In 1830, Francis Nixon, a Perquimans County plantation owner, sailing with his family, braved the unpredictable waters of the Outer Banks sounds, finding a dock at a small village at the base of Jockey’s Ridge. His purpose for coming to the Outer Banks was to save the lives of his wife and children.
Malaria was rampant in the coastal plain of North Carolina, and at that time, it was believed malaria was caused by the warm, damp bad air of the swamps and wetlands that surrounded farms and cities.
It seems that Nixon, breathing the fresh, salt air of the Outer Banks, was convinced that Nags Head was a safe summer haven for his family. Other plantation owners and wealthier members of North Carolina society followed Nixon to the shore.
It is an interesting, and sometimes overlooked fact about the Outer Banks—that Nags Head was one of the first tourist destinations in the United States.
The reason for Nixon and others for choosing Nags Head as a summer getaway was different than in the Northeast where a burgeoning middle class population was seeking a way to get away from the city and spend time with family. The results, however, were the same.
So many visitors were to coming to Nags Head that in 1838 the first Outer Banks hotel was constructed. Like the village and the summer homes, the hotel was located on the Roanoke Sound.
The hotel was, evidently a very good investment. By 1851 it boasted over 200 rooms with detached cottages. A wharf extended far out into the sound, and there was scheduled steamboat passenger service to the resort. To get to the ocean, the hotel offered a boardwalk and a tramway with horse drawn carts to take visitors to the beach. The hotel also featured a dance hall and dining room.
Nags Head as a town was thriving, There was a general store, and the population, traditionally subsistence farmers, hunters and fishermen, had a ready market for their goods.
Then the Civil War came.
Although not widely known, the first Union victory of the conflict occurred on the Outer Banks. In August of 1861, northern forces seized Ocracoke and Hatteras Village, gaining control of access to the waters of the Outer Banks sounds. Oregon Inlet was not considered navigable at that time, so control of the southern Outer Banks inlets was a strategic necessity.
Confederate General Henry Wise established his headquarters at the Nags Head hotel, but as Union forces approached and it became apparent they could not be stopped, he moved his command and burned the hotel to the ground to prevent its use by his enemy. Union forces seized the rest of the Outer Banks and Roanoke Island by February of 1862.
After the Civil War, tourism in Nags Head quickly rebounded. The hotel was rebuilt and visitors were once again flocking to the beach town.
But a change was occurring and that change is very much a part of the Outer Banks of today.
Soon after the Civil War ended, Dr. W.G. Poole, an Elizabeth City physician, purchased some beachfront property and built a house. Wanting some company for his family, he sold adjoining lots to his friends. The story is told that he sold the lots for $1.00 to entice his neighbors to build on the beach. Whether that is true is difficult to say, but there is no doubt that the first owners of beachfront homes built on the Outer Banks were from Elizabeth City.
Some of those homes have survived and are what has come to be known as the Unpainted Aristocracy of Nags Head. The homes are considered historically significant and comprise the Nags Head Historic District.
The shift to the beach front had profound implications. The new Nags Head Hotel burned to the ground in 1903, and no attempt was made to rebuild it.
As important as the shift was from the sound to the ocean, connecting the Outer Banks to the rest of the world was even more important.
In the 1920s North Carolina began building a road along the ocean from Kitty Hawk to Nags Head. At that time, though, there were no bridges connecting the road to anything else. Later in that decade that changed. It is unclear if the bridge that is now the Washington Baum Bridge connecting Outer Banks to Manteo or the precursor to the Wright Memorial Bridge was first. Both seem to have been built about the same time.
The predecessor to the Wright Memorial Bridge was…unique. A wooden bridge built by private investors, it was a toll road. The bridge rested low in the water, so low that it was frequently impassable because waves would wash over the deck. Because it was wet so often, the surface was slippery and treacherous. Yet it was a direct connection to the rest of northeast North Carolina and Hampton Roads, and even during the Depression, the Outer Banks experienced some growth, although it was very slow.
One type of business that did thrive were nightclubs and dance halls. The Nags Head Casino was by far the best known.
The building began its life as a dormitory for workers building the Wright Brothers Monument. After the workers left in 1932, local entrepreneur Ras Wescott purchased the building. The downstairs was turned into a soda fountain and bowling alley. Upstairs was a dancehall with a perfectly polished floor where no one was allowed to wear shoes. Some of the biggest names in big band and jazz came to the Casino, including Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Artie Shaw. When the music shifted, Fats Domino and Bill Deal the Rhondels among others made the trip to the Outer Banks.
The Casino survived until the early 1970s when storm damage and an ailing Ras Wescott sealed its fate. The Nags Head Kitty Hawk Kites Store now occupies the site of the Casino.
Other changes were occurring, and the post WWII boom and growing baby boomer families were at the heart of the change.
In 1947 Frank Stick, the father of Outer Banks author David Stick, with some partners purchased 2600 acres of swamp, maritime forest, and barren beach just north of Kitty Hawk. He believed that returning servicemen, as their families grew, would want a home to come to for a vacation on the Outer Banks. The design for the homes would be based on a simple concrete structure he had seen n Florida. Local materials would be used to keep costs down. Beams and woodwork would be juniper—a plentiful local wood at that time—and sand from Outer Banks beaches would be used for concrete.
Those simple concrete homes are the classic Southern Shores flattops. And as evidence that local sand was used for the concrete, many of the homes have various local shells embedded in their walls.
The flattops sparked a building boom, and although other areas of the Outer Banks were also enjoying a surge in vacation home construction, the concept behind the Southern Shores flattops holds an important place in the history of tourism. It was one of the first planned resort towns.