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Top 10 Outer Banks Activities and Attractions for Vacationers

Top 10 Outer Banks Activities and Attractions for Vacationers

Photo: Dan Waters Photography

When it comes to the best vacation destinations in the United States, the Outer Banks of North Carolina consistently earns a spot on the lists compiled by various travel companies, publications and blogs each season. In 2017, Southern Living magazine ranked the Outer Banks as the “South’s Best Island,” and the picturesque sliver of sand has also found a spot on Dr. Beach’s list of the “Top 10 Beaches in America” every single year for the past decade.

Photo: Sport Fishing Magazine

The popularity of the Outer Banks has grown exponentially since some of the area’s first vacation homes were constructed here nearly a century ago, with tens of thousands of visitors venturing to the 120-mile-long string of barrier islands each year to spend a week in paradise. Although the vast majority of people who visit the Outer Banks are drawn to the region in search of opportunities for relaxation and recreation by the sea, the shifting shoals that comprise the North Carolina coast offer far more than just fun in the sun.

Whether you’re planning your first-ever vacation on the Outer Banks or you’ve been visiting the OBX for decades, the following are the top 10 Outer Banks activities and attractions you can’t afford to miss the next time you’re in town.

1. Climb the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

Photo: Stephanie Banfield

No Outer Banks vacation is complete without a trip to Hatteras Island to see the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in person. The 193-foot-tall, black-and-white spiral structure is situated in the tiny town of Buxton and has been an iconic Outer Banks landmark since its construction was completed in 1803. Visitors can take a tour of the historic lighthouse keepers’ quarters to learn more about the men who were responsible for fueling the lamp and maintaining the light that served as a guide for mariners sailing along the dangerous shoals of the Graveyard of the Atlantic decades ago. And if you’re searching for an unforgettable Outer Banks experience, climb the 257 steps that lead to the top of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, where you’ll be treated to stunning, 360-degree views of the Atlantic Ocean, Pamlico Sound, the converging currents at Cape Point and the village of Buxton below.

2. Take a Wild Horse Tour in Corolla

Photo: CorollaWildHorses.com

The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse might be the most famous attraction on the Outer Banks, but the wild horses of Corolla are certainly not far behind. Believed to be the descendants of Spanish mustangs that swam to shore after the vessels they were being transported on were shipwrecked off the coast of North Carolina five centuries ago, as many as 6,000 horses once roamed the beaches of Corolla and the four-wheel drive area of Carova to the north. Today, the herd consists of approximately 100 wild horses that can be spotted running along the seashore, splashing in the surf and foraging for food among the sand dunes and salt marshes. Visitors with off-road vehicles are welcome to scour the shoreline in search of the horses on their own; however, embarking on a tour with a local company whose guides are knowledgeable about the horses’ whereabouts is highly recommended.      

3. Tour the Historic Whalehead Club

Photo: Steve Alterman Photography

While you’re in Corolla searching for sightings of the wild horses of the northern Outer Banks, head to the historic Whalehead Club for a unique trip back in time. Located just a short walking distance from the Currituck Beach Lighthouse, the Whalehead Club is a 21,000-square-foot mansion that sits on the western edge of the barrier island and overlooks the Currituck Sound. The 12-bedroom, four-story residence was constructed in 1925 as a lavish hunting lodge for a wealthy couple who frequently visited the Outer Banks to hunt the wide array of waterfowl that inhabited the towns of Duck and Corolla in the early 20th century. Today, the Whalehead Club is best-known as being a prime venue for Outer Banks weddings and receptions; however, the property can be toured by those interested in learning what life would have been like on the Outer Banks when the structure was built and seeing lavish examples of the Art Nouveau style of architecture that was popular during its heyday.

4. Hike to the Top of Jockey’s Ridge

Photo: Pinterest

Whether you’re a wildlife enthusiast hoping to encounter some of the unique species that call the Outer Banks home, or you’re looking for a place you can experience one of the best views on the islands, heading to Nags Head to hike to the top of Jockey’s Ridge should be on every vacationer’s bucket list. The largest living natural sand dune system in the eastern United States, the dunes cover a 420-acre area along the edge of the Roanoke Sound and stand as tall as 100 feet in some spots. The views from the top of the ridge can’t be beat—you’ll not only have a stunning view of the sound and the ocean, but also the town of Nags Head below and Roanoke Island in the distance. Embark on a journey along one of the many nature trails that wind their way through this popular North Carolina state park, where you’ll likely spot a variety of animals ranging from white-tailed deer and rabbits to foxes, lizards and luna moths. And if you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, sign up for a hang gliding lesson to discover what it feels like to soar over the sand dunes while taking in a stunning view of the Atlantic Ocean on the horizon.

5. Tour the Wright Brothers National Memorial

Photo: National Park Service

On Dec. 17, 1903, brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright made history when they successfully completed the world’s first powered flight in their 40-foot, 605-pound Flyer from the top of a large sand dune on the central Outer Banks. The brothers made four flights on that fateful day, and the fourth and final time the pair took to the air their glider stayed aloft for 59 seconds, soaring a record-breaking 852 feet. A colossal monument atop a huge hill in the heart of Kill Devil Hills commemorates the Wright Brothers’ historic achievement that forever changed the face of aviation, and visitors can walk up to the top of the hill for exceptional views of the surrounding towns, ocean and sound, or take a tour of the on-site Wright Brothers museum just a short distance away from the base of the monument. Four large stone markers on the grounds of this national monument in Kill Devil Hills indicate the landing spot of each flight attempted that December day, with the fourth stone showcasing the one that made history and put the Outer Banks on the map more than a century ago

6. Visit the Site of the Lost Colony

Photo: National Park Service

History buffs who visit the Outer Banks will never be disappointed during their stay, as the barrier islands have been ground zero for an assortment of historical events that have taken place here over the course of the past several centuries. One such event continues to puzzle historians more than 430 years after it occurred: the disappearance of the men, women and children of the infamous “Lost Colony.” In the summer of 1587, a group of settlers recruited by Sir Walter Raleigh made the long and arduous journey from the coast of England to the shores of Roanoke Island, where they constructed a fort-like settlement in the present-day town of Manteo. Among the settlers were a man named John White, as well as his pregnant daughter, Eleanor Dare, and her husband, Ananias Dare.

