Become an underwater archaeologist for the at the USS Huron Historic Shipwreck Preserve in Wilmington, North Carolina. Pull on some snorkeling gear and explore the remnants and treasures of this post-Civil War shipwreck. The North Carolina Office of State Archeology Department oversees the preservation of the USS Huron and her watery grave off the coast of Nags Head.
The USS Huron was constructed ten years after the conclusion of the Civil War. The navy was in a transition after the conflict between the states. The building practices and materials employed prior to the start of the war were evolving and advancing. USS Huron and two “sister ships” were the final naval vessels to be built using iron and sails. Ships after the Civil War were constructed from steel and no longer needed the aid of sails to provide movement if the steam engines were damaged.
The USS Huron floated through the water for only two years, from 1875-1877. While a working ship, she traveled to Venezuela, Key West, Mexico, Boston, New York, Charleston, Norfolk, Columbia and Washington D.C. The USS Huron sunk on November 24, 1877. The sea going vessel was 175 feet long and carried a crew of 118 sailors and 16 officers. She was powered by a steam engine which included five coal boilers and a 12 foot in diameter propeller. The massive ship also bore three masts and five canons.
The USS Huron set sail for Havana, Cuba from Virginia on November 23, 1877. The ship experienced a problem with its’ compass during a heavy thunderstorm and ran aground at Nags Head. Although the ship was approximately 200 yards from the safety of the shore, few of the crew attempted to reach land. The shipwreck occurred at 1:30 in the morning, with the combination of darkness and cold water temperatures hastening any thoughts of a successful swim to the beach. Unfortunately for the crew, lifesaving stations along Nags Head were closed until December, so their plight looked dimmer as they waited for the help which would never come.
The crew fought against enormous waves as they tried to signal for help on the ship’s deck. According to historical records, a single wave was responsible for knocking a dozen sailors into the dark and tumultuous waters. Almost 100 men lost their lives due to exposure or drowning before the much anticipated light of dawn cast along Nags Head.
The United States federal government was plagued with criticism in the weeks and months that followed the sinking of the USS Huron. Both sailors and citizens in general believed that if the United States Lifesaving Service had received sufficient funding, the station would have been open and thus the lives of the crew spared. In January of 1878 a steamship called Metropolis ran aground less than 25 miles north of the USS Huron shipwreck. A sailing crew of 85 men drowned as a result of the second accident less, than 60 days after the crew of the USS Huron met a watery grave. Due to public pressure the United States Congress voted to approve legislation to build more lifesaving stations along the coast of North Carolina, and increase the dates of operation for all stations.
USS Huron Shipwreck Preserve
The USS Huron Shipwreck Preserve is 250 yards from the beach at Nags Head and is open for public diving and snorkeling. Buoys visible during warm weather months mark the bow and stern of the ship. A mp of the wreck site shows an image of the remains of the ship and guides snorkelers to points of interest on the wreckage. Once your eyes become acclimated to the fogginess of the water, you will discover the cannonball racks, engine boiler, lower hull, the rudders and propellers.
Machinery and canons which were once housed about the USS Huron were salvaged by diving crews during the late 1870’s. Divers will have to look closely when swimming over many portions of the ship to realize exactly what part of the USS Huron they are traversing. Over the decades a thick layer of marine growth and concretion have covered some of the structural features of the vessel. The dive is never the same experience twice, thanks to the shifting of loose sand because the shipwreck is so close to the shore.
Forget about picking the bones of the ship, unless you want to pay a hefty fine. Both North Carolina state law and federal laws protect the disturbance of shipwreck artifacts, without a permit. The state Underwater Archeology Department does encourage snorkelers to note the location any “unusual or important” artifacts they see and alert them. The USS Huron is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.