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Construction of the Sand Dunes that Protect the Outer Banks

Construction of the Sand Dunes that Protect the Outer Banks

Photo: Barbara Ann Bell

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.

Photo: Outer Banks History Center

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.

Photo: Pinterest

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.

Photo: Dan Waters

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.  

Photo: National Park Service

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.

Photo: National Park Service

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.

Photo: Debra Banfield

Discover the Island Farm on Roanoke Island

On the northern end of Roanoke Island lies a secluded spot few tourists vacationing on the barrier islands of the Outer Banks have ever been. Situated just west of U.S. Highway 64 in historic town of Manteo, the Island Farm is a unique destination for both visitors and locals, offering a slew of adventures and a wide array of activities for attendees of all ages. If you’re searching for a place to spend a day on your vacation well off the beaten path, a stop by this historic living site is well worth the trip.

When you first set foot on the grounds of the Island Farm, you’ll feel as though you’ve taken a trip back in time to 1847. The site sits on a slice of the Etheridge farmstead, a chunk of land where one of the area’s earliest settlers, a man named Adam Etheridge, built a house and established a farm with his family centuries ago. Today, the Island Farm comprises a period restoration of the house—including several 19th century furnishings, many of which were original to the property—as well as a dozen other buildings, such as a reconstructed slave cabin, smokehouse, cookhouse, dairy, corn crib, outhouse, woodshed and blacksmith shop.

Historical interpreters clad in period-specific attire can be found working inside and around the various buildings constructed on the Etheridge farmland, giving visitors a chance to witness what daily life would have been like on the Outer Banks in the middle of the 1800s. Throughout the year, interpreters perform a variety of tasks that bring Roanoke Island history to life. Here you can watch a blacksmith create his wares, help a farmer hoe a row of corn, assist the cook in making plates of corn cakes, or stroll along the fences of the pasture that houses animals ranging from a cow and an ox to several sheep and two banker ponies. Several free-range chickens also roam the grounds of this often-undiscovered island attraction.

If you’re not content to sit back and watch 19th century island life unfold before your eyes, you can take part in a wide array of hands-on activities and demonstrations. From woodworking, cooking and blacksmithing to garden planting, and harvesting, you won’t find a lack of things to do when you visit the Island Farm on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Once you’ve exhausted your list of daily “chores” on the farm, climb into an on-site wagon for an ox-drawn wagon ride around the premises, or embark on a self-guided tour of the farm and farmhouse.

The visitor center provides historical context via a series of educational exhibits on such topics as fishing, farming, boatbuilding, island culture, slavery and the locally famous Freedmen’s Colony. A family graveyard on the property allows visitors to pay respects at the final resting place of Adam Etheridge as well as many of his immediate family members and descendants. A large oak tree referred to as “Crissy Oak” marks the final resting spot of Crissy Bowser, a longtime resident and worker on the farm.

Whether you’re looking for a way to take a break from the beach during your Outer Banks vacation or you want to add a history lesson or two into your trip, you’ll find all that and more during your visit to the fun-filled Island Farm on Roanoke Island.  

*All photos courtesy of TheIslandFarm.com



Explore the Past at Roanoke Island Festival Park

Whether you’re a tourist planning an upcoming Outer Banks vacation and want to explore all the historical attractions the area has to offer or you’re a local looking to take break from everyday life on the beach and start exploring your own backyard, one spot you won’t want to miss is Roanoke Island Festival Park. From a representation of the 16th Century ship that brought English settlers across the Atlantic Ocean to the settlement site where some of America’s earliest settlers set up a permanent colony for England on U.S. soil in the 1500s, this historical Outer Banks attraction offers something for everyone in the family.

An aerial view of Roanoke Island Festival Park (Photo: RoanokeIsland.com)

Sail Back in Time Aboard the Elizabeth II

If you’re searching for a unique way to take a step back in time on your next Outer Banks vacation, look no further than the shallow waters that surround downtown Manteo on Roanoke Island. Here, history buffs will find a replica of the Elizabeth II, a famed English merchant vessel that sailed the sea centuries ago, transporting colonists and supplies from England to the barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina during Sir Walter Raleigh’s voyages to the New World. Situated on the southwestern edge of Roanoke Island Festival Park, the 69-foot-long ship that is safely anchored in Shallowbag Bag annually attracts thousands of visitors who venture aboard the vessel and get a taste of what life was like for colonists who made the long and treacherous journey on the high seas during Sir Walter Raleigh’s 1585 expedition.

roanoke island elizabeth II
The Elizabeth II sets sail in the Roanoke Sound. (Photo: RoanokeIsland.com)

Costumed sailors in 16th Century attire invite tourists to help set the ship’s sails, swab the decks and explore the lines and rigging that make it possible for such a ship to set sail on the open water. Children and adults alike will have the opportunity to help raise the ship’s anchor, scope out a representation of the original vessel’s tiny living quarters and to search for surprises in a series of boxes and barrels stashed onboard the boat. The ship is also staffed with several interpretive guides who provide answers to visitor inquiries about the historic Outer Banks vessel, its passengers and crew, and the incredible voyage its namesake made across the sea more than 400 years ago.  