Photo: American Digest

On Aug. 18, 1587, Eleanor gave birth to a daughter, Virginia Dare, who became the first English child to be born in the New World. Less than two weeks after his granddaughter was born, John White embarked on a journey back to Britain to procure additional supplies for the colonists of the brand-new settlement. When he finally returned to Roanoke Island in 1590, he found the fort completely deserted and no signs of the 117 settlers he had left behind just three years earlier. The tale of the Lost Colony still intrigues historians and archaeologists, who have yet to determine exactly what events transpired in the 16th century and resulted in the disappearance of the colonists. Today, tourists vacationing on the Outer Banks can visit the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site to see the spot that members of the Lost Colony called their home for a short time before they mysteriously vanished from the barrier island more than four centuries ago.

7. Stroll through the Elizabethan Gardens

Photo: ElizabethanGardens.org

The Outer Banks may be most well-known for its beautiful ocean beaches and pristine stretches of soundside shoreline, but one lesser-known attraction that every vacationer should visit during their stay is the Elizabethan Gardens. Featuring over 500 different species of plants and flowers, the picturesque gardens stretch across 10.5 acres on the northern tip of Roanoke Island, in the soundside town of Manteo. The origins of the Elizabethan Gardens can be traced back to the 1950s, when a group of vacationers visited the nearby Fort Raleigh National Historic Site and learned the story of the so-called “Lost Colony” that had briefly settled on the Outer Banks in the 16th century and then abruptly disappeared without a trace.

Photo: RoanokeIsland.net

Inspired by the story of the 117 colonists who disappeared centuries ago, the group of visitors sought to create a place that would permanently pay homage to the settlers from the Lost Colony. On Aug. 18, 1960, the 373rd anniversary of the birth of colonist Virginia Dare—who became the first English child born in the New World when she was born on Roanoke Island—the Elizabethan Gardens officially opened to the public. The site has remained a popular Outer Banks attraction since its gates first opened, and each year thousands of tourists take a leisurely stroll along the pathways that weave throughout the gardens to view the wide variety of botanical collections that change with the seasons as spring and summer give way to fall and winter. 

8. Visit the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station

Photo: Scenic USA

With its converging currents, shallow waters and constantly shifting shoals that make navigating the coastline a difficult task for mariners, the Outer Banks of North Carolina are commonly referred to as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” Despite the presence of four lighthouses along the coastline from Ocracoke to Corolla—whose purpose was to help sailors navigate the treacherous shoals that lie just offshore from the barrier islands—thousands of vessels have become shipwrecked on the Outer Banks. To aid sailors whose vessels ran aground in returning safely to the shoreline, crews of surfmen were historically stationed at spots along the North Carolina coast—including the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station—and rowed large wooden surfboats past the breakers and into the Atlantic Ocean to save those who were stranded at sea as the ships went down.

Photo: Chicamacomico.org

Located on Hatteras Island, in the small village of Rodanthe, the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station was commissioned on Dec. 4, 1874, and its crew of surfmen became the first life-saving service in North Carolina. For years, the surfmen who staffed the Chicamacomico Life-Saving played a pivotal role in saving the lives of distressed sailors whose ships had begun to sink after striking the unseen diamond shoals. In November 1921, crew members from Chicamacomico were awarded gold life-saving medals by the British government for their incredible efforts to save the lives of three dozen soldiers who were tossed into a fiery sea when their ship, the Mirlo, struck a mine that had been dropped by a German U-boat, causing a series of massive explosions—and resulting in one of the most dramatic rescues in maritime history. Today, visitors can tour the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station to view a variety of artifacts, photos, interviews and rescue equipment, including an original surfboat used by the surfmen who staffed the station until it was decommissioned in 1954.

9. Cast a Line at Jennette’s Pier

Photo: OBXbound.com

Whether you’re an avid fisherman or you just want to find a stellar spot for sightseeing, taking a trip to Jennette’s Pier is an absolute must on your next Outer Banks vacation. This popular pier in Nags Head stretches 1,000 feet into the Atlantic Ocean, offering some of the best opportunities for pier fishing from Corolla to Ocracoke. Originally constructed in 1939, Jennette’s Pier became increasingly popular among anglers from up and down the Eastern Seaboard, who traveled to the barrier islands of North Carolina just to cast a line for the catch of the day. As the pier’s popularity grew, a series of bare-bones cottages along the oceanfront—which had formerly housed U.S. Civil Works Administration employees who spent time on the Outer Banks building a line of protective sand dunes during the Great Depression—were transformed into a camp for fishermen looking for affordable accommodations near the pier.

Photo: Pelmey Photography

As the decades passed, Jennette’s Pier took several beatings from hurricanes and nor’easters, and in 2003 a large portion of the structure succumbed to the massive power of Mother Nature when Hurricane Isabel hit the Outer Banks and took 540 feet of the original 754-foot-long wooden pier with it. The pier was forced to shut down operations for several years due to the damage, but the North Carolina Aquarium Society—which had purchased the pier from surviving members of the Jennette family shortly before the hurricane hit—started construction on a new pier in its place. In May 2011, the new version of Jennette’s Pier, which is made of concrete rather than wood to ensure the structure can withstand the force of coastal storms, officially opened to the public. Today, Jennette’s Pier is one of the longest fishing piers on the East Coast, and its pier house features a 3,000-gallon aquarium, a series of educational exhibits, a retail store, snack bar, event space and tackle shop. The staff of Jennette’s Pier also offer a variety of summer camps where kids visiting the Outer Banks can learn to fish, surf, paddleboard and hang glide, and veteran on-site anglers are available to offer family fishing activities and private lessons with a pro.

