Wreck of the Steamer Mountaineer

The Paddle Wheel Steamer at Kitty Hawk


British Steamer Mountaineer

Stranded December 25th, 1852

100 yards offshore of Kitty Hawk, NC.

Depth: 10 to 30 feet


Researched and written by: Marc Corbett

Kitty Hawk is a narrow strip of land, between the Albemarle Sound and the Atlantic Ocean, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The area has hosted quite it’s share of history most notably the first powered airplane flight by the Wright Brothers in 1903. While the first airplane took to the skies there was a wreck just off the shore that had already been there quite some time.


People call it the “Winks Wreck” because it is close to the location of “Winks” grocery store, which is itself an old Kitty Hawk landmark. The wreck is located about 100 yards offshore, just south of Luke St. in about 20 feet of water. People have gone there for years to spear the Sheepshead, Tautog and Triggerfish that frequent the wreck. It isn’t a long swim, and lots of people free dive on the wreck during the summer.


I first dived on the wreck a few years ago; it’s what we call a shore dive, a dive that can be done by simply walking into the water off the beach with your dive gear, no boat required. Shore diving is free but that does not mean it is easy; it takes some skill. Perhaps the toughest part is just getting into the water. The soft sand seems to suck out from beneath your feet as you try to make your way into the water and after you make it off the beach you need to figure out how to get through the surf. My suggestion is to emulate the surfers and duck under the waves along the bottom. It is a lot easier than staying up on the surface and being hit by the waves, as most of the force is in the whitewater. With most diving you will learn that any items that aren’t securely attached to your rig will be quickly lost. Nowhere is this more true than in shore diving, any unsecured items are quickly lost and it is quite a bit harder to find them than in calmer waters. While not easy, I feel that a fairly simple shore dive, such as the “Winks” wreck is well within the abilities of most good divers if they apply themselves.


The wreck is located about 100 yards off the beach directly in front of the oceanfront house just to the south of the Luke St. beach access. The wreck is not far off the beach, it is closer to shore than many of the other local shore wrecks, so be careful not to swim out past the wreck. Once the wreck site is reached, what is visible on the wreck will be determined largely by how uncovered it is. The ocean bottom is a mass of underwater sand dunes that constantly shift around due to wave action. On the Winks wreck site I have seen the wreck completely uncovered all the way down to bottom of the hull, in a depth of 20 feet of water. The wreck was in this condition in the summer of 2010, In the summer of 2011 the wreck was almost completely covered with sand and the depth of the water only being about 6 or 7 feet. 2012 found the wreck fairly uncovered in about 15 feet of water.


The Steering Quadrant of the Mountaineer.  Photo by Marc CorbettThe wreck is roughly parallel with the beach with what I believe to be the stern facing north. What would appear to be a steering quadrant stands tall over the sand at the stern, it resembles a lower case “r” with a large gear in the center. When visible, what remains of the hull consists of wooden planks and beams fastened with copper or bronze spikes. The copper spikes are quite shiny due to the polishing action of the sand. There is actually quite a bit of sand polished bronze and copper on the site. I might add that while these artifacts might make a nice dive souvenir, one must keep in mind that it is illegal to remove artifacts from any wrecks within 3 miles of the shore, so look, but don’t take anything. Also at the north end of the wreck is a rather large iron box lying with one of the bottom corners facing upwards. Heading southeast from the steering quadrant are the remains of a boiler consisting of a large amount of round pipes conglomerated in what may be a box configuration.

Crosshead on top of the steam cylinder. Marc Corbett photoEncountered next are the two steam engines, the engines themselves are quite unusual as far as steam engines found on North Carolina dive sites go. Both engines are laid out the same way; consisting of a rounded cylinder which resembles a giant oil drum, complete with raised ribbing in the middle. The east cylinder has a large crosshead at the top and the pieces are joined by a piston rod. The west engine’s cylinder is missing the crosshead and part of the piston rod still sticks up out of the top of the cylinder. In front of the cylinders are large rectangular box shaped frameworks of heavy iron with column like vertical supports with openings between them. Along both sides of the framework are large cast iron arms joined at the center to the bottom of the framework like teeter totters. The ends of the arms are large and circular shaped. One end was attached to the crosshead and the other end was attached to the paddle wheel machinery. On the east side of the engines sits a square piece of metal sticking up out of the sand. This is what remains of the paddle wheel assembly. Jim Bunch supplied this picture from the 1980’s where more of the paddle wheel assembly is visible. Jim also described how there used to be a piece sticking up out of the water on the south side of the wreck. The wreck site, as well as the steam engine, is not large, the distance between the engines and steering quadrant is perhaps 20 or 30 feet.  


