Touring Hatteras Island


The author at Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
Mention the name Hatteras and most people think of stormy weather. I determined to find out more about the remote island just off the coast of North Carolina. With a map, a few notes gathered from researching on the internet and my old 1981 BMW R100 RS motorcycle, I set out to explore the island on July 11, 2007 in an effort to learn more about the islands history and culture.

The Cape Hatteras National Seashore is made up of a thin strip of barrier islands stretching more than 70 miles from Nags Head to Ocracoke Inlet. The park ranges in width from a few hundred feet to several miles at its widest point.

The northern entrance to the park is located on Route 12 in Nags Head at Whale Bone Junction. This is a major crossroad on the northern Outer Banks where routes 64 and 12 connect. The area got its name when a gas station owner dragged the sun-bleached bones of a 72-foot-long whale from the beach to his property as a way to attract customers.
The present park's 30,000 acres were first explored by Amerigo Vespucci in the early 1500’s. Due to shallow and treacherous water surrounding the islands and lack of a paved road until the 1950’s the area remained in a primitive and undeveloped state until recent years.

Prior to the construction of Route 12, most residents living in the present park area earned their living by fishing or working for the government in the Coast Guard, Lifesaving and Lighthouse Services. The opening of a paved road in the mid 20th century brought tourism to the area. The tourism industry is the largest employer in the area. Its growth continues as evidenced by the rapid construction of huge new rental homes in and around what once were small fishing villages.

Work to preserve the area for a National Park began during the “Great Depression,” under the Civilian Conservation Corps or (CCC). The CCC was a federal government work relief program that provided jobs to young men from unemployed families. Men from eastern North Carolina were put to work to stop erosion and stabilize the constantly changing Outer Banks shoreline.

Working under the supervision of the National Park Service, CCC crews constructed a huge dune system stretching from the Virginia border to Hatteras inlet. Its end result was a stable strip of sand protected from ocean over wash during storms that would support a paved roadway sometime in the future.

Sections of the dune were as high as 25 feet. They were built on a base up to 300 feet wide. Once the dunes were completed, the crews planted grasses and installed sand fencing to protect them. Preservation work continued at the CCC camp in Buxton until the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941.

Horace Ward, a retired Tarboro Magistrate was a member of the CCC in Buxton for 10 months in 1940. He helped build the dunes using a wheel barrow and shovel. He planted grasses and put up sand fencing to protect the dunes. According to Mr. Ward, the food was great and the locals were friendly and more than happy to have the CCC boys as customers. A movie at the theater in Buxton only cost 10 cents in 1940.

Mr. Ward hitch hiked the land route between Buxton and Manteo several times during his stint with the CCC. According to Mr. Ward, few local residents owned motor vehicles on Hatteras Island in 1940. The few that did usually owned cars. Governmental organizations like the CCC and Coast Guard usually owned and operated trucks. Nobody got a free ride on the island. Mr. Ward said on a typical trip up to Manteo, the vehicle he was riding in would usually get stuck several times. It was the passenger’s job to get out and push to get the vehicle moving again.

Private ferry at Oregon Inlet
There were no roads, only sandy paths near the sound. At Oregon Inlet, a private two car ferry charged $1, a lot of money back then, for the trip across the Inlet. After the war, efforts to build a paved road to Cape Hatteras started anew. With the eventual completion of the roadway and some strategic private land donations to the park system, the Cape Hatteras National Sea Shore was officially established in 1953.

A Hatteras Island
road about 1946
 The Ride 
Glancing at a modern map, most riders will quickly see that this route is not about speeding along curvy roads or testing riding skills. Instead, the route beckons you to slow down and look back into history. The area is full of reminders of a time when remote areas and empty beach fronts existed throughout the country. There are numerous places along route 12 where you can just pull off the road and take a short hike over a dune and find yourself all alone on a wide undeveloped beach. In addition to the beautiful beaches, the ride touches many historic locations along the way. These sites offer opportunities to learn about the harsh nature of the area.

A note of caution: Occasionally you will run into nude or topless sunbathers on some remote stretches of beach inside the park. Use caution, respect others privacy and don’t look too closely!

I enter the north end of the park on Route 12. I am riding a 1981 BMW R 100 RS motorcycle. The outside temperature is 95. Although its is hot riding behind the large sport touring fairing mounted on the BMW, I believe the smell of salt air, feel of an occasional cool ocean breeze will add more then enough value to the ride to overcome to heat.

The road runs through a protected wildlife area of swampy brush land interlaced with vast sections of open savannah on the right. On the left, the terrain consists of scrub brush with occasional views of homes clustered along the beach off in the distance. The homes belong to a South Nags Head subdivision that was developed before the government made any serious attempts to create the National Park. Within a few miles, the developed beach front gives way to its natural state.

