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In 1873 Congress authorized the construction of eight new warships. Among them was the Huron, one of the last three iron warships constructed by the United States Navy (the navy began building ships of steel in 1882). Construction of the ship began in 1873 at the Delaware River Shipbuilding Company in Chester, Pennsylvania. It was commissioned on November 15, 1875, as a third-rate gunboat, meaning she carried a third less armament than a first-rate ship. In her first two years the Huron served with the North Atlantic Squadron and in Mexican waters surveying the northern coast of South America and the Lesser Antilles.
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After undergoing a series of repairs, the Huron departed from New York in November 1877, bound for Havana. The ship stopped at Hampton Roads to get supplies and continued on for Cuba on November 23. Commander George P. Ryan chose to sail close to the coast of North Carolina to prevent having to travel against the Gulf Stream or taking the time to maneuver a route beyond the current. That night rough seas and dense fog hindered the officers’ ability to navigate the treacherous coastline. After passing Currituck Lighthouse and before reaching the Bodie Island light, the Huron came too close to the shore and ran aground near Nags Head around 1:30 A.M. Although the closest lifesaving station was only two miles away, it was closed until December so there was no one to come to the aid of the sailors. Some of the men braved the heavy surf, strong currents, and cold temperatures and thirty-six made it to the shore about 200 yards from the wreck. Ninety-eight of the 134 men on board lost their lives that morning.
Two months later, eighty-five men died when the Metropolis ran aground twenty-three miles north of where the Huron accident occurred. The two disasters prompted Congress to appropriate funding to build additional lifesaving stations along the North Carolina coast and to increase their months of operation. The USS Huron remains on the bottom of the ocean floor, 250 yards off of the beach at Nags Head and is home to a variety of marine life. Today, the USS Huron is on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1991, the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources designated the wreck site as North Carolina’s first “Historic Shipwreck Preserve”.
David Stick, Graveyard of the Atlantic: Shipwrecks of the North Carolina Coast (1952)
Joe A. Mobley, Ship Ashore! (1994)
North Carolina Office of State Archaeology Website: http://www.arch.dcr.state.nc.us/ncarch/underwater/huron.htm