The side levers of the Mountaineer engine.  Marc Corbett Photo The hub of the Paddle Wheel is amoung the scattered wreckage of the Mountaineer site.  Photo by Jim Bunch Bronze hull spikes hold the remnants of the Mountaineer together.  Marc Corbett Photo

A fairly long search through trusted records of shipwrecks in North Carolina revealed there to be three steamship wrecks reported in the Kitty Hawk area: The Mountaineer, The Bladan McLaughlin, and the Tzenny Chandris, so research into each of these ships was undertaken.  


The Tzenny Chandris was a large Greek steel screw steamer carrying a load of scrap iron. One may see her listed as “Jenny Chandris” in some of the Registers. In any case she would appear to have gone down offshore in 1937 and is far too big, far too modern to be the Luke St. steamer, and most importantly not a wooden hulled vessel.  The Steamer Bladan McLaughlin went down in 1853 and would seem a more likely match for the ship in the water off of Luke St. however, newspaper reports of the day cite the salvage, removal, and sale of the ships engines after the disaster.  The Mountaineer was listed as a British steamer which went down in Kitty Hawk on Dec 25 1852.  It should be noted that she is the only early British steamer on the various lists of shipwrecks reported to have gone down in the Kitty Hawk area.  



From the Newspaper “American Beacon” Norfolk Va. dated Wed. December 29, 1852:  

“Marine News”


“The Br. Steamer Mountaineer, of and from Liverpool for New Brunswick via Nassau, N. P. Stickney master went ashore on the 25th last about 20 miles south Currituck Inlet and soon became a total wreck- all aboard saved. She was an old steamer and had been lately purchased by a lumber company in N.B., as a tug and stock boat, and was 196 tons, English measurement. Her machinery was detached before sailing and the hull brig rigged. She was 30 days from Nassau. It was the intention of the Captain to put into Hampton Roads or New York to have her machinery put in order and then to proceed under steam to his port of destination. The crew arrived here yesterday - The captain and his wife will remain on the beach until the wreck is sold.”  


American Beacon Article from 12/29/1852


This article from the American Beacon was located in the holdings of the Library of Virginia, Richmond, VA.

The stated location of the wreck site isn’t far from the one listed in the article. While it is a few miles further south it is not uncommon for the actual distances reported in some of these older shipwreck reports to be a bit off.  This is understandable considering that there were no mile markers at the time on the Outer Banks which was a pretty desolate stretch of coastline. The article lists the ships tonnage as 196 tons. Records would put the length of a 190 ton wooden British steamer of the era somewhere around 100 feet. This would not be a very large ship. The article states the Mountaineer was not in working order, this would certainly account for why the engines on the wreck were never salvaged. It was fairly common for the engines and other valuable parts of near shore shipwrecks to be salvaged, probably the most notable examples of this in the area being the wrecks of the USS Huron and the CSS Curlew.


Sidelever of the Mountaineer engine. Marc Corbett photo. The article states that the Mountaineer was “of and from Liverpool“, that would make her most likely to be of British manufacture. It was also stated that she was old, which for a ship in 1852 would likely mean she was built in the 1820’s or 1830’s. When one looks at the design of a typical early 19th century British paddle wheel steamer, the similarity to the wreck off Luke St. is remarkable. The side lever engine is almost unique to early British steamship designs. Early examples were produced by the firms of both David and Robert Napier, among others. It is considered the classic Clyde river steam engine, so much so that there is a stunningly similar Robert Napier built engine on display outside of the Denny Tank museum, part of the Scottish Maritime museum. The side levers, powered by the simple single steam cylinder sat low inside the ship; the design resulted in a lower center of gravity than the overhead walking beam engines being built in the United States and other nations at the time. The steam engines on the site are most definitely of the single cylinder side lever variety. This would almost certainly indicate British manufacture as few shipbuilders outside of Britain ever produced this design.


One thing I find problematic is the location of the boiler as well as the steering quadrant on the wreck. When compared with other British paddle wheel steamer designs, it would appear that the engine is on the wrong side of the boilers and steering quadrant. This however could be explained by the theory that the heavy engine would have stayed in place on the bottom whereas the parts of hull that contained the steering quadrant and boilers could have been more easily moved around on the wreck site by storm action, or collision over the years. The author has seen far larger pieces of shipwrecks, particularly boilers, which lay quite some distance from where they should be located due to storm action, dredging, or collisions. After some conversation with noted shipwreck diver and author Jim Bunch, it sounds quite possible that when he was diving the wreck in the 1970’s, the portion of the wreck with what appears to be the steering quadrant may have in fact been to the south side of the wreck site. It is also possible that the ship was in fact laid out in this manner; during the era when this ship was built the layout of the ships was not as standardized as during later eras.