Six miles into the park, the entrances to Coquina Beach and the Bodie Island Lighthouse come into view. Looking for a chance to cool off, I pull into the Coquina Beach parking area. I take a short walk toward the beach and find the skeleton of an old wooden ship in the sand. It is what remains of the 120 foot long schooner Laura Barnes. It was one of the last wooden sailing ships built in America. She ran aground here during a storm in 1921.
Across the road from Coquina beach is the Bodie Island Lighthouse complex. The present lighthouse is actually the third one located near this spot. The first two were about 10 miles south of here.

The original lighthouse was constructed in 1847. Its tower reached up into the sky 165 feet, however the location and design were poor and the tower began leaning almost as soon as it was constructed. This led to its abandonment in 1859. A second lighthouse was built in 1859. It was 85 feet tall but had the unfortunate timing of the Civil War breaking out the following year. It was destroyed by retreating confederate soldiers.

Construction of the present lighthouse began in 1871. Its light was ignited for the first time on October 1, 1872. The lighthouse measures 156 feet tall and contains a First Order Fresnel Lens. The light can be seen by ships up to 19 miles at sea. The tower is still in use as a navigational aid. The keeper’s house is presently used as a Ranger’s office and visitor center.

Bodie Island Lighthouse

After taking some pictures and downing about a quart of water, I hop back on the motorcycle. Three miles later, I feel the rush of a cool breeze through the 90 degree heat. A panoramic view of Oregon Inlet opens before my eyes. This is where Pamlico Sound and the Atlantic Ocean come together.

This vast channel was violently torn open by a powerful hurricane in 1846. Today the channel is a major route to the Atlantic Ocean for the fishing fleet based on Roanoke Island.

Oregon Inlet has earned international fame as one of the most treacherous waterways in the world. The inlet’s unstable bottom requires constant dredging by the government to keep it open. In addition, strong currents make navigating its passageway risky. The narrow channel has claimed many ships.

During an October 1990 storm, a dredge accidentally struck the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge which crosses over the inlet. The dredge knocked out over 200 feet of the bridge, severing all land ties with the islands residents south of here. Emergency repairs took months to complete.

Riding across the bridge, I notice a line of vehicles along the north shore of the channel. A closer look reveals the occupants of the vehicles fishing and swimming in the passageway. Across the bridge, I enter Pea Island Wildlife Refuge. The refuge has earned international attention as a major migratory stop for birds along the Atlantic Flyway. It was visited by the famous journalist Charles Kuralt and featured on his television show, "On the Road," as one of the unique places to visit in America.

I stop at the Pea Island Visitors Center and take a short walk across the road to the beach. I notice a strange piece of black metal sticking up out of the ocean. It is a steam pipe from the steamer Oriental, a 210 foot long Union transport ship that sank in a storm on May 16, 1862. The visitor’s center also offers a walk along a wildlife trail. More than 400 different species of birds have been documented in the refuge. I decline the walk today and opt for some more riding...

Pea Island Refuge Visitors Center

Just south of the Pea Island Visitors Center is an old dilapidated bridge named “ The Bridge to Nowhere” by locals. It was build after two hurricanes struck the area in 1933. The powerful storms tore out two small inlets at this spot.

There were no paved roads in this area when the hurricanes struck. Motor vehicles were scarce at the time but growing in numbers after an island doctor discovered balloon tires. The fat tires allowed motor vehicles to roll across the sandy paths that served as roads.

The new inlets blocked the pathways between Cape Hatteras and the ferry at Oregon Inlet. The opening was too shallow for a ferry so a solution was sought. Under intense prodding from the few residents with motor vehicles and governmental agencies on the island, the State of North Carolina constructed two new single lane bridges across the inlets. Both bridges featured a pull over near the center of the span. When two vehicles were crossing in different directions one would pull over so the other would be able to pass. The bridge was completed in only two years. Unfortunately for taxpayers, soon after its completion another storm struck the area and closed the inlet, rendering the bridge useless. The sections that still remain stand as a symbol of the unstable nature of the Outer Banks.

Pea Island's "Bridge to Nowhere"
Just past new inlet area the road enters the Hatteras Island area. The island contains seven villages, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and the most dangerous coastline in the world. Riding about four miles, I enter the villages of Rodanthe, Waves and Salvo. Today these villages appear continuous and compressed due to rapid development over the past twenty years. Fifty years ago the three small fishing villages fiercely competed against one another and maintained very separate identities.

