The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum

 In Activities, Back In The Day, Education, OBX Milestones

A great Outer Banks museum

Museums. They’re cavernous buildings that hold dusty, musty stuff from days gone by. Right? Maybe some, but don’t get the idea that The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum falls under that description! It’s more than just a storage facility for artifacts.

You’ll find the Graveyard of the Atlantic basically where the land ends and the water begins in Hatteras, NC. It is next to the passenger ferries going to Ocracoke. This museum is a living, breathing entity, thanks partly to the Director of the North Carolina Maritime Museum Systems, Joseph K. Schwarzer, and to Mary Ellen Riddle, the Education Curator of the Graveyard of the Atlantic, and Melanie Schwarzer, the Administrator for Friends of the Museum. I had the opportunity to sit down with all three and watch them bring this building to life.

north carolina museums

A Curator of Outer Banks History

“Hatteras Island has a rich culture. We are not just tiny slivers of migrating sand,” Riddle explains. “We were the site of the first Union won the battle of the Civil War. The site of the first joining of the army and navy for an amphibious assault, and the first safe haven for African-Americans in North Carolina.”

Riddle continues, “In fact, this area is a mecca of culture. Not just local culture, but global culture too.”

She is right of course. Off the coast of Hatteras during World War II German U-Boats appeared. They were part of The Battle of the Atlantic, the longest continuous military campaign during the War.

Schwarzer adds, “Mary Ellen brings up a good point. As a visitor, you come down to the Outer Banks for fishing or the beaches. And rightfully so, the beaches here are ranked in the top 5 in the country. What I always enjoy – as people are exiting the museum, they will turn to each other, and I’ve heard this countless times, they’ll say, ‘I had no idea that all this was happening here.’  Then they’ll go out into the parking lot and will remark that they are standing where all this history has actually happened.”

The one thing I will say about Schwarzer, he knows his stuff, and you can visibly see the passion as he speaks.

“Not only have we had all those things that Mary Ellen spoke of, there have also been battles of the Revolutionary War here. Where the British tried attacking the Outer Banks. They did the same in The War of 1812. In that war, the British attacked twice.”

Host of unique Outer Banks events

Throughout the years, The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum has held numerous symposiums. There was one in 2012 that Schwarzer recalled fondly.

“Well, we had noted Civil War author James McPherson here. Following the symposium, Mr. McPherson said he needed to update his book War on the Waters to acknowledge that Hatteras was one of the more important campaigns of the Civil War. It shut off the Pamlico Sound, a major supply route for the Confederacy. Once both Forts Hatteras and Clark fell, the only remaining port in all of North Carolina was at Wilmington.”

As a side note, this Battle of Hatteras Inlet Batteries, which was fought on August 28-29, 1861, was the battle that Riddle had eluded to earlier where the Army and Navy teamed up for the first time.

Schwarzer’s history lesson had me glued to every word. “Also Billy Mitchell, the Army Brigadier General, and the man who is regarded as the father of the United States Air Force gave birth to strategic bombing and the growth of air power was also here. Generally, the things that happened here nobody knows about it, and before the museum came around, I mean, NOBODY knew about it all.”

My next question was then what the Museum was doing to get the word out. Well, they’re doing a lot as it turns out.

“Mary Ellen and Josh (Nonnenmocher, the museum’s Administrative Coordinator) have done a brilliant job of developing educational programs and digital programs. We’re offering so much more online now than we have in the past.”

According to Riddle, Facebook followers have hit 23.7 thousand. And they also have 4,000 Instagram followers. That however is just a fraction of their online presence. The staff is taking classes to help their learning for better presenting online.

“We are looking to reach out to our educators across the state,” says Riddle. “But we also need to reach out to our homeschoolers too.”

Which is important, because of COVID-19, the museum itself is closed (at the time of this article). Even though the doors are locked, the museum is able to still reach out to all that want to experience it.

“Right now,” Riddle continues. “We are making power points and turning them into videos. A few are ready to go online to explain what the museum is all about.”

Typically the museum, April through September, would also be offering their Salty Dawg Presentation Series. That is when the museum brings in professionals from fields relating to history and culture.

graveyard of the atlantic

According to Riddle, “they would come in and talk about everything from shipwrecks, to old-time seafood cookery, to performing sea shanties.”

Schwarzer adds, “keep in mind that the yearly attendance the museum will see is somewhere between 82,000 and 90,000, with the majority of the visitors being between mid-May and September. So the programs were very popular, but due to the current state of things, all programs have been canceled for this year.”

Another popular program that normally happens is the Underwater Heritage Symposium. Each April the museum will bring in professional divers and underwater archeologists. They come from all over and they talk about “technology, safety, and their experiences. They also show stunning underwater photographs.” Says Riddle. “This coming April will be our 7th Annual.”

Year-round Outer Banks Activity

Ok. So the museum has a lot going on during a typical in season. What do they do in the offseason, I wanted to know.

“That’s when we focus on doing things that are related to bolstering our education online,” says Riddle. “Here in North Carolina, the students take North Carolina history in both 4th and 8th grades. So I’ve studied the essentials standards for learning to make sure that everything that we present in the museum can easily slide into what the teachers are already teaching. We also help with Ph.D. students working on their thesis.”

I figured there needed to be a support system to keep the museum operating, and I was right. That’s where Melanie Schwarzer came in. She is not only Joseph’s wife but also the Administrative Director of the Friends of The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum.

“The state pays for the facility costs and the salaries of the employees, and the nuts and bolts of keeping the museum running,” Joseph Schwarzer says. “But without the Friends of the Museum and their financial support, we wouldn’t be able to do a lot. We’d have exhibits sure, but we wouldn’t have the ability to do the things that we do now.”

According to Melanie Schwarzer, “The best thing people can do in support of us is to look us up on Facebook and give us a like. Same with Instagram. You can also go onto our website,, and subscribe to our newsletter. And make a donation.”

Currently the museum’s newsletter has a readership of some 25,000. It has also turned out to be very interactive as well. As Mrs. Schwarzer explains it, “We get people finding stuff on the beach and asking what it is they have. We love interacting with people that way.”

Melanie is also quick to point out that many of the exhibits are paid for by the friends. They also fund the programs so they don’t cost anyone a penny. In fact, “all the money that comes through the door goes straight back to the museum.”

The Friends of the Museum are also the people who oversee the British war graves, something that Melanie noted with great sadness they had to cancel for the first time ever this year.

Another project that Melanie is especially excited about is the museum’s upcoming online store. With all that’s going on, however, there is some uncertainty as to when that will go live.

So there you have it. The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum is more than a place where dusty artifacts sit on shelves. History comes alive there, thanks to the hard work of the sparse staff, the volunteers, and from all that support the museum. Check it out yourselves to make for a great Outer Banks family activity!

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