10. Explore the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge

Photo: Stephanie Banfield

Unlike other popular vacation destinations along the country’s coastline—which boast bustling boardwalks, crowded beaches and high-rise hotels—the Outer Banks are characterized by pristine stretches of shoreline and plenty of natural habitats home to a wide array of wildlife. And perhaps the best spot to experience the unparalleled beauty of the barrier islands and to encounter an assortment of unique species of wildlife up close is Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. The wildlife refuge was established in 1938, when the U.S. government sectioned off this portion of the island so it could serve as a nesting and resting habitat for migratory birds and waterfowl, and to provide a safe haven for threatened and endangered species.

Photo: Richmond Navigator

Located on the northern tip of Hatteras Island, Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge spans 13 miles, from Oregon inlet to the north to the village of Rodanthe to the south. Comprising 5,834 acres of land and 25,700 acres of boundary waters, the refuge is home to more than 365 species ranging from shorebirds and snow geese to piping plovers and sea turtles. Visitors can explore the refuge on foot via two nature trails—the North Pond Trail and the Salt Flats Trail—or launch a canoe or kayak from the boat ramp that provides paddlers easy access to the shallow, brackish waters of the sound, salt marsh and a series of wide canals along the margins of the refuge. Stretching from the waters of the Pamlico Sound on its western border to the Atlantic Ocean to the east, the Pea Island National Wildlife refuge offers incredible opportunities to enjoy a wide array of recreational activities on the Outer Banks, including birdwatching, surfing, kayaking, standup paddleboarding, and searching the shoreline for seaglass and seashells.

Wild Horses of the Outer Banks

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In the northernmost corner of the Outer Banks, a narrow stretch of sand between sound and sea called “Carova” is home to a herd of wild horses who freely roam the region’s beaches. An unincorporated community situated to the north of the village of Corolla and just south of the Virginia line, Carova’s name comes from its unique location on the border of two states: “Caro” for Carolina and “Va” for Virginia.

Although the community contains hundreds of Outer Banks vacation rental homes that require guests to use four-wheel drive in order to gain access, many visitors to this barrier island paradise are unfamiliar with this one-of-a-kind spot that has served as a sanctuary for Currituck County’s wild horses for centuries.

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The origins of these majestic Spanish mustangs can be traced back nearly 500 years to the days when pirates patrolled the coastline of the Outer Banks and shipwrecks within the treacherous shoals of the Graveyard of the Atlantic were common. Many theories attempt to explain how exactly these mysterious colonial Spanish mustangs ultimately ended up on the sandy shoreline of the northern Outer Banks, the most popular of which claims they swam to shore from vessels that became shipwrecked in the shallow waters of the sea.

The Diamond Shoals—a constantly shifting collection of sandbars that lie along the coast of North Carolina’s Outer Banks from Carova to Cape Hatteras—lie hidden on the seafloor and have been blamed for hundreds of shipwrecks for hundreds of years. While modern technology has made it much easier for vessels to navigate the moving sandbars and avoid running aground, in centuries past many mariners found themselves shipwrecked when their ships encountered an unseen stretch of sand beneath the surface of the Atlantic Ocean.

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With the expansion of English colonization that occurred in the late 1500s came a trade boom that resulted in an increased demand for products to be shipped from ports in the West Indies to Europe and the United States. While the most common forms of cargo found on ships that traversed the seven seas ranged from rum and molasses to sugar and spices, livestock—including Spanish mustangs—were also frequently transported on the trans-Atlantic trips.  

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According to local legend and historic accounts of some of the island’s earliest settlers, ships sailed by European explorers often encountered issues navigating the Outer Banks, and the Spanish mustangs onboard were forced to swim the short distance to shore in an attempt to save their own lives when shipwrecks occurred. Foraging among the sand dunes and salt marshes of this desolate island habitat, the horses fought hard for survival and consumed a diet of native vegetation, such as sea oats, acorns and grasses. Able to sustain their lives in one of the harshest environments of the Outer Banks, the hardy herd of horses continued to breed as the years passed, and their descendants still roam the beaches and neighboring maritime forests and marshes to this day.

A wild Banker Pony mare and her foal, Outer Banks, North Carolina

While the herd was once able to freely roam a much larger area, development and the paving of N.C. 12 from Duck to Corolla posed a potential threat to the wild horses, and they were eventually moved farther north to their current location—an area comprising more than 7,500 acres of both privately and publicly owned land—in 1995 to protect them from any harm. Research conducted by National Geographic states that as many as 6,000 wild horses resided on the Outer Banks as recently as 1926. Today, however, the number of horses in the herd is only around 110.

In an effort to protect the remainder of the wild horse herd that claimed the Outer Banks as its home more than five centuries ago, the Corolla Wild Horse Fund was established, and its team of employees and dedicated volunteers work tirelessly to educate visitors and locals alike about these creatures that earned the title of “State Horse of North Carolina” in 2010. Encountering the Spanish mustangs up close and personal is an incredible experience, and several companies located in the village of Corolla offer wild horse tours that allow visitors to view the Spanish mustangs in their natural environment—an experience that should not be missed on your next visit to the Outer Banks of North Carolina!

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History of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

Few attractions that dot the coastline of North Carolina are as famous as the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. Located in Buxton, this iconic black-and-white spiraled structure is the crown jewel of Hatteras Island and attracts nearly 200,000 visitors each year. If you’re planning a trip to our barrier island paradise, your vacation won’t be complete without a visit to this Outer Banks landmark that has protected the treacherous shoals of the Graveyard of the Atlantic for centuries.

Just off the coast of Cape Hatteras, the Labrador Current—a current of cold water that flows south from the coast of Canada—and the Gulf Stream—an ocean current comprised of warm waters from the Gulf of Mexico—collide and create one of the most dangerous spots for ships and sailors in Atlantic Ocean: the Diamond Shoals. When Congress recognized the hazards posed by this stretch of shoreline in 1794, the construction of a lighthouse was authorized to protect those attempting to navigate their way around the 12-mile-long sandbar.

