annual Report of the Secretary of the Treasury, 1876

[7] The Norfolk Virginian (Norfolk, Virginia) · 25 Dec 1875, Sat · Page 1

[8] Annual Report of the Secretary of the Treasury, 1876

[9] NY Daily Herald 12/19/1877 p3

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