The William Sumner: Topsail Island’s Shipwreck Story

It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, those of us here on Topsail Island let our imaginations get pirated away by the odd things the Atlantic gives up and uncovers. We find ourselves caught up in the mysterious legends of the past and tales of what happened on the high seas…or well… in this case…the low seas.

Yes, it seems that the wind and water of the recent Autumn storms turned up a rarely seen treasure on our golden shore: a portion of the shipwreck of The William Sumner.

After hearing about Topsail Island’s shipwreck, I googled The William Sumner to find out more information. I wasn’t sure what my search would uncover, but because I’ve always been one to love a good seafaring story, I was hoping to find one with mystery, mutiny, and murder. You know…something intriguing by history book standards. My research did not disappoint me. Seems like Topsail Island has a bonafide shipwreck with a mystery surrounding it that still captivates people’s imaginations.


In 1919, The William Sumner, a three-masted, 165 foot, 572-ton schooner, was sailing from South America back to its homeport in New York. It wasn’t laden with gold, silver or precious gems, but was carrying 850 tons of phosphate rock, 58 tons of mahogany and 30 tons of ironwood. I guess you could say it was a “work horse” carrying a normal cargo.

The boat had eight crew members. The first mate was Charles Lacey and the skipper, or captain, was Robert E. Cochrane. Cochrane was only twenty-four years old and this was his first voyage as the one in charge.

On September 7, the ship was traveling up the North Carolina coastline, dangerously close to the shoals, or sand bars.  When it reached Topsail Inlet in Surf City, it ran aground.  Hoping that high tide currents would dislodge the ship from the sand, Cochrane waited for the sea to set his ship free from the shoals. Instead, the ship sunk deeper into the sand and took on water, later splitting in two.


The next morning, Charles Lacey came ashore and told authorities that the boat’s skipper, Robert Cochrane, had committed suicide earlier that morning of September 8. Apparently, he had shot himself in the head with his revolver becasue he was upset about running his ship aground. Lacey was hoping he’d be able to get a tug boat to get the William Sumner back out to sea.

The story sounded “fishy” to the authorities.  That day, they questioned the ship’s crew members. At first, all the crew members put on an united front, saying they believed Cochrane had commited sucide. However, after several days of questioning,  new suspicions began to surface that Charles Lacey had murdered Cochrane instead. Some of the crew members said that they had seen Lacey threaten and try to kill Cochrane more than once. They thought that Lacey had been angry that Cochrane had mishandled the ship when it ran aground. The others maintained the theory that Lacey and Cochrane had been friends and that Cochrane had just killed himself because he could not bear the fact he had ruined his ship.


Who was right? Had Charles Lacy tried to commit mutiny by murdering the young skipper, Robert Cochrane? Or did Cochrane just “go down with his ship,” the expected action of any good captain? After a year in jail and two seperate trials, Charles Lacey was found “not guilty” of the murder of Robert Cochrane. He and the other crew members were allowed to go free.

The local mystery surrounding the wreck of the William Sumner is brought to our attention  on Topsail Island maybe once or twice every year. Records show that the ship was blown up by the US Coast Guard shortly after it ran aground and split in half. They did not want it’s wreckage to be a hazard to other traveling sea vessels sailing up our coast. Years later,  remnants of the wreck became covered by the ocean floor or became part of the ocean’s burried  history we’ll never see. Except for one thing…


Yep…somehow, a twenty-eight by eleven piece of the deck of the William Sumner made it to the 700 block of beach in Surf City on Topsail Island. It’s been there for a very long time and is always there, just burried under the sand. During low tide, after the winds of a hurricane or Nor’easter come our way, parts or all of that piece of schooner becomes bared to our residents and vacationers.

After the recent hurricanes, I heard that the William Sumner was once again, showing off for us. I parked my car in a public parking place closest to the wreckage and walked to the top of the cross over walk way that led to the beach. From a distance, I saw what looked to be a pile of old wood. Others were standing with me on the deck who had come to see the piece of curiosity too. A few folks were poking around the pile and taking pictures.  I began to walk toward it and as I got closer,  I noticed that the beams were worn and water logged by the salt water and studded with iron pegs and some type of pitch. I said to a boy who was standing there admiring the mysterious piece of history. “It just looks like a pile of wood, doesn’t it?” “Yes,” he said, “But that old wood is about one hundred years old and it sailed upon the sea!”

The boy was enchanted. He was caught up in the mystery of the wreck of the William Sumner. I reached out to touch the piece of history and let myself feel the magic of the legend. The intrigue of a mutinous murder. Hey guys…Topsail Island has a shipwreck story all its own!

To view this portion of the William Sumner, wait until the next big storm and check the 700 block of the beach in Surf City. If you’re lucky, you’ll see a part of our local mystery ship!


Click here for some cool images of the William Sumner









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