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

The construction process began in 1799, and in October 1803 the original Cape Hatteras Lighthouse—a 90-foot-tall sandstone structure that boasted a lamp powered by whale oil—was lit for the first time. Despite its builders’ good intentions, the lighthouse was unable to effectively warn the sailors out at sea that they were entering the perilous waters of the Graveyard of the Atlantic. Deemed too short to send a strong enough signal to those whose ships were nearing Cape Hatteras, the lighthouse received numerous complaints, and in 1853 the Lighthouse Board approved the addition of 60 feet to the height of the structure.

Taking into account other complaints sailors had frequently made about the original lighthouse—namely that the unpainted sandstone exterior didn’t provide a stark contrast to the sky during daylight hours—the second version of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was painted white on the bottom and red on the top so it no longer blended into the background. To ensure the structure’s signal was strong enough to reach mariners sailing toward the treacherous coastline, the new lighthouse was retrofitted with a kerosene-powered Fresnel lens that allowed it to emit a much stronger beam of light that could be seen nearly 20 miles from shore. After years of use, however, the structure was in need of extensive repairs, and funds were soon appropriated for a new lighthouse that could better serve the needs of sailors traveling up and down the Eastern Seaboard.

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Construction got underway in October 1868, and in February 1871—two months after the new lighthouse was first lit in 1870—the 1803 lighthouse was demolished. In 1873, the present-day Cape Hatteras Lighthouse received its characteristic spiral marking of black and white stripes. Assigned by the Lighthouse Board, this distinctive daymark pattern as well as a unique light sequence—known as a “nightmark,” in which the light flashes every 7.5 seconds—helped to distinguish the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse from other navigational aids along the East Coast.

Although the newly constructed third rendition of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was both tall enough and bright enough to successfully warn ships of the dangerous shoals that lay ahead, the structure soon found itself facing another major challenge: Mother Nature. The tower was originally built in a spot deemed safe from the crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean; however, with each year that passed and every hurricane and nor’easter that hit the Outer Banks, more of the shoreline was stripped away, leaving the lighthouse increasingly vulnerable to imminent destruction.

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In 1893, the lighthouse stood 1,500 feet from the shoreline, but by 1975 only 175 feet separated the structure from the pounding surf—and cracks in the tower resulted in the lighthouse being closed to the public. In 1980 the lighthouse sat just 50 feet from the ocean, and the following year the “Save the Lighthouse Committee” was formed by U.S. Senator Helms and North Carolina Governor Hunt, among others. An independent study requested by the National Park Service (NPS) recommended relocation of the Outer Banks landmark, and the NPS later announced that moving the lighthouse to a safer spot posed less of a risk than leaving the structure in its perilous position. Restoration of the damaged tower began in 1990, and the lighthouse was reopened to the public in 1993.

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Six years later, in 1999, the keepers’ quarters, oil house and two cisterns were moved to a new site further inland, and soon after, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse began a journey that would garner worldwide attention. Over a period of just 23 days, in an effort to combat the ever-present threat of shoreline erosion the lighthouse faced as it stood precariously perched mere feet from the crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean. The 4,830-ton historic structure was lifted off its foundation at the edge of the encroaching sea, loaded onto a transport system and moved 2,900 feet to the southwest from the spot where it had stood since 1870. In 2000, the lighthouse finally reopened to the public. Now safely situated 1,500 feet from the shoreline, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse resumed its longtime duty of serving as a sentinel on the southern shores of the Outer Banks and continues to provide warnings to mariners brave enough to navigate the Diamond Shoals to this day.

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At a height of 210 feet, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is the tallest brick lighthouse in the United States. From the third Friday in April through Columbus Day, visitors can climb 257 steps to the top of this Outer Banks landmark, where they will be treated to unparalleled 360-degree views of the Atlantic Ocean, Pamlico Sound and the villages that surround this historic structure located in the heart of Hatteras Island.

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The Legacy of the Wright Brothers in Kitty Hawk

While just about every American, young and old, knows that the Wright brothers achieved the first successful airplane flight, many are likely unaware that this flight took place in the Outer Banks.  Considering the brothers lived in Ohio, why did they select Kitty Hawk, NC for their flying experiments?  To answer this, we must go back in history to when Wilbur and Orville were young.

The Influence of Family

The brothers were born into a family of abolitionists, temperance movement supporters, and active members of the Church of the United Brethren in Christ.  Their parents were firm believers in intellectual pursuits and encouraged their children to become well educated.  

Milton Wright, Wright brothers father
Milton Wright. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian

 

Susan Wright, Wright brothers mother
Susan Wright. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian

Wilbur and Orville’s mother Susan was especially unusual for a woman in that time period.  She studied literature at Hartville College in Indiana, where she met her husband Milton, and also had considerable mechanical knowledge learned from working closely with her father in his carriage shop.  She built toys for her children and even her own household appliances.  It was Susan who Orville and Wilbur turned to when they needed advice on their flying machines.

The brothers had a variety of individual talents, skills, and personality traits that complemented one another.  Wilbur Wright, of the Wright BrothersWilbur was intellectually motivated, excelled in school, had an extraordinary memory.  His young adult life was especially shaped by an accident when he was 13 years old that left him with lingering heart and digestive complications. A former athlete, his health problems resulted in depression and he isolated himself until he and his brother began working on their aeronautical research.

Orville Wright, of the Wright BrothersLike his brother, Orville was incredibly intelligent and inquisitive.  He was energetic, mischievous, and a practical joker, despite being painfully shy.  He enjoyed conducting experiments, building new inventions, and dismantling things to see how they worked.  Of the two, Orville more closely fit the stereotype of the innovator and scientist.  But Wilbur became the more public figure as he was a gifted speaker and not shy like Orville.

According to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, relying on each other’s strengths and compensating for each other’s weaknesses was crucial to the brother’s invention of the airplane. Neither probably could have achieved alone what they did together.  They also were influenced by their only sister Katharine. Katharine Wright, Wright brothers only sisterLike their mother, Katharine pursued her educational and career goals, graduating from Oberlin College and becoming a high school teacher.  Katharine, Orville, and Wilbur had a very strong bond and were more interested in their intellectual pursuits than finding partners and settling down.  None of them ever married.

