Museum Collection

History at the Bottom of the Sea: Virginia Beach’s Shipwreck Documentation Project

Written by William Hazel (Originally Published 05.20.2015)

Holding a lost historic treasure right in your own hands: it’s one of those special privileges shared by the staff of The Old Coast Guard Station in Virginia Beach. Working with the museum’s shipwreck documentation project, one discovers that treasures do, indeed, still wash ashore.

Many of us imagine discovering lost treasure while wandering the beach. We visualize a hillock of Spanish doubloons cascading from a rotted chest buried conveniently in the sand. Gold, silver, jewelry, and extravagant baubles lost in shipwrecks centuries ago. The treasures that are found most often, however, are the parts and pieces of the old ships themselves.OCGS_shipwreck_tag_Rudder_Piece

To museum staff, they are priceless. Kathryn Fisher, Executive Director, is buzzing around a massive wooden relic with a palpable joy.

“This is awesome.”

This shipwreck treasure is rare. The massive shape clearly reveals it is a sailing ship’s rudder; the old copper alloy fittings and pintles are still holding two large beams together. Eleven feet of pure history, from the lost age of sail, when, as they say, the ships were wooden, the sailors iron. The powerful ocean currents will usually break a piece this size into a dozen or more fragments. What washes ashore is often unrecognizable. You can identify most shipwreck finds as old, but seldom will they reveal their place on a vessel.

And there are more. Among the artifacts recently examined from the Cape Henry area is a large curved timber, what’s known as a futtock. It’s a perfect example of the complicated compound rib structure that acted as the massive skeleton of these great sailing ships. Another wreck piece holds a still intact sheet of copper–the kind used to line ship hulls against the ongoing organic attacks of shipworms and marine weeds. Still another features hand-hewn tree-nail, or trunnel holes, where pins or dowels would run to hold together timber construction. These hand-hewn runs have a completely different character than those made by machine drills. This is the kind of detail that can help date a particular find. This one may be from the 18th Century.


The Old Coast Guard Station Museum began its shipwreck documentation program in 1989. The goal of the program is to document all known shipwreck sites and fragments discovered along the Virginia Beach shoreline. The long-range vision of the program is to link the data with other maritime institutions doing the same.

It would be astonishing to find something that uncloaked the deep secrets of a ship’s name and origin. This area is well known in maritime history because of the thousands of shipwrecks these treacherous waters claimed. It is impossible to know for sure a particular piece belonged to a certain vessel unless it offers something unquestionable.

Staff tag and study each shipwreck piece individually; measuring, photographing, and noting important aspects of each treasure. Donated objects can become part of the museum collection. Many, though, are tagged and left, often reclaimed by the water. Austin Burkhard, a student at the University of West Florida, and intern for the Fish and Wildlife Service at the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, joins the OCGS crew on this mission. He has been experimenting on the Eastern Shore with different types of shipwreck tags that can withstand Mother Nature.

“Sunlight does the most damage.” He nods with experience.

That’s not just true for the tag, its true for the entire artifact. It can survive surprisingly well rolling around in the ocean, or buried in a sand dune, but once exposed to the full UV power of the sun, it deteriorates with surprising rapidity.

OCGS_shipwreck_tag_Kathryn_Fisher“This is more than old wood,” states Fisher, seen below, her passion noticeably inflected. “This is about the people on these ships. We get closer to their lives.”

The term “shipwreck” is so homogenized in our dialogue that what really happened to the vessels, to these people, becomes too easily diminished. The famous shipwrecks are one in a million. If you think you are going to stumble onto one of Blackbeard’s rum jugs, you are missing the point.

Hampton Roads is about ships; the people that build them, the people that sail on them, the valuable cargos they hold. Gaze into the channel today and you’ll see ships that are 800, 900, sometimes 1,000 feet long, moving massive amounts of goods around the globe.

These vessels of old were doing the same. Thousands upon thousands of ships moved massive amounts of material through these waters. Crewed by hard working mariners that took to a life on the sea. Cargo was their moneymaker, their treasure. The money was in the sugar, the lumber, the potassium nitrate, the tobacco, the tar and asphalt. No engines. No radios, no modern navigation. They sailed. That’s the only option they had. They sailed these waters.

The terrible storms here chewed so many of them to bits. In a matter of minutes, Nor’easters would turn a 200-foot three-masted Barque into kindling.

OCGS_shipwreck_tag_Tag_ExampleNow, you cradle a piece of one of those ships in your hands. The wood is brittle, demanding a careful pressure. The powerful smell so distinctly salt-aged and organic. You think of the people on this ship. What were they like? You imagine their faces, their knurled hands. You imagine their clothing, the clunk of their boots on deck. You wonder where they called home. Most profoundly, you ask yourself why they didn’t make it into the safety of the bay that day.

And you feel it. You cling to this little bit of history and in your core you feel it.


Ghost Walks

Ghosts Like Mist: Virginia Beach’s Haunted Coast Guard Station

Written by William Hazel (Originally Published May 2015)

I am not alone.

The footsteps are distinct. The sound of boots across the old wooden floor. One step, two, a third. It is late, past 9pm, and I am the last one in the Old Coast Guard Station museum building cleaning up after a tour program, getting ready to call it a night. The sound comes from above me, the attic space; no doubt about it.

I instinctively freeze. Listen. Listen closer. To be certain that no one has come in the building, I climb into the attic space to take a look. I hear nothing unusual. No more sounds, steps, creaks or crackles that could reveal the origin of what I’m certain I just heard. Through a deep exhale I accept another experience courtesy of this historic place.


For myself, for the staff here, stories of ghosts and goblins is a year round subject. The happenings here do not adhere to any seasonal preconceptions. It does not matter the time of year, the time of day, things just happen. Things that we can’t simply explain away.

