Cap'n Ban And The 

Naphtha Engine

by Nell Wise Wechter

From the "Mighty Midgetts of  Chicamacomico 1974 Times Printing Co., Inc. Manteo, N.C. 

Long before the Coast Guard was created from the Revenue Cutter and Lifesaving's services, the Outer Banks of North Carolina were populated by a family named Midgett. Many of them worked as surfmen on the seven lifeboat stations out there. These were heroic men who's family name will never be forgotten in the annals of the USCG and USLSS. Cap'n Bannister "Ban" Midgett was one of these hearty men. He was the "Keeper" of Chicamacomico Station well before and just after the Coast Guard was formed. He was proud of his title and when he was made a Chief Boatswains Mate he resented it because he was no seaman, he was a surfman. Neither was he a "mate" he was a "keeper."

This story has been extracted from the book. If you have an opportunity to read  the book you will learn more about this famous Cape Hatteras family  - Jack 


Cap'n Ban claimed he could neither read nor write which was an untruth.......

"Well, I reckon a legend ain't nothing but a lie that takes on the dignity of age. - Cap'n Bannister Midgett." 

However, it is no legend about one consequence of Cap'n Ban's pretended illiteracy - one consequence which might have been the cause of delay in the development and adoption of the internal combustion engine in an important branch of the U. S. government for the space of ten years. MacNeill, in The Hatterasman, tells the story:

Evil came to Chicamacomico Station. It came in a box with a book which, those of Cap'n Ban's crew who confessed an ability to read said, contained instructions for use and operation. The box contained what was called a naphtha engine, and the papers which came with it said the engine was to be installed in such and such a boat and, after the directed tests were done, a full report was to be submitted in writing. 

Bannister Midgett was filled with disgust and dismay. He was a mighty man with an oar, and he had the Islander's inherited distrust of steam. He had seen enough of steamboats during the Civil War to last him a lifetime. He remembered, with gleeful chortling, the particular day when the Yankees had given out of steam and a lot of Confederates in sailboats surrounded the steamless craft and took every man-jack of the crew prisoner and maybe took them off down the Sound somewhere and drowned them like they should have done, if they didn't!" 

Engines? "By-gollies, give me a man with an oar in his hand!" It is not unlikely that if he had had only the orders from Washington to contend with, he would have, as was generally his custom, ignored the box altogether and, at a suitable time, dumped it into the ocean. But there was his crew's curiosity about what was in the box and what was in the accompanying book. Everyday, among themselves and just within his hearing, they discussed the engine and the book, and they wondered what it would do if they installed the engine in a skiff and started her up.

When hints and other tactics got them nowhere and the box and its baleful contents just sat there, the crew shifted into tack. They began to wonder privately and among themselves whether their Keeper was afraid of it. Cap'n Ban, it is remembered, had uncommonly keen hearing, and his ears were large, protruding widely beyond the reach of his impressive black whiskers.

There came a day when this passive resistance and this not wholly passive insistence could be tolerated no more. Cap' n Ban bellowed very loudly and blasphemously on that occasion - something rare for him - for the crew to take up the box and the book and to follow him to the Sound where a skiff lay on the shore.

They put down the skiff into the water with its stern protruding into shallow water. The Keeper was a handy person with tools; therefore, the installation of the propeller and wheel was no problem. Cap'n Ban worked alone, and nearby the crew sat with the book.

This was one of the very earliest naphtha engines made in an era in which the word gasoline had not been contrived. It was a very crude engine, gearless and reversible. It had a single cylinder and the directions in the book were as simple as the mechanism itself. The crew sat on the bank of the Sound and read out of the book, beginning with 'Instruction One' and continuing down the list of procedures. It took most of the day, and the only comment the Keeper made was, "What does it say next?"  

Toward the middle of the afternoon, the installation had come down to that section, 'How to Start a Naphtha Engine.' Foul-smelling fuel oil was decanted into the opening appointed to receive it and the engine, in so far as the crew could know from reading the book, was ready to be started when Cap'n Ban asked the final and critical question: 'What does it say now?' The crew read him the directions from out of the book.

And then the engine started with such a roar as had not been heard on the Outer Banks since the unlethal bombardment at the Battle of Chicamacomico thirty-five years earlier! Somehow or other Cap'n Ban must not have been paying attention to the scholarly members of his crew, because the naphtha engine started in reverse, and the propeller bit hungrily into the water. Before he had time to consider what was happening, the boat was plumb out of the harbor and out of range of his mentors on the shore.

Ahead, fifteen or so miles, lay the dimly-outlined shore of the mainland, and I the skiff was headed there stern-first! 

Ashore, the crew ran hither and yon, some wading out into the water, and all shouting. Their words were shredded by the counter-roar of the godless, implacable engine that was hurling Cap'n Ban westward at a fearful velocity! He was unable to determine what he should do next! Or what the book would have recommended. But somehow, that damnable piece of evil had to be silenced and stopped!

There was an oar in the skiff. And Cap'n Ban knew the uses of an oar. Even new and not-yet tried uses.

He took up the oar and, with the butt of it, he beat the naphtha engine into submission!

'The oar survived practically intact and, with it, Cap'n Ban rowed himself back to the Sound shore where his crew waited. He beached the skiff and spoke briefly to his men before he strode away toward the station he had built and commanded over thirty-five years.

'Some of you that can write,' he told them, "write them in Washington and say the danged thing is no good for this country down here. And get the blamed contraption out of that skiff and plug up the hole we made in her to get that there through." He pointed disdainfully to the unhurt propeller shaft.

There is no doubt about it, Cap'n Ban was a mighty man with an oar. He was a surfman, and the oar was a part of him and his tradition there above Wimble which, next to Diamond Shoals, is as dangerous a place as there is on the Atlantic seaboard. Scores of ships have died there. But because Cap'n Ban, and others like him, had an instinctive knowledge of the sea and how to use an oar in a boat, hundreds of men were saved. Cap'n Ban's logbook, in which he wrote most often in private in his strong, legible hand, is a marvel of heroism, told with a simplicity and directness that never showed a consciousness of his own heroism. He was a proud but humble, God-fearing man, not afraid of anything in the sea or out of it.

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