Dayton, Ohio and Bicycles

The Wright brothers credited growing up in Dayton, OH as stimulating their interest in aeronautical engineering.  In the 1890s, Dayton was a hub for manufacturing and industry, making it a place humming with technological innovation.  This environment, along with their parents’ support, encouraged the boys to tinker and explore.  The brothers’ first experience with flight occurred in 1878, when their father gave them a small rubber band–powered toy helicopter designed by French aviation pioneer Alphonse Pénaud. Intrigued by the toy, Orville and Wilbur made several copies of it in varying sizes.  Their fascination with mechanics continued as they grew and as young men, they established a printing press followed by a bicycle repair shop and factory. These enterprises funded their aeronautical experiments.

While many factors contributed to the Wrights’ success with flight, their familiarity with bicycles played an influential role.  According to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, understanding the importance of balance, the need for strong but lightweight materials, the role of aerodynamic shape to combat wind resistance, and the chain-and-sprocket system for propulsion are a few of the lessons they learned from bicycles that would prove essential to their flying experiments.

The Brothers Arrive in Kitty Hawk

The Wright brothers concentrated their early research on simple hang gliders, following the path set by earlier inventors.  They were especially influenced by the German flight pioneer Otto Lilienthal, who made nearly 2000 brief flights in 16 different gliders between 1891 and 1896.  The brothers built upon Lilienthal’s research and between 1899 and 1905, they built and tested many airplane prototypes. The 1900 glider was the first piloted aircraft and was also the first to be tested in Kitty Hawk, NC.

The Wrights needed a number of specific conditions in order to test their glider.  First, they needed steady winds.  Second, they needed a wide-open space with limited obstructions.  Third, they needed something from which to launch their glider, such as high sand dunes.  Lastly, they wanted a place to experiment in peace without a lot of onlookers.  Kitty Hawk fit these requirements perfectly.  

The glider being flown as a kite in Kitty Hawk in 1900
The glider being flown as a kite in Kitty Hawk in 1900. Image courtesy of The National Park Service

At the time, Kitty Hawk was a tiny coastal fishing village of approximately 300 people with ideal average wind speed at 15 to 20 mph.  The Kill Devil Hills, located four miles south of town, provided massive dunes from which to glide, and an abundance of sand to cushion crash landings. While Kitty Hawk was ideally suited for their experiments, it was not without challenges.  The weather was often unpredictable with sudden squalls and constantly shifting sands.  But the brothers persevered.

Before making piloted glides, the Wrights always tested their gliders by flying them as kites. “Kiting” provided valuable data on lift and drag, and enabled them to get a feel for the controls.  Unfortunately, their 1900 glider only produced about half the lift they predicted, so it was back to the drawing board in Dayton, OH.

Wilbur Wright laying prone on glider just after landing in Kitty Hawk in 1901
Wilbur Wright laying prone on their glider in Kitty Hawk in 1901. Image courtesy of The National Park Service

The brothers returned to Kitty Hawk year after year, each time with an improved aircraft.  After collecting massive amounts of data, building a wind tunnel to test models, and over 200 wing designs, the brothers designed the successful 1902 glider.  Orville and Wilbur made between 700 and 1000 glides, some reaching 600 feet in the air.  This success invigorated them and they immediately started working on a powered airplane.

In 1903, they again returned to Kitty Hawk ready to test their aircraft, which they called “The Flyer.”  The first attempt was unsuccessful but the second attempt resulted in a 12-second flight — the very first piloted airplane flight.  The brothers alternated as pilots, and by the end of the day, their airplane had made an impressive 852-foot trip in 59 seconds.  The brothers filed for a patent in March 1903 and it was finally granted on May 22, 1906.

The Wright Flyer lifts off for the first time in Kitty Hawk in 1903. Orville is on board with Wilbur running alongside.
The Wright Flyer lifts off for the first time in Kitty Hawk in 1903. Orville is on board with Wilbur running alongside. Image courtesy of The National Park Service

The Wright Brothers’ Legacy

While Orville and Wilbur had achieved flight, their airplane was not exactly practical.  To successfully market their creation, they had to demonstrate it could turn, fly for longer periods, and fly over more varied terrain than Kitty Hawk’s sand dunes.  By the fall of 1905, the Wrights had built their third powered airplane and on October 5, Wilbur circled a field 30 times in 39 minutes. The brothers had finally proven that flight could be stable and practical.

Interestingly, Orville and Wilbur did not initially do much to popularize their success.  They didn’t fly publicly until 1908, when they started a European tour.  This caused them to become overnight celebrities.  They met with English royalty, were honored with parades, received the Legion of Honor award, and were caricatured by the media.  Both men disliked the attention, but if they were going to sell their airplane, they had to endure it.

The Wright Company secured numerous contracts with the U.S. military, selling The Flyer to the Army in 1909 and the Wright Model B to the Navy in 1911.  They produced a variety of designs until Orville sold the firm and retired in 1915, three years after Wilbur’s premature death.

The Wright brothers’ impact on the 20th century is beyond measure.  All successful airplanes have incorporated the basic design elements of the 1903 Wright Flyer.  Their inventions had an immense impact not simply on the military but on the entire culture, including technology, art, and literature.  They also became an integral part of the Outer Banks’ long history.  In commemoration of their accomplishments, a 60-foot granite memorial was erected in Kitty Hawk in 1932, which you can visit today.


 Blog by Jessica T. Smith for the Coastal Cottage Company

The restored Chicamacomico Life-Saving Service Station

The Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station

The U.S. Coast Guard has a rich history of military service, law enforcement, and maritime rescue.  It is currently the world’s twelfth largest naval force and enforces U.S. law in 3.4 million square miles of coastal water.  These impressive statistics make it hard to believe “The Guard” had humble beginnings connected to the Postal Service.  Yep, you read that correctly — the Postal Service!