Step into this original Life-Saving Station and you walk into a time machine. Built in 1903, the building has been standing on Virginia Beach’s coast for more than a century. Timeworn and proud. Nostalgic and evocative of the period when this little town along this coastline was first being established. Many souls lingered in the Station during the days of tall-ships and all too common maritime tragedy. From the men that worked here, to the bodies of the shipwreck dead stored here; stored in the attic.

They waited in the attic. Often, they were not whole. Bodies didn’t always come ashore neat and clean. These souls had been exposed to the harshest of weather, the terrible cold of the ocean. They had been ripped and mutilated by their ship’s debris or by the force of the waves themselves. Unidentified, nameless, and warding in a bag for a final resting place in a nearby cemetery. But they did have names. Only hours before they were living, breathing, hard working seafaring people that found themselves on a ship in a storm. Surely spending the rest of their life trying to figure out how to get to the beach. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to think one of these souls is with me this night.

I have worked in other historic buildings during my museum career, but this one is different. I had a few distinct experiences in a civil-war era building. These took place over the course of almost a decade of employment, however. I have been at The Old Coast Guard Station Museum less than two years and have already had twice as many unexplained encounters.

Very recently, a co-worker was playing some old jazz music on a small radio player when the sound suddenly ratchets to full volume. Maybe that’s just an odd electrical gremlin. When it happens again another day, with vintage jazz playing, it does invite query to coincidence.

Then it happens to me. Same scenario. I play Scott Joplin ragtime and come to a halt as the volume turns itself louder. A different co-worker is in the room as well. Our eyes meet in validation that we are, indeed, experiencing the same phenomenon. In quick response, I ask out loud, raising my voice to boom above the piano.

“Do you like that music? Do you like the ragtime music?”

The player turns itself to full volume.

Climbing the stairs of the Station’s watchtower in the middle of an August afternoon sends me into a column of choking heat trapped within the narrow confines of the architecture. Hot air rises; with each step so increases the amount of sweat pouring off my forehead. I don’t expect to feel cold. No vents up here. No A/C. Just hot. The first sensation of cold air against my arm takes a moment to acknowledge. I don’t think it’s real at first. The next second brings an all-encompassing sensation that the cold is not from inside my body. I am not getting a chill. Not something that is running up my arm. I am feeling something from the outside, something only effecting a small portion of my upper tricep. As I open my awareness to what is happening, it is gone.

old_coast_guasrd_spookI’m not the first to feel something in the watchtower. Things have been seen up there as well. Lights. Figures. A man. There was a time in the museum’s history when so many phone calls were being made to the police in the middle of the night about a man in the tower that the director put a cardboard figure in the window. The cutout is still there. A six foot printing made from a historic photograph of John Woodhouse Sparrow; a life-saving surfman that worked here. A surfman that many say still works here.

My view may be skewed. I’ll admit this. That’s because I’m a believer. I believe in ghosts. Spirits. The life beyond. A near death experience after a devastating car accident many years ago imprinted within me a very deep, heartfelt sense of this place we have come to call the afterlife. I don’t pretend to understand it. I don’t pretend that I have some sort of valid answers about what waits for us beyond this mortal, physical place.

What I do know is that when I unlock the door in the early morning to start my day at The Old Coast Guard Station, I am not alone.

Ghost Walks

Experience the Virginia Beach Ghost Walk

Written by William Hazel (Originally Published May 2015)

The Old Coast Guard Station building is over 100 years old, a true historic treasure of Virginia Beach. It’s probably not a big surprise that it’s haunted. So when you take a Ghost Walk on the Museum’s “Shipwrecks & Ghost Lore” tour, there is a good chance that your guide will be sharing a story that’s a first hand encounter. The staff never needs to search far for real stories of the paranormal.

The ghost stories started when the building was being renovated in the 1970s to become the maritime museum it is today. Construction workers complained of their tools being moved and the never-ending sensation of being watched. Some walked off the job.

For years, museum staff members have shared similar tales of hearing footsteps, items being moved, pages being flipped in historic books on display, radios turning themselves off and on, even apparitions appearing in the galleries. When you work in an historic building, sometimes you are not alone.

A museum legend repeated through the decades is of a figure and/or light seen in the building’s old watchtower. Witnesses tell of a uniformed figure outside on the catwalk in the middle of the night. When this Life-Saving Station was in service, crewmembers, known as “Surfmen”, stood watch in the tower, searching the forbidding seas for sailing ships in distress. The observed light has been reported as moving “like a swinging lantern” or as if it is being carried.


Some say the ghost in the tower may be just one man, Surfman John Sparrow. Sparrow served at the station with honor for many years, earning a Life-Saving Medal for his heroics during a shipwreck rescue. He even continued serving in retirement, tending horses and equipment at the Station. Paranormal experts, amateur ghost hunters, and many visitors concur that John Sparrow is indeed still on watch.

You’ll get wrapped up in many more eerie tales of hauntings and the unexplained during your 90-minute stroll. Costumed storytellers lead you through an easy walk that explores the beach, boardwalk, and along several blocks of the oceanfront. Along with stories of local haunted hotels and restaurants, you’ll experience amazing shipwreck tales, discover the real “Blackbeard”, get to know the “Witch of Pungo”, and learn of the famous “Sleeping Prophet of Virginia Beach”.

Whether you see a ghost or not, you are going to have a lot of fun. The Old Coast Guard Station encourages reservations since the tours do fill up fast and cautions that the material may not be suitable for younger children. So put on some comfortable shoes and get ready to ask yourself…do you believe in ghosts?

Learn more about the Virginia Beach Ghost Walk: