In the ever constant tug of war between development and environmental concerns on North Carolina’s Outer Banks both sides could almost certainly agree that no matter the state of things now they’re certainly better than one vision for the area around 1950.
(Reads from NC 12: Gateway to the Outer Banks)
Dawson Carr reading from the tail end of his book “NC12: Gateway to the Outer Banks,” a history of the road that brought the communities of the Outer Banks together. His reference to “radioactive, nuclear wasteland” isn’t hyperbole about what progress has wrought… it’s about the Outer Banks existing as an actual nuclear wasteland if government ideas for use of the barrier islands had come to fruition.
“It showed the military was interested in using the Outer Banks back in the late 40s and early 50s to replace the Marshall Islands as a test site for nuclear weapons, and they thought nobody lived there. They thought it would be the perfect spot, it was away from land and it would be perfect for blowing up their nuclear bombs, but when the director of the Atomic Energy Commission had pictures made he started looking at those and he saw there was a road there, and he didn’t think there was anything there, and he saw a road and that road had led to development of the area and a whole lot of business had sprung up and people had moved there and he said this is no place for atomic testing, so they had to move their testing site out to Nevada.”
Dawson Carr talking about Project Nutmeg which in 1948 rated the Outer Banks highly as a site for nuclear testing. Ultimately the U-S government opted elsewhere… the western United States, where they already owned the land that would become the Nevada Testing Site. But if not for Highway 12 which brought some ease of travel along the Outer Banks the region could have been a much less inviting place. And if you try to trace the genesis of Highway 12, Carr suggests a precise date … December 17, 1903… the birthdate of powered flight.
“A few people came out on weekends for dances and things like that, but very few people lived out there and very few came to visit. But once the Wright Brothers made their flight, that was world famous, and the Outer Banks became world famous and everyone wanted to come. The trouble was they couldn’t get there. There were no bridges, there were no roads on the islands once they got there, so that had to be countered before the Outer Banks could become anything, but it was truly, the Wright Brothers flight that served as the catalyst for the road and the development of the Outer Banks.”
Not that the Wrights flew on December 17, 1903 and pavement started being laid the following morning. Initial roads were “roads” only in the strictest sense… they started somewhere and ended another. Carr’s book “NC 12: Gateway to the Outer Banks” features a photo just inside the cover of a car traversing one of these “roads”… sand that had developed ruts from drivers that were augmented to ease travel, leaving what almost looks like a railway for automobiles.
“They had to travel between roads, and a few people on the Outer Banks actually bought cars, and although they were hard to use out there with all the sand, they had to travel between towns, and they made ruts in the sand which tended to be somewhat permanent after a while, but they were still ruts in the sand, so to help cars pass and travel, they put boards in the ruts and made it kind of a boarded road and people could ride on those.”
While the initial roads share little in what today’s roads look like, the promise of Highway 12 then was pretty much the same as now… a conduit to keep area economies chugging along. And this notion crystalized around 1925 as area leaders began to face a problem that remains true today… a decline in the fisheries industry.
“The oyster beds had been over-harvested and things were going downhill. So the Dare County commissioners said we got to do something to save the economy of the Outer Banks, and what they decided to do was put a bridge between Roanoke Island and Nags Head. So they went to the state and asked the state to help, and NC didn’t have that much interest in the Outer Banks at the time… like a lot of people… so they declined at the chance to put a bridge. The Outer Bankers, being who they were, said we’ll do it ourselves and they did. They passed a bond issue of $300,000 and built a two-mile bridge from Roanoke Island over to Nags Head and that changed the future of the Outer Banks forever.”
State government also had no interest when a few years later in 1930 a bridge from the Elizabeth City area to Kitty Hawk was constructed… a privately paid for toll bridge. But eventually the state got involved. Dawson Carr speculates a little embarrassment went a long way in that decision as first a local government and then local businesses successfully completed what the state had deemed an unnecessary expenditure to connect sparsely populated areas.
“They were toll bridges, and there were so many cars crossing them people in NC government saw that and said maybe we needed to build those bridges there after all. So they bought the two bridges from private enterprises and took them over, and in fact eliminated the tolls, which was a good thing, because then people could come to the Outer Banks free. And after they bought the two bridges, actually before they bought them, they decided to pave the roadway between the ends of the two bridges which was through the Nags Head/Kitty Hawk area, and that area evolved very quickly.”
In fits and starts soon the Outer Banks was connected, with Highway 12 stretching from Corolla in the North to Ocracoke Island at the South. And nature has intervened many times over the lifetime of the highway… New Inlet has opened and closed many times in recorded history and the fact there’s a road there now that wasn’t in the 1700s didn’t dissuade the inlet north of Rodanthe from reopening when Hurricane Irene struck in 2011. The road once ignored by the state now continuously gets rebuilt by the state when these types of events occur… something which irks those who, as Dawson Carr writes, believe that “the highway and its maintenance interfere with the natural processes that have nourished and restored the barrier-island chain throughout its existence.” That argument will probably continue, even with an agreement that has been reached to replace the Bonner Bridge in a manner to provide some protection to the Outer Banks’ Pea Island Refuge. Dawson Carr sees the side of the highway’s detractors, but ultimately believes it serves a valuable purpose.
“I don’t know if it’s progress or not, but I like the fact the road is there because people can come and see all the beauty of the Outer Banks and visit those historic sites and the wilderness areas that are there. To me, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and if no one is there to behold it, there’s no beauty, so I can’t see just maintaining the Outer Banks if nobody has access to them, so my opinion is the highway should be there and has served a good purpose. Of course, I don’t live out there, so that’s an external opinion.”
Dawson Carr taught for 27 years at Sandhills Community College in Moore County. He is the author of NC 12: Gateway to the Outer Banks which is published by the University of North Carolina Press. I’m George Olsen.