It all began in 1790.  At the request of Alexander Hamilton, then Secretary of the Treasury, Congress established the Revenue Marine, which was responsible for collecting customs duties in the nation’s seaports.  In 1848, the Revenue Marine had the Life-Saving Service added to its responsibilities.  Around this time, the Treasury Department realized they were paying too much to rent spaces used by government entities.  So the decision was made to fund the construction of Post Offices and other government buildings, including life saving stations along the coast.  The first stations were run primarily by volunteers with no one in charge and no one receiving proper training.  In fact, most of the early crewmen were political appointees and Postal Service employees!  The U.S. Life-Saving Service Logo

The lifesaving system managed to continue with this lack of structure and training until the 1850s when Congress appropriated more funds to pay the salaries of full-time keepers at each station and superintendents to supervise.  But keepers still had to wrangle volunteer crews to help when ships were in distress!

Things changed in 1871 when Sumner Increase Kimball, a lawyer from Maine, was appointed the chief of the Revenue Marine Division. He succeeded in gaining funds to employ crews of surfmen and build new stations.  He also drew up regulations, established crew performance standards, and set station procedures.

Sumner Kimball who became chief of the Revenue Marine Division and was responsible for professionalizing the Life-Saving Service
Sumner Kimball. Image courtesy of Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station Historic Site

By 1874, Life-Saving Stations were being built in North Carolina. One of these stations was Chicamacomico, pronounced “chik-a-ma-COM-eh-co,” which is an Algonquin Indian word meaning “land of shifting sands” or “sinking sands.”  Sinking sands is an apt description because the construction process was not a smooth one!

Building was supposed to begin in 1871, but was quickly stymied. The contractor began work without proper materials, the winter weather interfered with progress, and the laborers walked off the job claiming deplorable work conditions. The original contractor even threatened the foreman with a gun, claiming he was responsible for the abandonment of the crew.

In 1874, a second contractor was hired and construction progressed more smoothly.  The station was commissioned on December 4, 1874.  Over time, violent storms damaged the original structure beyond repair, so a new station was built in 1911 and still stands today.

According to James Charlet, site manager of the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station Historic Site and Museum, the station employed up to eight lifesavers and one keeper, all of whom worked six days a week and spent Sundays on call.  They endured a grueling daily regimen of drills and if a crewman wanted a day off, he had to give 30 days notice and pay for his substitute’s wages!

Typically aided by only ropes and a wooden rowboat, the rescues these men performed were heroic.  One of the most famous rescues was of the British Tanker Mirlo in 1918. The Mirlo was torpedoed by a German U-Boat off the coast of Rodanthe. Carrying a massive amount of oil, the tanker immediately caught fire.  Six Chicamacomico crew members launched their wooden boat from the beach, and paddled five miles out to where the crew was stranded. The life-saving crew made multiple trips to rescue as many sailors as they could.  After six and a half hours, the crew had saved 42 of the 51 British sailors.  As a result of this rescue, the six crew members received The Grand Cross of the American Cross of Honor. This medal of valor had requirements so high that only 11 people total have ever received it.  Six of them were stationed at the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station.

The restored Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station
The restored Chicamacomico Station. Image courtesy of Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station Historic Site

 

By the mid-20th century, with the development of more reliable navigational aids, helicopters, and more powerful boats, the life-saving stations had become obsolete. The Chicamacomico Station was decommissioned in 1954 and in 1959, the 1874 Station was moved closer to the 1911 Station by the National Park Service.  After that, the Station’s buildings lay abandoned for years.  But in 1974, the Chicamacomico Historical Association (CHA) was formed and attempts were made to purchase and restore the Station.  It wasn’t until 2002 that all buildings were deeded to the CHA.

The station is the largest and most complete U.S. Life-Saving Service station in the country, with every building listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s also one of the only original 1874 stations that is open to the public and one of the few stations with all of its original buildings intact.  

Beach Apparatus Drill at Chicamacomico Life-Saving Service Station performed by U.S. Coast Guard
U.S. Coast Guard performing the Beach Apparatus Drill. Image courtesy of Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station Historic Site

 

Chicamacomico is also the only station in the country that is open as a museum, usually from April to November.  The most popular museum program is the weekly Beach Apparatus Drill performed by active members of the U.S. Coast Guard. Chicamacomico is the only life-saving station that still offers a demonstration of this drill, a routine that was required to be practiced weekly by all crewmen in the late 1800s and early 1900s. This drill serves as a reminder of the Coast Guard’s humble roots and honors the Postal Service employees, fishermen, and other volunteers who risked their lives every day.


Blog by Jessica T. Smith for the Coastal Cottage Company

Nags Head Casino Postcard

Remembering the Nags Head Casino

When you think of the Outer Banks, it’s likely the beautiful beaches are first to come to mind.  A popular attraction for rock and roll musicians is not as likely to be imagined.  But ask any local over the age of 50 about the Nags Head Casino and you’ll be regaled with stories of legendary music acts and dancing the night away.

Originally built as a barracks in the early 1930s for the stonemasons who constructed the Wright Brothers National Memorial, the Nags Head Casino was purchased in 1937 by G. T. “Ras” Wescott.  The two-story building housed duckpin bowling lanes, pool tables, and pinball machines on the first floor while a bar and expansive dance floor occupied upstairs.  Ras was known for his special care of the wood dance floor, waxing and buffing it each day.  To preserve it, he asked patrons to remove their shoes and dance barefoot.  With the top-floor shutters open to the ocean breezes and young people grooving barefoot, the Casino was the epitome of summer fun.   

