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    Historic Shipwreck Makes an Appearance on Corolla Beach

    June 13, 2023

    Some new research may give some insights into what really happened during one of the most terrible Outer Banks shipwrecks. Archeological researchers are very cautious about saying definitively that they have found pieces of the doomed steamship Metropolis, but modern technology and evidence are strongly suggestive.

    Using 3D imaging and CAD programming, Matthew Pawelski, in a recently completed thesis paper, was able to place wreckage known wreckage on the Corolla beach onto the Metropolis with surprising precision.

    Additionally, looking at an area on the beach from the Albacore Street ramp south about a half mile, a team of archeological researchers found previously unidentified wreckage that shows a likelihood of coming from the Metropolis. The team was also able to demonstrate conclusively that a well-known shipwreck on the beach next to the ramp could not be the Metropolis.

    3D rendering created by Matthew Pawelski in his research paper showing how decking material on the Corolla beach potentially fits into the deck of the Metropolis.
    3D rendering created by Matthew Pawelski in his research paper showing how decking material on the Corolla beach potentially fits into the deck of the Metropolis.

    When the Metropolis ran aground and broke apart on January 31, 1878, just 100 yards from the Currituck Banks shoreline, it was one of the most horrific shipwrecks in the history of the Outer Banks. It was not just the loss of 85 lives that made the tragedy so shocking, though.

    The Metropolis tragedy came just three months after the USS Huron broke up and sank two miles from the closed-for-the-season Nags Head Lifesaving Service station. Ninety-eight crewman lost their lives that night.

    In both cases, shortcomings of the Life Saving Service were at the heart of the loss of life, and telegraph lines linked to the Outer Banks let the world know what was happening almost as it was occurring. Newspapers were quick to run the stories and call for action. As a consequence, the pressure on the government to act forced Congress to fully fund a chronically underfunded and nepotism-riddled service for the first time.

    It was largely through that early funding of the Life Saving Service that what eventually became the US Coast Guard became possible.

    The Metropolis began her life as the Stars and Stripes in 1861, just before the outbreak of the Civil War. By all accounts, she was a well-built three-masted steamer, 150 feet long with a beam of 34 feet. After the fall of Fort Sumter on April 13, 1861, the US Navy needed ships quickly and purchased the Stars and Stripes, converting her to a gunship.

    The ship served the nation well over the next four years, with some of its most significant action in the battles of Roanoke Island and New Bern.

    After the war, the Stars and Stripes was sold as surplus, and for the next six years, the ship was engaged in coastal trade before being sold to the Lunt Brothers, an East Coast shipping company.

    The ship needed work, but rather than do the work that was needed, the Lunt brothers declared the ship unsalvageable, surrendering the papers on the Stars and Stripes. However, the life of the ship was far from complete.

    The unsalvageable ship was taken to a Newbury, Massachusetts shipyard, where it was cut in half and 56 feet were dropped into the middle of the ship. A second deck was added as well. The newly configured ship went from a rated tonnage of 484 tons to 878 tons…and all the work was completed in less than eight weeks.

    There are quite a number of anomalies associated with the Newbury work, not the least of which almost doubled the size of the ship in just eight weeks. Supposedly a master carpenter signed off on the work, but it’s unclear if he actually inspected the ship.

    Nonetheless, the new ship, renamed the Metropolis, was launched in August of 1871 and, for the next seven years, sailed the East Coast into the Caribbean and South America.

    Its final journey began in Philadelphia on January 29, 1878. The Metropolis left Philadelphia that morning for Brazil with 248 passengers and crew and 700 tons of cargo, including 500 tons of rail for a railroad project.

    As the day wore on January 30, the ship was sailing into a storm, and the seas were rising. The 500 tons of rail began to shift. Water flooded the hold, probably from a broken sternpost—the most likely explanation was the wood was rotten, and should have been replaced. Captain Ankers of the Metropolis ordered coal thrown overboard to lighten the ship, and at first, that seemed to work.

    The pumps were able to manage the flooding, but as the Metropolis pitched and rolled in the sea, the rails continued to shift, causing the seams of the ship to split. A wave broke over the ship, flooding the engine, and with no steam to drive his engines and water continuing to pour into the hold, Ankers pointed his ship to land, hoping that by running the ship onto a sandbar, he could save lives and the cargo.

    At 7:00 a.m., the Metropolis struck a sandbar approximately 300 yards from the Corolla beach, about three miles south of the Currituck Beach Lighthouse and four miles south of the Jones Hill Life Saving Station. Another wave carried the ship to the inner bar just 100 yards offshore.

    Told by local residents the Metropolis was on the sandbar, the Life Saving Station crew loaded their gear and began the four-mile trek to the wreck. Walking into a howling gale while pulling hundreds of pounds of equipment, the crew did not arrive until noon.

    Two attempts to send a line to the ship to bring people ashore via a breeches buoy failed. What followed were valiant yet often futile attempts to rescue people from the surf, and the ship broke apart.

    Reports at the time indicated that wreckage from the ship was scattered for miles along the beach. What Pawelski and fellow researchers examined were three sites along a half-mile stretch of beach approximately where the Metropolis ran aground.

    Just off the Albacore Ramp, on the north end of the study area, is a well-known wooden shipwreck that rests on the beach. Often referred to as the Metropolis, Pawelski was able to prove conclusively that it is not the Metropolis.

    Outer Banks Shipwreck near Albacore ramp in Corolla. Research shows it is not the Metropolis.
    Shipwreck just off the Albacore ramp in Corolla. Although sometimes referred to as the Metropolis, research shows it is not.

    Although the apparent size is almost correct, it’s the wrong kind of wood, and the framing is too small.

    The other two sites, though, are intriguing.

    The new site the team found is approximately 300 yards south of the Albacore site. The wreckage matches very closely with the bow section of the Metropolis.

    At the south end of the study area, a large piece of what is apparently decking appears periodically depending on wind and surf conditions. When the team was there last winter, it was fully exposed, allowing complete measurements.

    When placed on the ship using the modeling developed by Pawelski, it matched, to a remarkable degree, the decking of the Metropolis.

    Nonetheless, researchers are very cautious in declaring the debris is from the Metropolis, although they do concede it seems very possible.

    For a more detailed account of the wreck of the Metropolis, visit She Should Never Have Put to Sea—The Wreck of the Metropolis.