"Crissie Wright"

On January 7, 1886, the Philadelphia schooner Crissie Wright, on her way from Baltimore to Savannah, was forced to beach herself three miles east of Beaufort during the bitter winter of 1886. Six of the crew drowned and froze to death. Two of the crew were lost at sea and three were buried in a common grave in Beaufort’s Old Burying Ground.

 In The Story of the Methodist in the Port of Beaufort, 1941, Amy Muse wrote,

“…..that winter so cold that no one remembered its like before or has acknowledged its equal since. The winter when the Crissie Wright foundered on Shackelford Banks, the crew lashed to the rigging and freezing while men who would rescue them could only signal helplessly from our shore unable to put out a boat in the storm.

"The Nellie B. Dey, Mr. Dey's fish boat, finally brought the victims in to the wharf at the foot of Turner Street. But one man was revived; the others were laid out in the sample room of Mr. Billy Dill's hotel on the southwest corner of Front and Turner Streets and Mr. Jurney buried them in the graveyard back of the Church.

“'Miss Daisy' Hatsell tells of standing in the cold of the upper piazza of her home on Queen Street watching as the men were borne to the cemetery on improvised biers, and “Miss Lutie” Jones tells of the feeling of awe that came over her when as a child she ran in to the cemetery and saw so many graves open at the same time. None of the men were from Beaufort, but it was an incident that would have stirred any people and to a people as compassionate by nature as those in Beaufort, it left such an impression that voices are hushed to-day as the story is retold. A small compensation for the tragedy was the establishment of the Cape Lookout Life-Saving Station in 1887 which is said to have been a direct result of the event.”


On Saturday, May 26, 2007, the following article was published 
in The Courier Post, Cherry Hill, New Jersey:

"Only One Survived Sinking of Jersey-built Schooner in 1886"

The coast off North Carolina is called the Graveyard of the Atlantic, thanks to thousands of ships and lives lost to the sea during the past 300 years. One of those ships, the schooner Crissie Wright, was lost to the sea in January 1886. It had its roots in South Jersey.

The "New Jersey Patriot" newspaper of Bridgeton reported in its Jan. 16, 1874, edition that a fine three-mast schooner was being built at the Blew and Phillips shipyard in Bridgeton.

The Crissie Wright was launched July 11, 1874, according to the "New Jersey Patriot," which described the schooner as a staunch and graceful vessel.
My interest in the fate and history of the Crissie Wright is personal, coming from an entry in our family Bible that lists the death of my Great Grandfather Phillip H. Rickards on Jan. 10, 1886. He froze to death aboard the Crissie Wright, along with five other crew members, including Capt. Thomas P. Clark of Berlin, buried in the Berlin Cemetery.

The Crissie Wright set sail from Baltimore on Dec. 31, 1885, with 500 tons of phosphate headed for Savannah, Ga. After making her way through the Chesapeake Bay, the ship entered the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean. On or about Jan. 7, the Crissie Wright was off the coast of North Carolina when a winter squall turned into a violent storm.

Treacherous Weather

Capt. Clark decided not to risk the Diamond Shoals in the threatening weather -- high winds and a drastic drop in temperature. Capt. Clark ordered the ship to head for a safe harbor in Beaufort, N.C. But when galelike winds caused the main mast brace to part, Capt. Clark was compelled to beach the vessel about 6 miles west of Cape Lookout Light and 3 miles east of Beaufort Bar.

One sailor drowned in an attempt to get to shore, and another was knocked overboard and lost by the breaking of the mizzenmast. Days later, a body was found with a rope tied around his waist, with both hands missing, and his head scalped.

The Crissie Wright -- helpless on the west end of Shackleford Banks, where it lay broadside -- was breached by every incoming icy wave. Howling winds and snow and sleet covered the rigging and deck with ice, making footing most treacherous.

The crew of the Crissie Wright was without food or heat for three days and was unable to reach the mainland. They wrapped themselves in the main sail in an attempt to ward off the freezing gales.

Rescuers Thwarted

The residents of nearby Diamond City, whalers and fishermen, gathered on the beach and built large fires to signal crew members they knew of their plight. In an attempt to rescue the crew, residents carried and dragged their boats over the dunes and tried repeatedly to launch their small boats. But the force of the storm and power of the incoming waves repelled each attempt. Horrified residents stood helpless when they witnessed two of the crew going overboard.

From a newspaper clipping saved in our family Bible is a telegraph from Morehead City dated Jan. 11, 1886, stating: "ONLY ONE SURVIVOR Six of Crew of Crissie Wright Drowned or Frozen To Death. The steamer Nellie B. Dey of Beaufort, reached her today, and Captain Dudley boarded her and brought off the bodies of the four frozen men. The sole survivor is named Charles Tayt of Buffalo. Although badly frost-bitten, is expected to survive. He related how, in an attempt to keep his shipmates awake, he continuously kicked and beat them, but one by one fell into eternal sleep." CLICK TO ENLARGE IMAGES.

 A Common Grave

The frozen bodies were taken to Beaufort, and three shipmates were interred in a common grave in the Old Burying Grounds in Historic Beaufort. Capt. Clark's body was returned home to Berlin. He is buried in Berlin Cemetery.

To this day, the wreck of the Crissie Wright has remained part of the legend and folklore of the town of Beaufort. The grave of the sailors is part of the historical tour of the Old Burying Grounds.

A painting in the Beaufort Post Office by Russian painter Simka Simkovich depicts the townspeople's attempt to rescue the stranded seamen. Numerous stories have been written, often taking artistic liberties with the facts. A poem by Benji Taylor, "Life on the Banks," tells the story of the wreck. 

Of the thousands of ships that have gone down off the coast, the Crissie Wright captured the imagination and hearts of the folks of Beaufort.

"Cold as the night the Crissie Wright came ashore" was a way natives of Beaufort once described extreme cold weather. It is said this tragedy led to the establishment of the Cape Lookout Lifesaving Station in 1887.

More Information Sought

In an attempt to uncover as much related history of the Crissie Wright as I could, I contacted the N.C. Underwater Archaeology Department, which forwarded all the information on file, including a copy of the official accident report.

The ship was valued at $20,000, and cargo was valued at $30,000 -- all a total loss, the report says. Capt. Thomas P. Clark, master of the vessel, was the only crew member named.

Dave Moore, curator of nautical archaeology at the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort, says there are tentative plans to search for the remains of the Crissie Wright.

The name of the ship apparently came from the family of one of the investors.

While Capt. Clark was the principal owner, other investors were Bartlet and Shepherd, Jacob E. Ridgeway, M.A. Davis and Charles Wright.

In the "History of Berlin," Charles Wright is listed as a businessman, and his wife and daughter are both named Christine. Capt. Clark, a widower, was survived by his 15-year-old daughter, Sallie. Ironically, Charles Wright's son Walter Wright married Clark's daughter Sallie. Christine Wright -- "Crissie" -- became Sallie's mother-in-law.

My Great Grandfather Phillip H. Rickards was born in Cedar Neck, Del., in 1835, one of nine sons of Capt. Lemuel W Rickards, from a family of mariners. His body lies in a common grave with his mates at the Old Burying Grounds in Beaufort. I plan a visit to the gravesite to pay homage to his memory.
C.G. "Rick" Rickards

YE OLD INLET INN - Beaufort, North Carolina
This photograph was taken in 1933 by Rick Rickards' grandfather when he visited his father's (Phillip Rickards) Crissie Wright mass-grave site at the Old Burying Ground. Rick's grandmother is sitting on the steps. Below is an advertisement most likely picked up by Rick's grandfather.

Photos provided by C.G. "Rick" Rickards