Like previous stories in the Turn-of-the-Century Toughs cycle, this novella is set in an alternative version of America that was settled in ancient times. All of the locations in the novella are based on actual places in Virginia (i.e. the Queendom of Yclau).
Yclau Beach is Virginia Beach, which was founded in the 1880s as a resort community through the construction of a single hotel. While I was trying to figure out some reason why D. Urman's railroadman father would have moved his family to a resort hotel, I discovered to my delight that Virginia Beach was actually founded by a railroad owner, Marshall Parks. Forming a company with other investors, Colonel Parks built the Norfolk and Virginia Beach Railroad to the coast and then built the Princess Anne Hotel (originally called the Virginia Beach Hotel). The hotel burned down in 1907, but before then the hotel attracted the cream of society to Virginia Beach.
Resort cottages began to spring up in Virginia Beach soon after the arrival of the Princess Anne Hotel. Among them was a cottage just south of the hotel, built in 1895 by a later superintendent of the hotel and railroad company, B. P. Holland; he built the home after marrying, and he enjoyed watching wildfowl from its cupola. The home was later bought by Cornelius deWitt and renamed Wittenzand Cottage – that is, White Sand Cottage. It is now the last surviving building from Virginia Beach's nineteenth-century waterfront. It houses the Atlantic Wildfowl Heritage Museum.
Virginia Beach's Seatack Life-Saving Station (the name "Seatack" may have arisen from a local battle during the War of 1812) has also survived, in the form of its 1903 station, now housing the Virginia Beach Surf & Rescue Museum. Seatack's nineteenth-century surfmen worked from an earlier building.
Cape Henry, at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, is the site of not one but two lighthouses. The younger of these two lighthouses, built in 1881, is the one that features in my story. Cape Henry also had a weather station in the 1880s, but not a manor house. Today, part of the cape is an army base. The northern portion of the cape, First Landing State Park, serves as a reminder that Cape Henry was the site where the Virginia Company colonists first landed before entering the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay and then moving upriver to Jamestown, where they created the first permanent English settlement in the Americas.
As for the barrier island in this story, it is Assateague Island of
Virginia and Maryland, famous for its Chincoteague ponies, also known as
Assateague horses. (I'm sure I'm not the only person who was introduced
to the island through Marguerite Henry's 1947 novel for children, Misty
of Chincoteague.) Local legend says that the horses came from a Spanish
shipwreck. Historians offer the more prosaic theory that Colonial Americans
placed their horses on the island in order to avoid paying taxes on their
beasts. At any rate, the horses remain feral, thanks to careful conservation.
Much of Assateague Island is wild, but some campgrounds exist on it. I
stayed in a house there with my family when I was young. I remember the
island as very bleak and windy.
Living in Maryland, I've experienced a few hurricanes, as well as one dreadful derecho that felled dozens of trees on my block. But my most vivid memory of storm damage comes from a hurricane I've only read about: the New England Hurricane of 1938, which slammed into the northeastern United States without warning on September 21, 1938.
A vivid fictional account of this hurricane can be found in Parhelion's novelette "Express," a tale that taught me a great deal about foreshadowing hurricanes. However, it was from a PBS documentary, The Hurricane of '38, that I learned the tale of Jeff and Catherine Moore and their four children, residents of Napatree, Rhode Island, a beach community.
I needn't recount their tale, because I've already done so in this story. With the notable exception of the cupola and the horses, nearly every detail of my six characters' survival story is borrowed from that of the Moore family. Along with a friend of the family and three servants, the Moores underwent the destruction of their cottage as their attic was turned into a raft and pulled into the waters. Believing they were being swept out to sea, the Moores and their fellow refugees clung to the raft while it was encircled by sharks. All of the refugees finally made it to shore mere moments before the raft broke into two.