I stop at the historic Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station. It is the most complete and restored Life-Saving Station remaining in the country. In 1918, the station and its crew gained international attention when they rescued 42 people from the burning English Tanker “Mirlo” after it was torpedoed by a German submarine.

The hot weather and heavy traffic through the villages prompts me to stop at Island Coffee in Salvo. Chucky, the guy behind the counter, is a summer worker from Golden, British Columbia. He spends the winter snow boarding in Canada and summers on the Outer Banks enjoying surfing and the laid back lifestyle of Hatteras Island. Chucky convinces me that a fruit smoothie would work better than coffee today.

As I drink the cold smoothie two young girls enter the shop, one heavily tattooed. They order lunch and Chucky introduces them to me. I ask the girls how they like living on Hatteras Island. The tattoo girl tells me she belongs to a tight knit community. There are no bars in Salvo, Waves or Rodanthe. For entertainment she and her friends usually go to their friend’s homes or the beach for fun. The other girl adds, “There’s not much to do around there and that’s what I like about the place.” I kill the smoothie, and walk outside to the BMW and head south.
Chucky at Island Coffee in Salvo
The area south of Salvo contains many miles of uninhabited beaches. I find an empty parking spot, pull off the road and take a short hike over the dune. Standing on the beach, I am unable to see anyone in either direction. This is most likely the same view those first Europeans must have seen in the early 1500’s.

Undeveloped beach on Hatteras Island
I motor the beemer into Avon. The town is very conventional and reminds me of towns on the Northern Outer Banks. There is a large Food Lion grocery store and multi movie Cineplex. Ice cream shops, pizza parlor’s, miniature golf courses and real-estate companies dot the town.

About three miles south of the Avon Fishing Pier, I stop at the site of the Labor Day shark attack. On that tragic day, in 2001, vacationers Sergei Zaloukaev, 28 and his girlfriend Natalia Slobodskaya were wading in the ocean around 6 pm when they were violently attacked by a large shark. While fighting off the shark, they struggled to make it back to shore. However, Sergei died on the beach from massive blood loss as a result of the shark biting his leg off. Natalia survived the attack but lost a finger, her left foot and most of her left buttock. She was airlifted to a hospital in Norfolk Virginia and underwent months of surgery and rehabilitation. Locals still talk about that fateful day and remember the Russian couple.
Site of the deadly Labor Day 2001 shark attack
Just north of the Village of Buxton I notice windsurfers on the Pamlico Sound and pull into an access area to watch. The area is known to older residents as "The Haulover" because fishermen used to drag their small fishing boats over the narrow strip of sand between the ocean and sound to save the time it took to sail through Hatteras Inlet.

Today windsurfers prevail in the area and have nicknamed it the Canadian Hole because of the many Canadians that come here to windsurf. The site has also become internationally known as one of the top windsurfing sites in the world. The small craft look like surfboards with a sail. The riders control the craft by moving the mast and sail. I notice the wind is blowing strong and understand why the windsurfers like it here.
Windsurfers at the Canadian Hole

Just south of the Canadian hole is the village of Buxton, with a permanent population of about 1500 people. The village is home to Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, the tallest lighthouse in the country. In addition the village has a US government weather station and museum. It was from the village of Buxton that Reginald Fessenden made the first successful wireless radio transmission to a receiver on Roanoke Island in 1902. The successful experiment resulted in the first Trans-Atlantic two-way radio-telegraph service in 1905. Buxton is also home to the famous Cape Point. This is the treacherous junction of the Gulf Stream and Labrador Current. These two flows of sea water have resulted in the area being nicknamed the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.”

Riding over to Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, I am amazed by its size. A need for a lighthouse had been demonstrated from the earliest times ships had sailed near this treacherous shoreline. Sandy shoals just below the waters surface extend up to 10 miles out to sea. The shallows have claimed many ships, making travel around the cape extremely dangerous and expensive for ship owners. A lighthouse was ordered that would be able to warn ships about the dangerous shallows while they were still far out to sea.
In 1797, the US Congress appropriated money to build Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. The first lighthouse was completed in 1803 at a cost of $15,000. It towered 112 feet above sea level and radiated light 18 miles out to sea. In 1851 it was determined the lighthouse was inadequate. Ships were confusing the tower’s weak light with lights on new steam ships that were beginning to cruise the oceans. In response, the lighthouse tower was raised to 150 feet and more powerful lights were installed, making the light visible up to 20 miles away.

The rebuilt lighthouse suffered serious damage from confederate soldiers during the Civil War. After the war, the present lighthouse was built during the years 1869 and 1870. The new structure reached a height of 193 feet. The unique paint scheme of black and white striping like a barber’s pole was authorized in 1873 to make the tower easier to identify during daylight hours.