Nags Head Casino Birds Eye View
Bird’s eye view of the Casino. Image courtesy of Outer Banks Beachcomber Museum: www.oldnagshead.org

During the 1930s and 1940s, big band music reigned, drawing crowds of up to 1000 people to the Nags Head Casino!  During this time, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Guy Lombardo, Count Basie, Artie Shaw, and Woody Herman are a few of the acts who played.  As doo-wop, Mowtown, and rock and roll gained popularity in the 1950s and 60s, bands like The Platters, Fats Domino, The Four Tops, Bill Deal and the Rhondels, and The Temptations entertained.  According to Carmen Gray, founder of the Outer Banks Beachcomber Museum, “anybody who was anybody played at the Casino.”  Until the 1970s, bands continued to make the trek to Nags Head to put on a show.  And on nights when no band played, a Wurlitzer jukebox provided the music.

Nags Head Casino Music Poster for Johnny Alligator

Unfortunately, the fun came to an end when Ras Wescott sold the building in the mid 1970s and soon after, the roof collapsed during a winter storm.   Jockey’s Ridge Crossing shopping center now occupies the site of the beloved Casino.  But Nags Head locals still reminisce about the raucous music, 25 cent PBRs, Wednesday night boxing matches, and walks on the beach after a night of dancing.  For their generation, it truly was the place to be for both patrons and musicians.  Bill Deal, from The Rhondels, remembers that “it was always packed. We never worried about having a crowd.  The Casino certainly opened doors for a lot of groups. If you played the Casino, you’d made it.”  For many, the time, the place, and the music will never be replicated, but the Casino will always be remembered.


Blog by Jessica T. Smith for the Coastal Cottage Company

Spend a Night in Rodanthe

Movies transport us to other worlds, allowing us to live vicariously through the characters. If you’ve always wanted to be a globetrotter, James Bond takes you from Cuba to China to Czechoslovakia.  If you’ve ever wondered what Mars might be like, The Martian transports you there.  And if you wish you could visit the Outer Banks, look no further than Nights in Rodanthe.  Based on Nicholas Sparks’ book, the characters played by Diane Lane and Richard Gere fall in love when they team up to protect a very special Outer Banks home from a storm.  

This home has a fascinating story to tell.  Built by Roger Meekins in 1988 on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the home was originally called Serendipity.  At the time, there was more than 400 feet between it and the ocean.  But as the years passed, the sand eroded, and the tide encroached.  In 2009, Hurricane Bill damaged the home, destroying its septic system and HVAC.  The second owners, Michael and Susan Creasy, wanted to sell but the extensive repairs kept buyers at bay.  It soon slipped into such disrepair that the county wanted to condemn it and after each storm, residents wondered if it was still standing.  Hope for Serendipity seemed far away until fans of Nights in Rodanthe, Ben and Debbie Huss, saved the property in 2010.

Moving the Inn at Rodanthe
Transporting Serendipity to its new location. Image courtesy of Hooked on Houses: www.hookedonhouses.net

The first task was to move the property farther from the ocean to prevent high tides and hurricanes from further damaging it.  According to Richard Adkins of WRAL, the house was lifted off its foundation, placed onto a trailer, and transported seven-tenths of a mile down N.C. Highway 12 to its new location.  The house was raised several feet higher than it had been and the pilings were dug 16 feet down for greater stability.

Inn at Rodanthe
Serendipity, now the Inn at Rodanthe, restored and reborn! Image courtesy of Sun Realty: www.sunrealtync.com

Ben and Debbie are such fans of the movie that they made every effort to replicate the set. According to Irene Nolan of the Island Free Press, the Husses watched the film dozens of times and worked from enlarged still photographs.  They added the iconic blue shutters over the windows, painted the beadboard cabinets a vibrant aqua, and filled the home with antiques, including a 1918 Adler organ similar to the one in the movie.  

The Inn at Rodanthe kitchen
The renovated kitchen. Image courtesy of Sun Realty: www.sunrealtync.com

According to Hooked on Houses blogger Julia Sweeten, they remodeled the kitchen to look just like the one Diane Lane cooked in, tracking down the same wallpaper used in the movie.  But even more wonderful than their renovations is the Husses desire to share Serendipity with others by making it available to vacationers.  So come to Rodanthe to take in the spectacular oceanfront views and enjoy Ben and Debbie’s loving attention to detail!

The Inn at Rodanthe porch swing
Enjoy the porch swing and the sunset at the Inn at Rodanthe.  Image courtesy of Sun Realty: www.sunrealtync.com

Blog by Jessica T. Smith for the Coastal Cottage Company

Southern Shores Flat Top Cottages

Flat Top Cottages of Southern Shores

When you think about Outer Banks architecture, you likely imagine pastel-colored beach houses with expansive, wrap-around porches, sitting atop wooden pilings.  But in the mid-20th century, a different type of vacation home was popular.  Known as flat-top cottages, they are characterized by their no-pitch roofs and clean, mid-century modern lines.

Flat Top Cottage Aycock Brown
Flat top cottage in Southern Shores, circa 1955. Photo by Aycock Brown, courtesy of North Carolina Modernist Houses

Frank Stick, an artist and conservationist, is credited with designing the flat-top cottage.  Stick studied at the Chicago Art Institute and his paintings appeared on covers of popular magazines like Field and Stream and the Saturday Evening Post.  In 1929, he and his family settled on Roanoke Island and helped to establish the Wright Brothers National Memorial and the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site.  Stick also played a vital role in establishing Cape Hatteras National Seashore as the United State’s first national seashore, which protects significant portions of OBX barrier islands.

Flat-top cottages David Stick and Frank Stick
Frank Stick (right) with son David Stick (left). Image courtesy of North Carolina Modernist Houses

After World War II, Stick turned his attention from painting and philanthropy to architecture.  In 1947, he bought 2,800 acres north of Kitty Hawk, including four miles of Outer Banks oceanfront.  Timber was scarce due to the war, so Stick chose to build with concrete blocks made of local sand.  Inspired by island-style homes in the Florida Keys as well as the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, the home facades and floor plans are clean and simple. The flat roofs feature extended overhangs, which offer shade, while the large windows let in ocean breezes.  Many of the cottages feature local juniper-wood paneling, ceiling beams, and hurricane shutters.

