Whether you’re a vacationer or a local, when most people think of the Outer Banks of North Carolina, images of rolling sand dunes topped with swaying seagrass often come to mind. While these picturesque dunescapes make for some of the best photography on the entire Eastern Seaboard, few who wander the winding pathways between the dunes to reach to salty shoreline know the unique history of the manmade mounds of sand that protect private residences, vacation rental homes and businesses along the Outer Banks.
For centuries, the 200-mile-long string of sandbars that hug the North Carolina coast have served as a barrier between the mainland and the pounding surf of the Atlantic Ocean. Breaking waves slowly erode the shoreline while coastal winds blow the billions of grains of sand that comprise the beaches, causing the islands to shift ever so slightly westward over time. This natural migration of the barrier islands continued unchecked for hundreds of years, until the Outer Banks’ population swelled and the area began to attract vacationers—and the shifting sands posed a threat to property, infrastructure and livelihood.
In the early 20th century, long before the Outer Banks became the bustling vacation destination it is today, the beaches from Corolla to Nags Head to Hatteras Village were predominantly flat; the only sand dunes that dotted the coastline were piles of sand that had formed naturally as the island slowly edged toward the west. Oceanfront homes—modest by today’s standards—sprang up along the shore as well-to-do residents of inland communities created spots where they could escape the hot and humid summers and seek respite on the breezy beaches.
While the shifting sands uncovered hidden treasures in some spots—such as long-buried maritime forests and centuries-old cemeteries where some of the islands’ earliest settlers were laid to rest—in other areas the blowing sand encroached upon houses, hotels and attractions, including the miniature golf course that today lies entombed beneath Jockey’s Ridge State Park in Nags Head. But the intruding mounds of sand that threatened to swallow portions of the burgeoning beach towns weren’t the only concern of Outer Banks in the early 1900s. The threat of high storm surges that accompanied hurricanes and nor’easters was ever present, and when such a coastal weather system struck, the ocean overtook the island, oftentimes causing massive flooding from the sea to the sound.
Concerned for the future of the Outer Banks and its ability to continue to serve as a popular vacation destination for travelers from up and down the East Coast, residents, business owners and investors alike recognized the need for erosion protection on the towns’ beaches. In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the New Deal, a series of federal programs that focused on providing economic relief from the Great Depression. The scope of the program spanned from housing and agriculture to labor and finance, and its development included the creation of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, which provided federal funds to put Americans back to work. The National Park Service and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) joined forces and initiated a program that called for the development of manmade sand dunes along the Outer Banks that would be stabilized with vegetation and fencing.
Military-style camps were constructed for housing on Roanoke Island and Hatteras Island, and as many as 1,500 workers from the WPA and the Civilian Conservation Corps spent seven days a week transforming timber and brush into sand fences and setting them up along the edge of the shoreline of the Atlantic Ocean. Once the fences were in place, the blowing sand was prevented from passing the sand fence barriers, and a dune system began to take shape and steadily grow. Workers secured the sand dunes further by planting sea oats and cordgrass, whose roots would help to fortify the dunes as the vegetation grew.
The result of the workers’ effort—which was completed shortly before World War II began in 1941—was the construction of more than 3 million feet of oceanside sand fencing and a system of sand dunes that ranged in height from 10 feet to 25 feet tall. The sand dune project was considered a success, as the presence of the protective dunes prohibited storm surges from ravaging the island and flooding lowland areas along the Outer Banks. Today, the vast majority of these manmade dunes that were constructed along the coast throughout the 1930s still remain, and efforts are constantly underway to rebuild any dunes that are damaged or destroyed in coastal storms so that the sand dunes can continue to serve as a barrier that protects property and the people that call the Outer Banks home.