Historical Reminiscing with Robert B. Hitchings
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A 1956 Nor'easter Surprise

1956 was an unusual year. I was about 7 years old and I remember my parents talking about several ships that made the news in 1956. One was the sinking of the Andrea Doria off of Nantucket, July 27th, and the christening of the three ships (replicas) from Blackwell, England, December 21st, to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the Jamestown settlement. They were the Susan Constant, Godspeed and the Discovery.

However, the ship I remember more than all others was the Paraporti, a Costa Rican ship that made an impact on my life showing how nature was more powerful than man.

On the night of April 11, 1956, Norfolk and surrounding areas experienced a terrific Northeastern storm, a storm with 70 mile-an-hour winds and the highest tides in over 20 years. I do not remember much about the storm; my parents and I were safe inside our house. In fact, I do not remember the storm at all. However, the next day on the news Channel 3, and in our newspaper we heard and read all about the devastation this storm had caused, especially to the Ocean View and Virginia Beach areas.

The big news of the day was that a huge ship, a freighter named Paraporti, had been blown by the gusts of winds and went aground on the Chesapeake Beach. She was a 5,000-ton coal-burner built in England in 1925. Today, this ship would have landed about a few yards away from the south causeway of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. This ship called the Paraporti stayed on the beach for 108 days as special ships and tugs tried endlessly to free her from the beach.

One Sunday afternoon in April my parents decided to go see this huge ship. They had friends, the Mercer family, who lived at the end of Pleasure House Road and we parked in their front yard. The Mercers were within walking distance of the famous casino and popular night spot at Chesapeake Beach.

As we approached the Bay, we were all shocked to see this huge freighter sitting right in front of us on the beach. To see such a huge ship as a kid is unimaginable. I had never seen a ship so close and how the force of nature could do this. Looking back years later it was just mind boggling. I remembered the ship was dark and had lots of brown rust on its sides. I remember one neighbor telling my Father how shocked he was to wake up in the morning to find this huge ship in their back yard.

That day there were many sight-seers looking at the Paraporti, especially lots of teens, some of which were walking out into the water to touch the ship and then walking back. I was too scared to do this. I mostly I remember looking up at the sailors sitting in their decks chairs and moving about on deck. They all seemed to be unaware of all the excitement they were causing. That day was warm and I remember how I had to put my sandals back on because the sand was very hot on my feet.

As the summer wore on, crowds of weekend spectators grew. Going to look and see the Paraporti was the "in thing" to do. It drew crowds of people. The beach became covered with people with picnic baskets having their lunch in front of the ship. Entrepreneurial spirit was at its all-time high with their fancy trucks and bikes with wagons roaming the beech to sell refreshments to the tourists. The Paraporti was a big tourist attraction from the get-go.

As the days and weeks went by the Virginian-Pilot newspaper and our local television Channel 3 reported that the crew aboard the Paraporti was ready to mutiny because the living conditions aboard ship were so bad. The food was vile, there was no water or electricity, rats roamed the ship especially where the linens were kept as well. An American lawyer and a doctor boarded the ship in late May to inspect the crew and living conditions. They came away with one word, "deplorable.” Six crewman jumped ship, followed by fourteen others. They were all quickly apprehended by local police. Later amateur salvers from New York arrived on the scene to free the ship. They attempted to use bulldozers. The captain got mad and had the cables cut connected to the vehicles. Tempers seem to get out of control. After a few days the Captain and his mates cooled down when Navy tugs were called in to move and free the ship, but that did not work either.

With all this hullabaloo, some of the crew of the Paraporti somehow shimmied down a rope and got to mingle with the local residents. If that was not bad enough, a beach resident got into a minor argument with a policeman. He broke arrest and dived into the bay to seek sanctuary aboard the Paraporti. The police called out the riot squad. People on the beach chanted to the man, “Go, go, go, go," etc. Shouts of foul language could be heard. The beach resident was later apprehended by police in a motorboat. He was clinging to a cable of the ship’s stern. To the many tourist on the beach, this was excitement at its best. And all this made the news on television and our local newspapers.

Finally, on July 11th the M-CS tug Curb arrived from New York and began pulling the Paraporti towards deeper water. For 17 days the Curb tugged and tugged and pulled and pulled until on July 18th Paraporti floated into the deep water of the Chesapeake Bay. Unfortunately, within a few hours, the Paraporti again ran into more trouble when she landed on a sandbar. Again the Curb was called out to refloat the ship. After this incident, the ship was finally free and able to make a trip to the Norfolk Shipyard for repairs.

The departure of the Paraporti was met with mixed emotions. One resident said, “We are relieved to see it go because the traffic was so bad on Sundays that it was a mess.” The residents of the area had enough of the tourists and traffic. However, one beach person said, “We felt real sad to see it go out. We felt like a very exciting summer guest had just departed.”

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Robert B. Hitchings is a seventh generation Norfolk resident, graduating with an Associate's Degree in Biology from Old Dominion University and BA in history from Virginia Wesleyan University. During his studies he was awarded a scholarship at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, England, and he was an exchange student at Brooks-Westminster College, Oxford, England. From 1999-2014 he worked as head of the Sargeant Memorial History Room at Norfolk Public Library, and since then has headed the Wallace History Room at Chesapeake Public Library. He is also the President of the Norfolk County Historical Society, and for six years was a columnist for The Virginian-Pilot. Robert may be reached at nchs.wallaceroom@gmail.com