north carolina highway historical marker program
North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program



Marker Text:

     Known to seafarers as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic,” the turbulent waters of Diamond Shoals have claimed many of the ships that have fallen victim to North Carolina’s coastal waters. Diamond Shoals, a series of three large sandbars broken up by channels, stretches fourteen miles southeast off of Cape Hatteras into the Atlantic. The shoal nearest the Cape is Hatteras Shoals, extending out to Inner Diamond Shoal in the middle with Outer Diamond Shoal extending the farthest into the Atlantic. Hatteras Slough is a channel that runs in between Hatteras Shoals and Inner Diamond Shoals; Diamond Slough runs between Inner Diamond Shoals and Outer Diamond Shoals.

     The treacherous nature of the shoals is due to their location at the junction of the warm Gulf Stream waters and the cold waters of the Labrador Current. When the moving water masses collide, sands and shells are dropped at the point of impact resulting in the creation and maintenance of the large sand banks. In 1794 Congress saw the danger that the shoals posed to Atlantic shipping and approved the construction of a lighthouse at Cape Hatteras to warn sailors of the rough waters and shallow bars. Construction of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse actually began ten years later. Beginning in 1824 lightships and floating beacons also were used to caution approaching ships. The Cape Hatteras lightship sat in the waters at the Outer Diamond Shoal, fourteen miles away from where the Hatteras lighthouse stood on the Outer Banks. As shipping off the Outer Banks increased, Congress in 1873 established the United States Life Saving Service, the predecessor to the U.S. Coast Guard, to monitor the coast and save passengers and sailors of ships in distress.

     After 1900, steamships began replacing sailing ships and, as a result, by World War I, there was a significant decline in the number of shipwrecks. However, in 1918, German U-boats began sinking vessels near Diamond Shoals. At least fifteen sank that year. During World War II, German submarines began attacking U.S. ships once again. From 1941 to 1942 over 100 ships sank at Diamond Shoals in what became known as the “Battle of Torpedo Junction.” Coast Guard patrol planes, antisubmarine vessels, and underwater mine fields brought an end to the threat. Today, thanks to improvements in navigation, wrecks are uncommon. However mariners still sail with caution when passing near notorious Diamond Shoals.

David Stick, Dare County: A History (1970)
David Stick, Graveyard of the Atlantic: Shipwrecks of the North Carolina Coast (1952)
David Stick, The Outer Banks of North Carolina (1958)
Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum website:
John Alexander and James Lazell, Ribbons of Sand (1992)
William S. Powell, North Carolina Gazetteer (1968)
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north carolina highway historical marker program

A blimp escorts ships through Torpedo Junction, ca. 1942.

© 2008 North Carolina Office of Archives & History — Department of Cultural Resources