There are records of a few early British steamers with the name Mountaineer. This includes one built by R. and A. Carswell, Greenock, on the Clyde River in Scotland launched in 1821 listed at 190 tons, 104 feet keel, engines built by David Napier. This does at a glance look like a promising lead, as it is a ship of similar size and tonnage. The dates given fit the time frame quite well, and the David Napier built engine is absolutely the kind of steam engine present on the wreck site. But other than some very short newspaper blurbs about the launch and a mention of the ship in transcripts of a court proceeding with a statement from Mr. David Napier, I have found very little else to link this particular ship to the newspaper report of the stranding in 1852.


There are a few arrivals and departures notices in newspapers to substantiate that Capt. Stickney was indeed sailing the seas in the steamer Mountaineer prior to the wreck in 1852 


The Cork Examiner, August, 27, 1852 states this:

“August 26—Wind W. ARRIVED—Mountaineer Steamer, Stickney, St. John's, Liverpool”


Perhaps the most perplexing bit of information on this comes when one takes a look at the master of the ship in the 1852 article, Capt. Stickney. Canadian records report a ship called the Mountaineer from Liverpool arriving in Quebec on August 12 1842.  The following is from Canadian emigration records from Quebec in 1842;


“A large portion of the emigrants arrived during the last week have suffered much from want of provisions and from sickness; the average length of their voyage over eight weeks.

The ship Mountaineer, with 505 passengers, was 68 days on her voyage, and her passengers suffered very much from sickness, 30 deaths having occurred previous to her arrival at quarantine, and two more during her detention there, from the effects of small-pox and typhus fever. Many of the passengers were so much reduced from want of food that the medical officer was under the necessity of retaining a number in hospital for a few days to enable them to recover their strength. The stock of provisions of a great many became exhausted after being out about five to six weeks, and they were under the necessity of purchasing food from the master at most exorbitant rates. This, as well as many other complaints made by the passengers, are now undergoing legal investigation, which when closed, will be duly reported. A large number of those people are proceeding to join their friends in the London and Western districts.

A.C. Buchanan, Chief Agent
Emigrant Department, Quebec
29 August, 1842”


The number of passengers listed as 505 in the 1842 voyage would seem too great to be making that kind of passage on a steamer of only 190 tons. Records were also found of an earlier voyage from Clyde to Quebec of a Mountaineer with a Capt. Stickney arriving on June, 21, 1840. Lloyds Register records of 1842 show a ship of 870 tons named Mountaineer with a master by the name of Stickney. This large wooden ship listed with iron bolt construction would certainly not be confused with a small steamer. Also she is listed as a “ship” which is a type of square sailed rigging, a commonly known example being the clipper ship. The Steamer Mountaineer in the 1852 article was listed as being brig rigged.


Iron Box at the Mountaineer site has unknown contents. Photo by Marc CorbettWhile none of these records conclusively confirm or deny any connection, there is a definite correlation of two ships of the same name, plying the same routes with a Captain of the same name. This begs the question; is it possible that this is in fact the same Capt. N.P. Stickney listed as master of the steamer lost in 1852 at Kitty Hawk?  If so it might appear that Capt. Stickney may have been fond of the name Mountaineer and could have possibly renamed another ship Mountaineer at a later date.  It is also stated in the 1852 article that the ship wrecked on the beach was headed to New Brunswick where it had been bought by a lumber company.  The 1842 Lloyds register states the much heavier wooden sailing ship Mountaineer was built in New Brunswick, thus another correlation.


It is certainly plausible that this Capt. Stickney could have renamed the small steamer Mountaineer headed to New Brunswick in 1852. This theory is somewhat troubling to the shipwreck researcher, in that if the original name of the ship was not in fact Mountaineer, it could be quite difficult to actually determine what the earlier identity of the ship may have been. Records may exist in Great Britain, possibly in the National Archives at Kew, which could establish a better link to the ship’s origins. 


The wreck itself lies in the water off Kitty Hawk, holding the clues as to her identity. While I cannot claim to have 100% identified the wreck, I find that the wreck is highly likely to be the Mountaineer, lost in Kitty Hawk on Christmas day of 1852.  In any event the wreck site deserves further examination as the very rare early side lever steam engine on the site is of great historical significance.  


The research, photos and web page about the Steamer Mountaineer are the copyrighted work of Marc Corbett, unless otherwise noted and may not be reproduced or utilized without permission..


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