elizabeth II seaside
The Elizabeth II, anchored in Shallowbag Bay. (Photo: Seaside Vacations Outer Banks)

Roanoke Island Settlement Site

The Outer Banks may best known for housing tens of thousands of temporary visitors to its beautiful beaches in the spring and summer months each year, but the barrier islands’ most famous residents were those who braved the long and arduous journey from England to Roanoke Island to start brand-new lives in the New World. To honor these early English settlers and educate Outer Banks vacationers about some of the first people to inhabit this stretch of sand in the center of the Roanoke Sound, Roanoke Island Festival Park boasts several unique attractions for adults and children of all ages to enjoy.

roanoke island woodworking
Woodworking exhibit at Roanoke Island Festival Park (Photo: RoanokeIsland.com)

Throughout the Roanoke Island Settlement Site, you’ll encounter a series of costumed interpreters whose exhibits will enlighten guests and explain what life was like for North America’s earliest settlers. Stop by a blacksmith’s station to watch him create unique iron wares, or try your hand at traditional woodworking alongside an interpreter within another nearby exhibit. Kids—or adults who are kids at heart—can play games that were popular during Elizabethan times, try on costume armor that members of Roanoke Island’s military settlement would have worn in centuries past and attempt to perfect an English accent with the aid of the settlement site’s interpretive guides.  

roanoke island blacksmith
Blacksmith exhibit at Roanoke Island Festival Park (Photo: RoanokeIsland.com)

While the Outer Banks of North Carolina are best known for recreational activities ranging from surfing and standup paddleboarding to kayaking and kiteboarding, if you’re embarking on an Outer Banks vacation, make sure you don’t miss the wide array of unique historical attractions at Roanoke Island Festival Park that pay homage to some of the earliest individuals to call this pristine island paradise their home.

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

Jockey's Ridge Dune

The Shifting Sands of Jockey’s Ridge

This installment of Throwback Thursday is all about the mysterious natural landmark Jockey’s Ridge.  

We hope you’ve been enjoying our Throwback Thursday series and will join the Coastal Cottage Company again next month!

If you lived on the Outer Banks in the 1970’s, you may remember a putt putt golf course near Jockey’s Ridge with playful hazards like an octopus, cobra, and sand castle.  Visitors today may never see that golf course, not because it was torn down, but because it was completely buried by sand.  

Jockey’s Ridge is the tallest living sand dune on the Atlantic coast, ranging in height from 80 to 100 feet.1  The dune is “living” because maritime winds shift the sands approximately nine to twenty feet per year, constantly changing its shape and size.2  The legends surrounding Jockey’s Ridge have kept both locals and visitors entertained as they contemplate what the sands have gobbled up over the years.

Jockey's Ridge Sand Castle from Putt Putt Golf Course Covered by Sand
The castle hazard from the old putt putt golf course that now lays hidden beneath the sand. Image by Jeff Shelf.

During the early 19th century, Nags Head was a popular vacation destination for folks wanting to improve their health by taking in the salt air.  The Nags Head Hotel was the center of social life, offering guests dancing, fine dining, and strolling the boardwalk.3   Unfortunately, the Civil War took its toll on the grand structure.  The Confederate army used the hotel as a headquarters, eventually burning it to prevent Union forces from utilizing it.  According to Phyllis Cole from the North Beach Sun, some locals claim the remains were buried by the sands of Jockey’s Ridge, but others argue the hotel was too far from the base of the Ridge for that to be possible.4  We may never know if more than sand lies within the dunes!

According to geological research conducted at North Carolina State University, the dunes doubled in size between World War I and the early 1950’s but have shrunk in recent decades.5  Despite becoming smaller, in 2003, the state had to move sand from the southern edge of the dunes because homes were at risk of being buried.  Given the strength of northeastern winds, you may be wondering why the sand doesn’t completely blow away.  Park Rangers explain that the dunes’ sand particles hold moisture throughout the year and while the sun dries the top layer, the inner layers of sand stay wet. The high winds blow the top, dry layer off, but the wet layer below stays put.6  

Jockey's Ridge State Park Large Dune
Hiking the dunes at Jockey’s Ridge State Park. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In 1974, the dunes were declared a National Natural Landmark and a year later, the funds were appropriated for Jockey’s Ridge State Park.  Today, the park encompasses 420 acres and includes a visitor center, museum, nature trails, and 360-foot boardwalk.  For adventure lovers, sandboarding, hiking, and hang-gliding are all available.  So if you’re climbing the dunes, and the wind is just right, don’t be surprised if you see the tip of a sandcastle or octopus tentacle peeking out of the sand. 

Blog by Jessica T. Smith for the Coastal Cottage Company


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