A new threat developed in the early 1990’s. Erosion of the shoreline near the lighthouse threatened to topple the giant structure, therefore in 199 it was moved 2,900 feet to its present location. The National Park Service reports the tower is 210 feet tall when measured to the tip of its lightening rod. The focal point of the lens is 198 feet high, allowing the light to be seen up to 19 nautical miles. In addition, the giant structure contains about 1,250,000 bricks and 268 steps.

Special: Inside Hatteras Lighthouse 
Today, the waves near Cape Hatteras are well known among surfers around the world. Until the late 60,s, the unique wave action along the Cape Hatteras Seashore was relatively unknown. On Labor Day 1969, California surfers Claude “CC Rider” Codgen, Dr. John “Mc Cranells, Jim Shipley, Dick Catri and Butch Van Artsdalen visited the area during a surfing expedition along the east coast. They were astonished to find themselves surfing 6 foot waves all alone on the beach near Buxton. From that moment, word of the great surfing in this area quickly spread throughout the surfing world. Jim Shipley eventually made his home on the Outer Banks and still builds surfboards in his Kitty Hawk shop.
Jim Shipley in his Kitty Hawk Shop

Riding through the village of Buxton, the relaxed atmosphere I first noticed in Salvo is getting stronger. There are run down surf shops, tattoo parlors and colorful pubs everywhere. A young man wearing dreadlocks rides by on a motor scooter. A grizzled old man, pipe in his mouth, pedals a rusty bicycle down the road. Two girls in bikini’s walk by with surfboards on their heads. A pickup truck cruises by, horn blaring. Stressed out tourists are everywhere, stuck in minivans, financing the islands unique lifestyle with their vacation pay. This is truly a cultural melting pot in America.

Hatteras Ink Tattoo Parlor
Frisco is located about 6 miles south of Buxton. The village contains a Native American museum and is believed to be the home of the Hatteras Indians. According to documents relating to the lost colony at Roanoke Island, the tribe was friendly to the colonists. Some historians believe this may have been a destination for the colonists that vanished from Roanoke Island. Frisco also has an airport named for General Billy Mitchel. On September 5, 1923, Mitchell used the local airstrip to demonstrate the power of airplanes to Congress by sinking a battleship with bombs using only bombs. His demonstration was so successful that it led to the creation of the modern United States Air Force. While riding through town, I spot an interesting motorcycle shop in the village and stop to take a picture of Island Choppers. After the short break, I ride on to Hatteras Inlet.
Island Choppers located in Frisco, NC
Looking south toward Hatteras Village
Hatteras Inlet was opened by the same powerful hurricane that created Oregon Inlet back in 1846. Area fishermen were quick to take advantage of the new passageway and Hatteras Village was settled near the new inlet. The village prospered and a post office was established in 1858. The paved highway to the Village was not completed until the 1950s. Due to the remoteness of the village, many of the older residents still speak with an English dialect that is common in Devon, England.

Today, there is little sign of commercial fishing in Hatteras Village. Instead huge rental homes dot the landscape. At the end of the road I find the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum. The museum is dedicated to preserving and interpreting the rich maritime history of the Outer Banks including shipwrecks. There are more than 4,000 known shipwrecks resting off the coast of the Outer Banks.

I take the opportunity to hike over to the ocean and take a picture of the famous “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” This area was given the name “torpedo junction” during World War II. More than 100 ships were torpedoed by German Submarines here during the war.

Graveyard of the Atlantic near Hatteras Inlet
Ocracoke Island lies on the other side of Hatteras Inlet. If you have time, take the free ferry across the inlet and visit the quaint village of Ocracoke. The island also shares its history with the famous pirate Blackbeard, who died violently in a naval battle near Ocracoke Inlet on November, 1718.

Turning the BMW north and heading home, I enjoy listening to the steady and dependable cadence produced by the old push rod motor. Cape Hatteras National Seashore falls toward the south as the motorcycle takes me back to Kitty Hawk.
Temperatures throughout the day have ranged in the 90’s. I haven’t been able to detect even a hint of the stormy weather Cape Hatteras is so well known for. However, the amount of history and culture I have discovered has been staggering. The trip along Hatteras Island today has been like a journey to a foreign land without ever leaving the USA.
Special October 2012 Hurricane News Update
Hurricane Sandy Leaves Massive Destruction to Hatteras
Island Roadways; See Raw FACEBOOK Picture Gallery
Route 12 on Hatteras Island see more pictures
Also See
Close Up of Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
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