My other source for the story was the Hurricane of 1879, also called the Great Beaufort Hurricane or the Tempest of 1879. On August 18, this storm swept along the coast of North Carolina, causing the collapse of the Atlantic Hotel in Raleigh. (The hotel proprietor was reportedly warned of the oncoming storm but didn't want to disturb his prominent guests' participation in a Grand Dress Ball.) Travelling further north, that hurricane was the worst nineteenth-century storm to pass through Norfolk, Virginia. Officially, it is dubbed a Category 3 hurricane by modern meteorologists, but since the wind gauges blew away at Cape Henry and practically every other weather station along the coast, nobody knows for sure how powerful the storm was. Weathermen at one North Carolina station estimated the storm winds as rising to 165 miles per hour, which would make the storm at that point a Category 5 hurricane, the strongest type.
What effect the storm had on Virginia Beach is lost to history. At that time, nothing existed on Virginia Beach except the life-saving station and a hunting clubhouse.
That would hardly be the last bad storm at Virginia Beach. In 1891,
the Dictator, a Norwegian ship, foundered offshore. Although the
surfmen were able to save Captain Jorgen Jorgensen and some of his crew,
the captain's wife and four-year-old son were drowned. For many years,
the figurehead from the Dictator stood on the waterfront side of
the Princess Anne Hotel. Later, "the Norwegian Lady" was lost, but today
replicas of the figurehead exist in Virginia Beach and in Moss, Norway,
the home port of the Dictator. Their plaques say:
The Norwegian Lady
I Stand Here
As My Sister Before Me
To Wish All Men Of The Sea
Safe Return Home
My reconstruction and acknowledgments
I recreated 1880s Virginia Beach from a variety of sources, especially Jonathan Mark Souther's dissertation "Twixt ocean and pines: the seaside resort at Virginia Beach, 1880-1930" (posted online) and images at the Virginia Beach Public Library's digital archives.
Colonel Urman's storm instructions to his servants are adapted from an 1890s memo (which I found at Virginia Beach Public Library's digital archives) to the Princess Anne Hotel staff on how to clean up after a recent storm and to prepare for future storms. An 1888 brochure advertising the Princess Anne Hotel is stored at the Internet Archive. From that brochure's pictures and other images, I knew the appearance of the hotel's waterfront facade, its main hall, its dining room (whose windows I've lowered, for drama's sake), and – from a much later postcard, after the structure had been moved – the pavilion. Since I wasn't able to locate a floor plan for the hotel, I've filled the gaps with my imagination.
I was more fortunate concerning the deWitt Cottage (variously spelled). Not only was I able to locate a floor plan and detailed historical description from the National Register of Historic Places, but Clark L. Mandigo, director of the Atlantic Wildfowl Heritage Museum, generously supplied me with a good deal of information about the cottage's attic. For the most part, my characters experience the cottage as it actually was in the nineteenth century; however, I've changed a few details for drama's sake, such as making the cottage wooden rather than brick.
My information about the Hurricane of 1879 comes from various history books and from 1879 weather reports. The hurricane in this story follows the path of the Hurricane of 1879, but I've used my own imagination to determine the hurricane's timing, speed, intensity, wind direction, and storm surge.
As for the New England Hurricane of 1938, there is a wealth of information available about it, including many interviews with the four Moore children. I drew mainly upon R. A. Scotti's book Sudden Sea: The Great Hurricane of 1938 (also the main source for Parhelion's story) and the above-mentioned PBS documentary.
I first saw the documentary around the time it initially aired, in 1993. It has lingered in my mind all these years, serving as the seed for this story. Two lines from the documentary are especially memorable. One, which I have borrowed for this story, is Catherine Moore's account of how her father tried to hold back the water by pressing himself against their cottage's front door: "He was trying to hold back the ocean."
The other remark furrowed itself into my mind and perhaps shaped my understanding of the difference between being perceived as a hero and actually undergoing the experience of being a hero. Catherine Moore said of her parents:
"I'm sure that there must have been just cold fear in the pit of their stomachs, but it didn't translate to us."