Flat-Top-Green-Marie-Walker
Flat-top cottage. Image by Marie Walker, courtesy of My Outer Banks Home

Stick built 80 of these homes in a community called Southern Shores, which was incorporated as a town in 1979.  Currently, less than half of the original flat tops still exist.  Some were damaged by hurricanes, but most were replaced by multi-story vacation homes as owners’ tastes and needs changed.  The flat top cottages that remain are treasured by their owners as important parts of OBX history and iconic examples of mid-century architecture. 

Each year the Southern Shores Historic Flat Top Cottage Tour takes place in April.  Click the link to purchase tickets.


Blog by Jessica T. Smith for the Coastal Cottage Company

 

Nags Head Cottage Row

Nags Head: Cottage Row

The Outer Banks have been delighting visitors for over 100 years, but Nags Head is the original tourist attraction.  

Perquimans County plantation owner Francis Nixon is credited with starting the summer vacation tradition with his family in 1830.  The idea spread to other families living across the Roanoke Sound who were seeking an escape from the inland heat.1    

At the time, the ocean air was thought to relieve the “yellow chills” brought on by malaria which was prevalent on many plantations.  So when summer arrived, entire households — including livestock — would move to Nags Head.2   Hotels were built for the onslaught of tourists as early as 1838 and by 1850, visitors could walk along a boardwalk, dance under a pavilion, and even enjoy a bowling alley!3 

Boat Arriving in Nags Head with tourists
Image courtesy of the Town of Nags Head

The first oceanfront cottage was built around 1855 by Dr. W.G. Pool of Elizabeth City, who bought 50 acres for $30.  It’s said that Pool then divided the land into lots and sold them to the friends of his wife for one dollar each so she’d have companionship while at the beach!  By 1885, 13 cottages were built.4  

In the early 1900s, self-taught carpenter Stephen J. Twine repaired and enlarged many of the original summer houses.  Then between 1910 and 1935, he built cottages that would come to represent the Nags Head style of architecture.  These homes formed Old Nags Head Beach Cottage Row, which is now a National Historic District.

According Marimar McNaughton, author of the book Outer Banks Architecture, the Nags Head style is a blend of the original Outer Banks structures and the Arts & Crafts bungalow popular in the early 1900s.  The cottages’ timber-framed exteriors were clad in shingles or weatherboard and topped with gabled roofs with dormers. They also featured wrap-around, single-story porches with built-in benches, wooden storm shutters, and breezeways. The porches, windows, and doors were all strategically designed to maximize cross breezes off the ocean.  With these homes, each design element had a purpose.

Nags Head Unpainted Aristocracy
Image courtesy of Our State Magazine, Emily Chaplin, & Chris Council

Only six of the original cottages remain today.  They are rustic, weathered, and practical, yet elegant in their simplicity, inspiring the moniker the “Unpainted Aristocracy.”5  After sheltering generations of families and enduring over 100 years of storms, they melt into the sand and seagrass that surround them, as if they have always been there.   


Blog by Jessica T. Smith for the Coastal Cottage Company

Old Christmas in the Outer Banks

Old Christmas in the Outer Banks

Add this to the lengthy list of “reasons to love the Outer Banks”:  residents celebrate not one, but two Christmases (and, no, it’s not Christmas in July).  In January, when most Americans are taking their fir trees to the curb and boxing up decorations, many folks in North Carolina prepare for a second party called “Old Christmas.”  

What Day Is It?

Old Christmas (also known as Twelfth Night) has a long and fascinating history.  In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII established the Gregorian calendar, which was ten days ahead of its predecessor, the Julian calendar. This change was slowly communicated across Europe.  Not surprisingly, many people were ignorant of the change while others refused to recognize the new calendar, so it was common for people to disagree about what day it was.  Often, resistance to the new calendar was inspired by religion.  Roman Catholic nations transitioned to the new calendar the year it was announced, while many Protestant and Orthodox nations hesitated. This meant, for example, that England was ten days ahead of France and celebrated Christmas on different days.

Old Christmas Day

It wasn’t until 1752 that Great Britain and her colonies transitioned to the Gregorian calendar.  And by this time, the gap between the calendars had increased to 11 days (because it takes the earth 365.2422 days to complete its orbit around the sun, which amounts to 11 minutes and 14 seconds added every year).  To finally get the British people in sync with Europe, Parliament ordered that September 2, 1752 be followed by September 14, 1752.  From the perspective of the Brits accustomed to the Julian calendar, this moved Christmas day from December 25th to January 5th.  Thus, January 5th became known as “Old Christmas Day.”  With subsequent shifts in our calendar, Old Christmas has been celebrated between the 5th and 7th of January.

 

Old Christmas in the Outer Banks
Rodanthe residents celebrating Old Christmas with “Old Buck.” Image: Ben Dixon MacNeill

 

So how does this relate to North Carolina?  One story is that Great Britain didn’t clearly communicate the calendar shift to their colonies in the Americas, so folks in the Outer Banks continued to celebrate holidays according to the Julian calendar.  Another story is that the colonists knew, but simply refused to comply.  Eventually, however, the Gregorian calendar became standard in America and we synced back up with Europe.  But the tradition of Old Christmas remains.

Old Christmas in the Outer Banks
Children with “Old Buck” and the customary drummer who announces his arrival. Image: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library

 

Oysters and Old Buck

So between the 5th and 7th of January, residents of the Outer Banks celebrate this strange bit of history with oyster roasts, caroling, and spending time with neighbors and family.  A custom unique to the area is the appearance of “Old Buck,” a ghost bull who hides in the woods on Hatteras Island and only appears at Old Christmas. The appearance of Old Buck is rooted in customs of Medieval England, which included a performer who rode a hobbyhorse during Christmas celebrations.  This creature, “powered” by two people camouflaged under cowhide and fabric, leaps and prances its way through the community delighting both the young and old.  

So if you happen to visit the Outer Banks at the beginning of January, head over to Rodanthe on Hatteras Island, known as the best place to celebrate Old Christmas.

Happy Holidays!


Blog by Jessica T. Smith for the Coastal Cottage Company

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