It may seem as though the Outer Banks simply sprang into existence one day, yet this strip of sand actually has a long and fascinating history. In my continuing series of “Five things you may not know about the Outer Banks,” I bring you five more interesting facts.
Nags Head was one of the very first tourist destinations in the United States.
When Perquimons County plantation owner, Francis Nixon, began sending his family to Nags Head to avoid the summer heat and malaria found in the coastal plains of North Carolina, other families took note. Soon Nags Head was the summer destination of choice for the plantation class of eastern North Carolina. By the beginning of the Civil War, the Nags Head Hotel, providing 100 rooms and located at the foot of Jockey’s Ridge, was catering to the tourism trade.
Southern forces burned the building to keep it from being used by advancing Union troops. Rebuilt after the war, it succumbed to the encroaching sand of Jockey’s Ridge in the 1870s.
The First Union Victory of the Civil War was on the Outer Banks
Things were not going well for northern forces at the beginning of the Civil War. They had been outgeneraled and outfought at the first Battle of Manassas. It was still an open question whether Maryland would secede from the Union, sealing off Washington, D.C., and southern privateers were harassing shipping along the Atlantic seaboard from Virginia to Florida.
On August 28, 1861, Union forces effectively stopped privateering activity by capturing Forts Hatteras and Clark that protected Oregon Inlet. The battle, which resulted in very few casualties, was the first northern victory of the war and forced Confederate generals to keep a significant defensive force in North Carolina to prevent northern forces from severing their supply and communication lines.
The Sinking of the USS New Jersey and USS Virginia
Flying from a temporary airfield at Cape Hatteras on September 5, 1923, bombers under the command of Brigadier General Billy Mitchell sank the battleships New Jersey and Virginia off the Outer Banks Coast.
Mitchell, an early and outspoken advocate of air power, was attempting to show his Army superiors that modern warships were susceptible to air attack. Although it only took three bombs to sink the New Jersey, the upper echelons of power remained unconvinced, and his pointed and aggressive criticism led to his demotion to Colonel. Two years later he was court-martialed for harsh public remarks concerning the military’s handling of two fatal plane crashes.
British Sailors Interred in British Soil
1942 was a horrific time along the Outer Banks with the smear of greasy smoke from ships torpedoed by German U-boats seen on an almost daily basis. The US Navy was still building up its capacity, and in its absence, the British Navy took on the role of protecting the Atlantic merchant fleet and our shores.
They paid a terrible price, and although almost all of the sailors who went down with their ships remain in the depths of the ocean, six bodies washed up on shore, four in Ocracoke and two in Hatteras. To insure these men would always lie in British soil, the US Government leased the cemetery plots where they are buried to the British government in perpetuity. The Ocracoke site is on British Cemetery Road and the Hatteras site is next to Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in Buxton.
Jarvisburg Colored School
About eight miles north of the Wright Memorial Bridge on Currituck Mainland, the Jarvisburg Colored School is a somewhat nondescript wooden building with a small belfry. The plain exterior, though, houses a remarkable slice of American history.
Built sometime in the 1890s by the local African American population, the building was in use until 1950 and served the “colored” population of Currituck County. Classes were only offered though the sixth grade, but interviews with some of the last graduates of the school, who spearheaded the restoration, record tales of students repeating the sixth grade three or four times in a desperate bid for more education.
In the first part of the 20th century, Joseph Rosenwald, a very wealthy philanthropist, built schools throughout the South for the African-American population. Because the building was constructed before the Rosenwald schools, it is considered unique and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.