While many vacation on Sunset Beach, North Carolina, not all know they are walking over a piece of history. Buried underneath the Sunset Beach Pier lies The Vesta, a blockade runner abandoned on the shore on January 11, 1864.
How It All Started
The Vesta and its captain R.H. Eustace, on its way from Bermuda to the safety of Fort Caswell and Fort Fisher, realized that the port at the entrance to the Cape Fear River was blocked by Union ships. Having Union cruisers giving chase, his plan was to circumvent the ships and sail close to the shore. This along with a dangerously low tide caused The Vesta to run aground while nearing Tubb’s Inlet. It’s claimed that the Vesta crew believed they were above Fort Fisher, but in reality, they were much further south, approximately 40 miles south of Frying Pan Shoals.
Some recounts of the tale rely upon the Captain and first officer outrunning and avoiding a Yankee Cruiser and to celebrate becoming spectacularly drunk. Making the mistake of running aground and not knowing their location, a drunken misfortune. While these accounts can’t be proved or dismissed, there might be some truth to the theory.
The 500-ton ship incurred some damage to the hull when it came ashore. Eustace and his crew were fired at by infantrymen and they retreated into hiding. Their plan was to come back and tow the ship into Fort Caswell where they would be under the protection of gunfire.
The next day when they returned to the ship, they noted the damage was more severe than they thought, stating that “the whole starboard side was open, and several of the plates were split.” The crew along with the help of two companies from Fort Caswell rummaged what they could including onboard supplies, uniforms, several pairs of shoes, gifts for General Lee, and the two anchors.
To prevent the Union Army from using the ship or gathering intelligence they chose to set The Vesta on fire. And there, The Vesta rested until the 1960s when development in Sunset Beach began.
A Tale of Two Ships
A similar event happened the day The Vesta was deemed unmovable at Holden Beach, only a few miles north of Tubb’s Inlet. On January 11th, 1864 The Ranger ran aground and sustained enough damage to prevent further use. The captain panicked at the sight of the Union blockade ships off the Cape Fear and made a sudden veer toward the shore running into the breakers.
Confederates removed the cargo from the Ranger which included Austrian rifles, cloth, rations, and coils of lead wire used to mold musket bullets. The Ranger was left onshore and the wreckage was eventually claimed by the sea.
The Vesta wreckage sat on the uninhabited beach for decades, eventually becoming buried by accumulating sand. Being a southern facing beach, Sunset Beach gathers sand washed away by nearby beaches.
The Sunset Beach pier, named The Vesta Pier, was built atop the shipwreck, the pier built in 1960 straddled the blockade runner. Mannon and Ed Gore, local developers, decided the shipwreck was the most logical place to put the fishing pier. Fish and ocean wildlife often make their home in shipwrecks because of the protection it often provides. So naturally, it makes sense to put a fishing pier where the fish are. They placed the planks of the pier a bit further apart so you could look through and see the boiler of the ship.
Prior to the building of the pier, fishermen would swim out to the Vesta at low tide and stand on top of the boiler to try to catch sheepshead and drum living around the wreck. Low tides would reveal the top of the ship from time to time, but currently, it is too buried to make any reappearances.
In 1963, scuba divers came to explore the shipwreck and determined that the ship was not nearly as damaged as many others along the east coast. The ship is almost completely parallel to the shore and they noted that the cargo holds of the vessel were mostly still intact.
In 1976 the pier was rebuilt after years of wear and tear, and because of the ever-growing accreting beach, the ship’s placement under the sand now sits under the pier house and the parking lot.
Information gathered from Star News, Treasures f the Confederate Coast, and Sunset Beach: A History