Contact Info:
Graveyard of the Atlantic
Post Office Box 284
Hatteras, NC  27943-0191
Phone (252) 986-2995  
Fax (252) 986-1212

Museum Hours:
Monday - Saturday
10:00am - 4:00pm
Free Admission to the Public
Donations Appreciated

Shipwreck Drawing



Shipwrecks on the Outer Banks, NC


The Cape Hatteras National Seashore, within which the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum is built, was established by Congressional Act  H. R. 7022 in 1937 and by Secretarial Order in 1953.  In 1986, the National Park Service (NPS), Local, State, and National Representatives encouraged the Hatteras Village Civic Association to compete for the artifacts from the USS Monitor, which sank 16 miles off the Hatteras coast.  The Hatteras Civic Association, in conjunction with the State of North Carolina, the Smithsonian Institution and the U.S. Navy vied with four other states.  Eventually, the Monitor collection was awarded to the Mariner’s Museum in Newport News, Virginia because there were no facilities capable of maintaining and displaying the objects in North Carolina.

With further encouragement from the NPS, Commissioners, Senators, and Congressmen, the committee decided that such a facility was needed in North Carolina, particularly along the shores of the Graveyard of the Atlantic.  In 1988, the formation of the Museum and a suitable permanent display of Monitor artifacts at the Museum was authorized by Congressional Act H.R. 4210.  Funding through the Albemarle Commission made a feasibility and design development plan possible and the Museum was formally incorporated in 1989.  In 1990, a grant from Dare County supported the development of the facility and, the following year, the Museum Committee entered into a land-use agreement with the NPS for 7 acres on the southwestern end of Hatteras Island adjacent to the Hatteras-Ocracoke Ferry Terminal and U.S. Coast Guard Station.  On August 1, 1991, the Museum was officially designated a 501 ( c ) ( 3 ) not-for-profit, public, educational organization.

In 1994, Congressional Act H.R. 2519 reaffirmed the formation of the Museum, the permanent display of Monitor artifacts at the Museum, and allocated funds, through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), for Museum construction.  The money, matched by monies provided by North Carolina, was awarded in 1995 despite Federal budget reductions.  Also in 1992, State Senator Marc Basnight proposed the sale of the first commemorative plates issued in North Carolina for an historical attraction.  First issued in 1996 to help support the Museum, more than five thousand of these license tags have been purchased by individuals throughout the State.  In 1995, a full-time Executive Director and a part-time Administrative Coordinator were hired; marketing, capital, and artifact acquisition plans were initiated and approved; and the Museum received the largest grant awarded, to that date, by the Dare County Tourist Bureau, for the production of a promotional and informational video. This promotional piece subsequently expanded into a full length feature documentary, The Graveyard of the Atlantic, which was released in 1997.  It has been shown throughout the State, aired on public television, featured in the North Carolina edition of TV Guide, was awarded the Silver Telly for best documentary of 1998, and is being used in schools throughout the Southeastern United States.

1995 was also the year NOAA became a more active partner in the project.  Through cooperative agreement NA57AB0441, the funds allocated to the project in 1992 became available.  From 1995 through 1996, The Museum Board of Directors, working with NOAA and the NPS, was able to: complete the environmental assessment process with a finding of no significant impact (FONSI), select the architectural firm, establish the basic design of the building, meet all, original, special award conditions, institute an organizational/administrative infrastructure (mission statement, by-laws, code of ethics, collections policy, interpretive prospectus, disaster plan, etc.) which brought the Museum into full compliance with AAM and CAMM professional standards, satisfy the facility requirements of the NPS by expanding the size of the building to 18,768 square feet, and insure the building was designed to withstand all potentially damaging weather conditions. 

From 1997 through 1998, the Museum Board, again in concert with its NOAA and NPS partners, was able to: obtain all federal, state, and local permits needed for construction, acquire the 28,000 cubic yards of fill necessary to construct the Museum twelve feet above sea level, clear the site, complete rough grading of the site, and generate (through our architects) a complete set of final specifications and bid documents.

 Life Saving StationOver the next year and a half, the museum was extremely successful in raising the visibility of the project and new potential support across the State.  In 1998, the Museum became a founding organization of the North Carolina Civil War Trail.  In addition, the Museum’s capital campaign plan was refined, the case statement and named gift opportunities brochure were produced, campaign leadership was established, and interviews with state and civic leaders across North Carolina were held to reaffirm feasibility and establish new levels of support.  These meetings proved extremely positive and enabled the Museum and its fundraisers to move forward. 

 Also in February 1998, Museum Board and Staff, Dare County Commissioners and political leaders, and NOAA and NPS representatives met with Senator Lauch Faircloth, Congressman Walter Jones, Jr., and representatives of Senator Helms.  In concert with Sen. Helms and Congressman Jones, Senator Faircloth pledged a determined effort to obtain funding for the Museum in the 1999 federal budget.  An appropriation was approved by Congress on October 19, 1998.  On July 1, 1999, North Carolina awarded the Museum matching funds and Phase I, construction of the Building shell, began on December 10, 1999.

