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Few stories in North Carolina history are as filled with drama (or as oft-told) as that of the wreck in 1878 of the Metropolis. Built in 1861 and originally called the Stars and Stripes, the future Metropolis was outfitted for naval service in September 1862. Later that year she saw action in the Battle of Roanoke Island. Sold at auction after the war, the Metropolis was refitted for freight and passenger service but eventually fell into disrepair, rendering her inadequate for the lengthy trips. Nonetheless a Philadelphia company in January 1878 chartered the Metropolis to transport 215 workmen, iron rails, coal, and other supplies to Brazil to build a railroad.
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By the time the ship reached the Chesapeake Bay, the cargo was shifting dangerously causing seams in the hull to leak. The water overtook first the pumps, then the engines. The disabled ship was carried southward in the gale, parts of the vessel torn away by the heavy waves. At 6:45 AM on January 31, the Metropolis struck the shoals 100 yards from the beach at Currituck, halfway in between two lifesaving stations. Alarms were sounded and heroic efforts mounted but, with the weather conditions making maneuvering difficult, subsequent rescue attempts were ineffective. As the passengers on the Metropolis perceived the inevitable destruction of the ship, they began jumping overboard. In the water with dangerous debris, many were knocked unconscious or killed. The last of the survivors reached shore at dusk. Of the 245 passengers, eighty-five died in the wreck.
The legacy of the Metropolis is the legislation that it helped generate. Just two months prior, the USS Huron wrecked on the shoals at Nags Head with ninety-eight of 132 men aboard being casualties. The two wrecks, and the resulting outcry, captured the attention of Congress, which authorized construction of new stations, specifying that eleven should be in operation in North Carolina by the following winter. Today the ship’s boiler, crane arm, and hull lie in fifteen feet of water one hundred feet offshore, three miles south of the Currituck Lighthouse.
Joe A. Mobley, Ship Ashore!: The U.S. Lifesavers of Coastal North Carolina (1994)
Roderick M. Farb, Shipwrecks (1985)
Gary Gentile, Shipwrecks of North Carolina (1993)
Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, February 23, 1878
Dennis R. Means, “The Wreck of the Metropolis,” Prologue: Journal of the National Archives (Winter 1987)