For about 10 days in 1917 and 1918, the waters from the Great Dismal Swamp to the Outer Banks iced over, trapping humans, animals, and boats. Eastern N.C. lay paralyzed, waiting for the thaw.
Three men are aboard a sailboat named Clem, its flat wooden bottom and flaring wooden sides just right for plying the tidewater shallows. The men are dredging for oysters on a raw day in late December, the sky itself the color of dried-out oyster shells, bulging with the guarantee of snow. The new year, 1918, is three days away, and these three oystermen are nearly finished with their catch. Pretty soon they’ll point Clem, a boat known as a sharpie, upriver to New Bern, some 25 brackish miles distant.
At the helm of Clem is J.E. Taylor, the boat’s owner, along with Louis Elliott and Edward Salter, all from Sea Level, a waterside hamlet true to its name. On this indented coast of squiggly, squishy shorelines, salt water is the lifeblood. It’s a realm where the rhythms of speech are as distinctive as a crosscurrent: High tide is spoken hoi toid. But here, on a latitude more southerly than Death Valley; here, where the warm Gulf Stream waters ensure balmy weather suitable enough for alligators and Spanish moss; here, on this Saturday four days after Christmas, no person’s skin is sufficiently calloused or caked with enough mud to defend against such searing cold.
This whole month has been cold. Subzero temperatures plunged the eastern half of the country into a polar purgatory. Somewhere in North Carolina, the mercury dropped to 21 below. Fall was cold, too: Areas as far south as central Florida were hit with frost, and earlier-than-usual snowstorms dumped snow across much of the central United States. The three men aboard Clem are wise to the whims of the weather. They’re watermen, after all, keenly aware that nature can be unnaturally capricious, indifferent to seasonal norms calculated by the human mind.
Before setting out, they had no seven-day forecast to consult, no computer models to foretell of the impending ice invasion. But they do know just about every slough, bay, gut, inlet, cove, bend, ditch, tributary, estuary, and spit of sand along the wide-open mouth of the Neuse River. Over there is Turnagain Bay. Way over there to the east, across West Bay, is North Bay, then Cedar Island Bay, then Portsmouth Island, then the ocean. Look yonder to the north, across Pamlico Sound, and that’s where the Pamlico River empties out, right around Swan Quarter.
By now the snow is falling, the wind chill cuts like a miscast fishhook. The sound becomes a fury of flakes and whitecaps. The snowfall and the curtainfall of clouds on the horizon blot out all that’s familiar — the only things that are recognizable are marsh grasses and pine trees. The men know of a place called Henry Hill’s Harbor, along a remote peninsula with a shoreline crooked enough for a federal indictment. There, across from Raccoon
Island, they throw down their anchor to wait it out.
A life-altering decision
J.E. Taylor’s brother later wrote an account of the men’s ordeal for the Carteret County News-Times in December 1974. The author, the late Allen Taylor, describes how it snowed all that Saturday night, and by Monday night the boat “was held firm in an icy grasp.” The men shelter themselves from the winter tempest inside the boat’s cabin, which can fit only four people in a sitting position. They have a two-burner oil stove that they use for cooking and for melting ice from their water barrel. Temperatures during the day barely break out of the low teens. “The men watched, hoped and waited through the week,” Taylor writes. “The freeze became worse instead of better, ice forming around their boat four or five inches thick.”
By now they have a grim decision to make: Stay with the boat to freeze or starve to death, or strike out across the ice, which could very well be a death march itself. The world they know looks like an alien planet, lonely and cold, far from the warmth and glow of the sun.
And they are utterly alone.
A hard freeze
As the new year comes, creeks, rivers, and entire sounds along the North Carolina coast are morphing into great rinks of ice. Away to the north, around Elizabeth City and Coinjock and Currituck Sound, on down toward Manteo, the ice is sturdy enough to drive a Model T across. One account from the Sunday Advance in Elizabeth City tells of a sewing machine salesman “named McIntosh” who arrives in the area during the big freeze. His car is weighted down with sewing machines, yet he threads his way, rubber versus ice, all the way around Camden Point, up the North River, and into Currituck County.
He’s hardly the only one to tempt the deep freeze with internal combustion. An oil man named Miles Clark drives his “heavy automobile,” as the old newspaper dispatch spins the tale, around Elizabeth City “on the hard frozen streams.” The streams writhe through this region like tentacles of a squid, and no real estate is fully beyond their grasp. Absent a bridge or ferry, you don’t drive far before the tyranny of water vetoes your travel plans. But during this sheer wonder of a winter, water is suddenly stripped of its power to impede, and you can overrule it behind the wheel of Henry Ford’s touring car, spinning your wheels on aqua firma.
Drive through the region nearly a century later, and the old-timers will tell about the old-timers who told of the big freeze. Stop at a gas station in Jarvisburg, knock on a door in Swan Quarter, crack open a conversation at an oyster bar in Belhaven, and there’s an oh-yeah familiarity. People don’t speak of it the way they do Hurricane Floyd or Isabel, of course, because none of them were alive in the age of Model T’s on ice. The big freeze belongs solely to history now, having melted beyond any living memory.
Pay a visit to Alex Leary’s house right off N.C. Highway 343, just up from a wide spot in the road called Old Trap. He’s 70 years old, a former high school history teacher, and is now the official historian of Camden County. He spouts local lore like air bubbles in a frozen bay. Leary speaks in the classic Down East accent the three men aboard Clem surely would have spoken. He sits doine to spend toime talking about the oice of that historic winter. In his own lifetime, he’s seen the Pasquotank River freeze bank to bank. He’s seen the edges of the sound harden enough in 1958 to put a sedan on top and get it to go zero to 100 in two seconds. “It would just be spinnin’ like the devil,” he says. He recalls abnormally icy winters into the 1970s, but the arctic assault between 1917 and 1918 was a phenomenon that has yet to repeat itself. “I heard that the river froze anywur from eight to 10 inches thick,” he says. He prefers understatements to soaring superlatives when adding commentary: “Now that’s cold weather.”
Consider that it’s roughly 15 miles from Camden Point south to the mouth of the Alligator River — that’s about the widest spot in Albemarle Sound. “What the old people said, the Albemarle Sound literally froze over,” Leary says. And by this he means the entire sound, shore to shore, was hardtop. “I have never, ever again heard of the Albemarle Sound freezing over. How thick it was out there in the middle, I do not know, but the old-timers said that the sound froze over. That had to have been a cold winter.”
The placid and motionless appearance of ice belies its destructive force. And it only marshals more strength as the days skate by with temperatures far below freezing. It encases everything like concrete; the thicker it gets, the more pressure it applies. Combine that with breathtaking cold, and suddenly the things known to be sturdy and built to last can become brittle as bleached bones. The steel legs beneath the North River Lighthouse, built above the shallow waters beyond Camden Point, crack and collapse from the compacting ice. On January 4, 1918, the lighthouse keeper, Joseph Mercer, sends off a Western Union telegram to the lighthouse inspector in Baltimore, Maryland:
“Sir: The condition of North River Lighthouse
is dangerous to stay in. All five piles are broken
and it is just hanging. Will stay at Powells Point
until I hear from you. Will wire later.”
The lighthouse eventually falls into Albemarle Sound, but the water is shallow enough, and the building settles evenly enough, that it remains in use for another year, according to news reports. The ice also delivers a crushing blow to the Pasquotank River wharf, a long wooden platform running alongside the shore near Elizabeth City, where boats tie up and unload. In mid-January, two weeks into the big freeze, about 270 yards of the dock are destroyed, including the freight house. Familiar with these stories of crashing piers and cracked pilings, Leary says in his understated way: “That had to be a hard freeze.”