Phase I involved general construction of the building and all the site work including portions of the NC Civil War Trail.  The 18,768 sq. ft. building is constructed to withstand sustained winds of over 135 mph and gusts of over 250 mph and  is elevated 12 ft. above sea level surpassing the thousand year flood plain.  The design team consulted numerous experts in the field in order to create a structure which exceeds current codes and sets a new standard for coastal construction.  It is the Museum’s intention to eliminate, or at least minimize, damage and loss by anticipating and planning for disaster.  The overall innovative design uses ship’s curves and timber elements to evoke the spirit of historic seafaring vessels. The Museum decided to phase the project in order to exercise more complete control over each aspect of construction.  Phase I was completed within budget, in July 2001.  All design and engineering criteria were either achieved or surpassed. Also, in July 2001, the Museum’s second, two part documentary production, War Zone, WWII off North Carolina’s Outer Banks was released and aired on NC Public Television. War Zone was awarded a Silver Telly for best historical documentary of 2001; an Aegis award of excellence; The Videographer Awards: Award of Excellence; and was nominated for an Emmy.

From 2000 through 2001, the Museum was particularly pleased to receive funding from the NC DOT TEA-21 program and the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau.  As public awareness of the Museum project grew, contributions to the campaign increased.  In particular, private support continued to expand.  The statewide “Save Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Committee” carefully studied how best to expend their remaining funds and unanimously decided the entire amount should go to the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum.  Significant contributions were also made by East Carolina Bank and RBC Centura Bank.North Carolina Lighthouse

Throughout 2001, the Museum organized the Ghost Ships Campaign which was officially launched on October 26, 2001.  In response, the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau, the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, the Outer Banks Community Foundation, the Meekins Charitable Trust, and private donors enabled the Museum to begin Phase II construction, the completion of the building interior, and open a portion of the facility to the public in October 2002.

Early in 2003, the NPS requested the Museum produce and host an exhibition on General William “Billy” Mitchell and the historic bombing tests which took place off Hatteras Island in 1923.  The exhibition was part of the First Flight Centennial in 2003 and showcased Mitchell’s long association with Hatteras and the importance of the tests in the emergence of United States airpower.  The exhibition opened in June 2003 and ran through December, 2004.  2004 also marked the inaugural year for the Museum first major education program.  The Shipwreck Archaeological Workshop (SAW) provides secondary school students an opportunity to excavate and record an actual shipwreck.  Organized in cooperation with The Naval Historical Center, NOAA, and the NPS, the program is supported through the generosity of the Charles Finch Gaddy Fund, North Carolina Community Foundation.  

In February, 2004, the Museum was notified it had been awarded a prestigious Save America’s Treasures Grant.  That was followed, in September, by additional funding from HUD-EDI and the State of North Carolina.  All of this money was used as matching funds for the federal Save America’s Treasures Grant.  Construction began in April 2005.  The museum was able to complete: the climate controlled collection storage/study area, mail room, unisex ADA accessible restroom, Board room, NOAA field office, events kitchen, second storey storage area, five offices, janitor station, storage closet, the fire suppression system for the entire facility, and all related plumbing, mechanical, and electrical systems, floor and wall finishes, cabinetry, and appliances. Also in 2005, through the generosity of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, the Outer Banks Light house Society, and private donors, the Museum, in cooperation with the NPS, was able to place the original, 1854, First Order Lens from the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse on display in the Museum lobby, and solve one of the greatest mysteries in American lighthouse history. Now, for the first time in sixty years, the public is again able to view this historic artifact.     

In 2006, the Museum received an additional HUD-EDI award which was used for high density shelving for collection storage, lighting for the parking area, an upgrade of the Museum store, and additional construction.  In the same year, the Museum was formally recognized as a key partner in the establishment of the UNC Coastal Studies Institute, in Manteo, and as a founding community partner in the redesigned Cape Hatteras Secondary School – School for Coastal Studies in Buxton.  On September 27, 2007, the Dare Education Foundation recognized the Museum as Business Partner of the year 2006 – 2007.         

The Museum has taken the lead in working with divers and local families to reintroduce historically significant materials to the public domain.  Through landmark negotiations with the Federal Republic of Germany and local divers, the Museum obtained the Enigma encoding and transcription machines and related materials from the wreck of the U-85.  Thanks to generous support from North Carolina Electric Membership Co-op., the Kelly Family Foundation, and the Friends of the Museum, these rare and important artifacts are being conserved and will soon be on display.  The exhibition: Hatteras in the Civil War incorporating works of art, documents and artifacts from museums and private collections, including sections on the USS Monitor and the USS Alligator (the first Federal submarine), has been very well received and a new exhibition centered on the recently recovered bell from the Lightship Diamond Shoals (LV 71 sunk by the Germans in 1918) is being developed.  The collections continue to expand with donations of everything from photographs to an early twentieth century dive suit.

 On June 6, 2008, the Museum was formally recognized as a Regional State History Museum and was included in the North Carolina State Museum System.  This represents a new and increased level of professionalism and public credibility for the project. A combination of state and federal funds will enable the Museum to complete construction of the main galleries and generous support from NOAA has allowed the process of exhibition planning and design to begin.

Since opening in October,2002, the Museum has welcomed over 300,000 visitors.  It is estimated that 50% of these are day-trippers from the northern beaches and Rodanthe-Waves-Salvo.  Visitor satisfaction is high despite the fact that the Museum is only partially open and exhibitions are limited and temporary.

The Museum is a model collaborative effort between private enterprise and public agencies.  It is becoming a premiere cultural institution for the Eastern Seaboard; an invaluable resource providing a wealth of quality, educational opportunities for the general public, students, and researchers.  The Museum is heightening awareness for and fostering greater appreciation and understanding of the resources and cultural diversity which constitute the area's maritime history.


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© 2009 Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum 08/10/2011