Guest Column: Before North Carolina had the Outer Banks it had a thriving commercial coast
Published 6:17 am Thursday, January 23, 2020
By Larry E. Tise, Ph.D., Historian
There was a time — not so long ago — when North Carolina had neither Outer Banks nor a Graveyard of the Atlantic. A time when most residents along the Carolina coast thrived economically on fishing, hunting, timbering, and agriculture — just as Indians had for thousands of years. There were neither automobiles nor paved roads. Yet you could travel from Chicago to Nags Head entirely on public transportation in less than 24 hours. You could mail a letter at Nags Head to Chicago to arrive there without fail in 48 hours. It was a time when black and white men worked side by side as fishermen, as crew on steamboats and sailing craft, and as U.S. postmen. When the town of Manteo on Roanoke Island was one of only two county seats in America that could be reached only by boat (the other being Key West, Florida).
As puzzling as it may seem to thousands of people who descend from northern climes to relax at coastal realms like Corolla, Duck, Rodanthe, Hatteras, or Ocracoke and to most of us who grew up in North Carolina, the familiar terms “Outer Banks” and “Graveyard of the Atlantic” had not yet been created. These were twentieth century inventions by real estate speculators and tourism promoters eager to lift some money from the pockets of Americans, especially Yankees looking for a little sun and some history without driving all the way to Florida. When Floridians lured Standard Oil’s Henry Flagler to build a railroad to the sandy sights that become Palm Beach and Miami and Virginians recruited his partner John D. Rockefeller to reconstruct historic Williamsburg, North Carolina’s coastal land owners decided to create their own land of enchantment on the state’s “barrier islands.”
Oddly, it was a Dakota-born artist Frank Stick and his Jersey-born son David who spun the tales that would make the Carolina coast a tourist mecca. Frank doubled as a speculator who bought four square miles of barrier island land during the roaring twenties. When the national economy crashed in 1929 his sole surviving asset was this swath of barren territory. He promoted the tale of the lost colony. His son David — Navy veteran, journalist, and avid historian — meanwhile coined the terms “Outer Banks” and “Graveyard of the Atlantic” and thus increased the value of their land from a few thousand dollars to many millions. David also wrote a half-dozen enchanting books recounting historical yarns that yielded one of America’s richest tourist destinations. And, in the process, one of North Carolina’s most lucrative industries.
There’s another reason why the Sticks and other barrier island property owners could reap an extraordinary commercial success in the twentieth century. After our bloody Civil War, the United States knew what it meant to invest in “infrastructure.” Although North Carolina was a defeated secessionist state, a far-seeing Congress funded a network of lighthouses, river lights, lifesaving stations, and canals converting shallow sounds into a bustling inland sea. Subsidized railroads built a web of tracks and ferries to carry fresh North Carolina fish, produce, and game to waiting tables in Washington and Baltimore the following day and to Philadelphia and New York a day later. River lights and lighthouse beams enabled shallow craft to traverse rivers and sounds twenty-four hours a day.
By 1900 when the Wright brothers made their first trip from Ohio, to Kitty Hawk, the Carolina coast was a marvel of travel and communications efficiency. In 1903 when the aluminum shafts on their first powered plane failed, Orville could “run back” to Dayton to fabricate new steel shafts without abandoning flight plans. Leaving Kill Devil Hills on 3 December, he returned with the replacements on the 11th. Six days later the brothers conducted their historic “first flight” — a day commemorated on North Carolina license plates from 1977 to the present. They also secured an official writ from the Kitty Hawk Weather Station certifying the precise weather conditions at the moment of their historic flights. From that same station they transmitted a jubilant telegram to their family in Dayton on their achievement, with the cheering conclusion, “inform Press home Christmas.” Proving that the Carolina coast was a perfect laboratory for flight since it was also well connected with the rest of the world.
Larry Tise is a native North Carolinian from Winston Salem. He has two degrees from Duke University and his Ph.D. from UNC Chapel Hill. Former director of North Carolina’s Division of Archives and History and Wilbur and Orville Wright Distinguished Professor of History at East Carolina University, his latest book on the Wright brothers and the Carolina coast is Circa 1903: North Carolina’s Outer Banks at the Dawn of Flight was published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2019.