Lonely, frigid days
Inside the Neuse River Lighthouse, Capt. Jim Miller, 65 years old and dealing with a heart condition, is on duty when the big freeze sets in. He’s the assistant lighthouse keeper; the chief, a Captain Quidley, is taking some time off at home. With ice growing denser by the hour, Captain Quidley is growing ever more concerned about his assistant, out there alone, shining a light into a world gone comatose by the cold. Like the North River Lighthouse in Albemarle Sound, this structure is built on steel pilings above shallow water.
On the second morning of the great freeze, Captain Quidley and another man set out on foot for the lighthouse. They walk across the now-solid Broad Creek, pulling a boat on wheels loaded with supplies. The two men make it all the way to the mouth of Broad Creek, a distance of about three miles, but they don’t think they can navigate the next two or three miles to the lighthouse. Erring on the side of prudence, they secure the boat and walk back home.
As Dallas Mallison depicts in his essay in the book North Carolina Miscellany, the two men walk back to the boat the next morning and discover an air hole, or break, in the ice between them and the lighthouse. The break affords enough passage for them to row the boat to the lighthouse, where a grateful Captain Miller awaits. For several “lonely, frigid days,” as the narrative goes, the ice begins to break apart as the weather abruptly warms. Floating downriver are ice chunks up to 25 feet tall and 100 feet wide. They plow into the lighthouse supports like abandoned ships left adrift in a maelstrom. Only two of the five eight-inch steel pilings remain standing. “Wobbly and weaving, the unsteady lighthouse was almost ready to topple from its perch and join the ice in its dash to the sea,” Mallison writes. “The building almost literally hung suspended in air as the ice let up, disappeared, and the sea became a sea once more.”
One of the men in the lighthouse during the great thaw recalls the ice-choked water as more harrowing than a hurricane. “I tell you, I surely thought my time had come when those big icebergs were breaking against the walls of the lighthouse,” he’s quoted as saying in Mallison’s account. “It felt like one earthquake after another was hitting us, and I thought the very next minute would be our last . . . It was hell on earth, believe me . . . If anything could be worse than a hurricane, that was it!”
Walking on (frozen) water
Not far from the Neuse River Lighthouse, but too far to do any good, the three men aboard Clem make their decision. After nearly a week hunkered together inside the boat’s cabin, they will venture out toward home. But they have another decision to make: How to get there? Take the route over land, with its great expanses of marsh grass and ice-encrusted undergrowth — land thoroughly devoid of human habitation between here and home — or trek across the ice, with air holes waiting to swallow them?
They leave a note in the cabin outlining the two routes they’re contemplating. Friday, January 4th, 6 a.m.: They say a prayer and quote from the Gospel of Mark, the passage where Jesus is aboard a boat in the middle of a storm and asserts his authority over the thrashing elements:
“ ‘Quiet! Be still!’ Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.” J.E. Taylor, Louis Elliott, and Edward Salter drive nails through the heels of their shoes to avoid slipping. They set out carrying what little food they have left, a frying pan, a hatchet, and a boat hook to gauge the thickness of the ice. They also bring along 10 yards of rope.
As Taylor’s brother relates the story decades later, Taylor holds the middle of the rope and leads the men in a V-formation — “as the wild geese fly” — so that if the leading man plunges through thin ice or an air hole, the other two men can pull him back out.
The men plod across New Stump Bay and Long Bay, southward, homeward. “As far as the eye could see was one unbroken sheet of ice,” J.E. Taylor told his brother of the trek. It takes the group six and a half hours to walk to Sea Level, about a dozen miles in a straight line but longer by their water route.
The men are home to watch the creeks, rivers, and sounds become creeks, rivers, and sounds again. Ebbing, flowing, swirling, lapping, splashing. Sunlight glinting on ripples never looked so beautiful. For the rest of their lives, they would never forget the season when the watery world they knew and loved stood deathly still.
Bryan Mims is a reporter with WRAL-TV in Raleigh. He loves the sound country, where he’s spent time boating, swimming, and drinking in the views. He prefers the sounds and rivers in liquid form. His most recent story for Our State was “From Manhattan to Magnolia Farm” (December 2013).