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July 28, 2005

A Quiet Family Nags Head Vacation – Part 2

Kevin E. Dayhoff

Many folks use the term “Nags Head” to generically describe what is really North Carolina’s “Outer Banks.” They consist of 125 miles of narrow islands just off the Atlantic coast.

Nags Head was simply the first physical location on the vacation map in the early 1800s and still, to this day, is the most recognizable of the Outer Banks vacation destinations.

The area is rich in history, picturesque lighthouses and scenery, and miles of pristine beaches, many of which are way off the beaten track. Centuries of storms, maritime tradition, fishing, and isolation have helped the barrier islands to form their own distinctive culture.

The Outer Banks is the site of the first attempt at an English settlement in the continental United States – on Roanoke Island in 1585. Ocracoke is known for being the home neighborhood for one of the best-known pirates of the mid Atlantic shores, Edward Teach, better known as “Blackbeard.” He was killed in 1718 at “Teach’s Hole” on Ocracoke Island.

The pirate Blackbeard, according to folklore, also spent time in nearby Roanoke Sound and is thought to have buried treasure on Jockey’s Ridge, a very large natural sand dune formation in the middle of the Outer Banks. Today, most of the treasure of the Outer Banks is in the form of the vibrant tourist industry.

During the Civil War, on December 30, 1862, a gale off Cape Hatteras sank the Union ironclad USS Monitor. The Outer Banks is where Orville and Wilbur Wright were first to fly a mechanically driven, heavier than air, machine about 120 feet, for 12 seconds, on December 17, 1903.

In contrast to Maryland, North Carolina and the Outer Banks has spawned many relatively new municipalities in recent history. The Town of Nags Head was incorporated in 1961 and is governed by a mayor and four commissioners. Nags Head has a small year round population of about 2700 citizens. In 1850 the population was 576. Ocean City incorporated on April 10, 1880, and had an estimated population in July 2004 of 7,137.

Many other destinations and new municipalities have become destinations for vacationers from Maryland: places and locales with names such as Duck, Kill Devil Hills, Ocracoke, Kitty Hawk, Corolla and Manteo.

According to a writer from Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in the mid-19th century, in early Outer Banks history, pirates would roam the beach at night, with a lantern tied around the neck of a horse, in an attempt to lure ships onto the shallow shoals near the barrier island. Once a ship wrecked in the tricky waters, the inhabitants would plunder the cargoes, even to the point of dismantling the ships for wood materials for building homes on the island.

I don’t think that our relatively new “vacation cottage” was constructed from recycled materials from shipwrecks. It has certainly been constructed by the vibrant tourist driven economy that has evolved over the past 175 years.

On nearby Roanoke Island, Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the “New World,” disappeared in 1587. CNN wasn’t there to help. Apparently Nags Head was first established in the 1830s by a planter by the name of Francis Nixon.

Mr. Nixon and other planters and merchants from the mainland first started building on the sound side, not the ocean side of the island. They found some folks already on the island, who were referred to as “Bankers.” The first tourists were a boon for the Bankers, who sold the summer tourists fresh fish and vegetables and provided other vacation services. In contrast, our Ocean City, according to its website, began to be developed as a resort “in 1869 when Isaac Coffin built the first cottage on the beach to have paying guests.” “In those days, people traveled to Ocean City by stage coach and ferry. It wasn't long before other boarding houses were built on this 10-mile strip of sand. The new attraction soon brought prominent businessmen from the Eastern Shore, Baltimore and Philadelphia, but these businessmen were not on vacation. They were looking for an opportunity. They decided to develop and 250 lots were cut into the barrier island. There were 4,000 original shares and each sold for $25 each. It was a good investment.” The first luxury hotel in Ocean City was opened July 4, 1875. Hotels sprang up on the Outer Banks as early as the 1838. The first oceanfront cottages were built around 1855, by an investor named Dr. W. G. Pool, who bought 50 acres of oceanfront property for $30. After the Civil War, ocean front property was available for about 50 cents a foot. Rooms available in the 1930s ranged from $14 per week to about $50 per month. Tourism as an industry did not replace fishing and hunting until after WWII.

Just like Ocean City, Nags Head has seen its share of devastating storms; many of which also caused a great deal of damage to Ocean City: The Hurricane of 1933, the Ash Wednesday storm of 1962.

Later in the week, much of the family went deep-sea fishing. I was a big help. I helped eat the fruits of their labor after I rested on the sofa, curled up with Ann Coulter (“How To Talk To a Liberal, If You Must”), and cheered them on. They caught 572 pounds of tuna. I have a feeling I’m going to see tuna steaks, tuna salad, and tuna, tuna, tuna for a long time. I will draw the line at seeing tuna served on top of my beloved ice cream.

Growth and development had been steady on the Outer Banks, but never-the-less unremarkable up until the early 1970s, when real estate developers from Ocean City began to discover Nags Head and fueled the boom in development that we have come to understand as Nags Head today.

In Part Three tomorrow, I’ll look into participating in the real estate treasure hunt on Nags Head and see what it takes?

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster. E-mail him at:

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