How N.C. 12 defies geography, bureaucrats and Outer Banks hurricanes

People sure love the Outer Banks. The slim and sandy archipelago that runs from the Virginia line to Cape Hatteras attracts an estimated 5 million tourists annually. N.C. 12 is its spine.
People sure love the Outer Banks. The slim and sandy archipelago that runs from the Virginia line to Cape Hatteras attracts an estimated 5 million tourists annually. N.C. 12 is its spine.

People sure love the Outer Banks. The slim and sandy archipelago that runs from the Virginia line to Cape Hatteras attracts an estimated 5 million tourists annually. Last year, Jockeys Ridge State Park, at Nags Head, topped the 1 million mark for visitors, and 2.1 million went to Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

The appeal of these barrier islands seems obvious. But as Dawson Carr explains in “NC 12: Gateway to the Outer Banks” (UNC Press; $14 paperback), the secret to its success is asphalt.

Q. How popular were the Outer Banks before N.C. 12 connected the islands to the mainland?

A. The Outer Banks had a history of obscurity; until the Wright Brothers came there, nobody thought much of the place. It was a spot in the wilderness. It was remote at the start of the 20th century, and the few people who lived there were concerned about that isolation. It required a ferry ride to get there. They kept asking for state roads and bridges but ultimately had to build their own.

It was only after the Wright Brothers’ First Flight that people started to come in great numbers. The first bridges were built in the late 1920s. Dare County issued bonds and raised $300,000 – with no help from the state whatsoever – to build a bridge from Roanoke Island to Whalebone Junction, just south of Kitty Hawk. Then a group of investors decided to buy land on the Outer Banks to develop and sell lots. But because there was so much sand between the first bridge and their project, they decided to build a bridge to it from the north, east of Elizabeth City. The investors also paid $300,000 for their bridge, and charged a toll – a dollar a car – to cross.

Thousands crossed. The state took notice and bought both bridges in 1935.

Q. But you write that the government considered the Banks empty enough to consider using them for testing nuclear weapons.

A. I didn’t know anything about that until I was doing research eight years ago. A researcher asked, “What do you know about Project Nutmeg?” It had been a top-secret Cold War project and the files had just been released.

In the late 1940s and early ’50s, the government was planning to move their atomic testing area from the Marshall Islands in the Pacific: That site was too far away, not convenient. Some committee of officers – I don’t know who, exactly – came up with the idea of using the Outer Banks.

People who lived there didn’t know anything about it. The plan was to pick up the residents and move them.

Q. How disastrous would a test site have been there?

A. A total disaster for the Eastern United States. An officer said, in one comment I found in the files, that people were irrationally concerned about radiation. But there was nothing irrational about it. The residual fallout would have lasted for years.

Q. But the Banks were saved by the highway...

A. Yes. They saw aerial photos of the northern end, the development around Nags Head that resulted from the road that would eventually be named N.C. 12. They became convinced it was not the place to test nuclear – or worse, thermonuclear – weapons.

Q. N.C. 12 first shows up on maps in 1964. You note that the oldest dwellings on the Banks go back hundreds of years. Does anything remain from that time?

A. There’s not much from the 1800s. Most seaside construction was around Nags Head, and lot of old places washed away. There used to be a big ridge of sand in front of cottages on the beach; the sand was washed away, then the cottages were. Some older houses on the beach didn’t have plumbing or chimneys, so sometimes, they could put the houses on rollers and bring them inland when a storm came. But most anything old is gone.

Q. What about under the sand? At one time, parts of old shipwrecks could be found. Does that still happen?

A. It does, but not as frequently. There were hundreds of ships lost in the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” Outer Banks historian David Stick estimated there were about 600. That’s probably a low count: Smaller ships are probably not included; it didn’t matter as much if they were lost.

On my first visit there, in 1967, I went to Ocracoke Island where an old wooden ship had been found. The ship had been put together with wooden pegs instead of nails – that’s how old it was. I took a peg home as a souvenir.

Q. And the inlets also come and go ...

A. Through the years, many of them have; you can see this by comparing old and recent maps – especially on Hatteras Island, which is narrow and where the ground is so low.

This causes transportation “hot spots,” like the 2011 wash-out between Oregon Inlet and Rodanthe.

There’s also a 650-foot bridge across what is called New Inlet, which is not really new: It has opened and closed several times over the last 200 years. They had planned to replace it with a a new one, but now they’re thinking of putting the bridge on the western side of Hatteras, over the sound waters and away from the bird refuge. Geologists like this because sand moves freely and the new bridge won’t impede that. And it’s away from the bird refuge. People will still have access to see the birds, but now the sanctuary won’t be threatened. It seems to me like a good compromise.

Q. What about N.C. 12 versus the wild Banker ponies?

A. They moved the Corolla ponies north and put up fences. The horses were walking on N.C. 12 and traffic was killing them. The 125 or so of them left are now north of the end of N.C. 12. You can take tours from Corolla to see them.

Dawson Carr’s OBX picks

His route to the Banks: “I pick up U.S. 64 at Raleigh and take it all the way to Roanoke Island. On the island, the new bypass takes you to Whalebone Junction. It’s pretty scenic. The last 40 miles or so as you approach Roanoke Island are pretty nice.”

Favorite stretch of N.C. 12: “Two totally different parts. The area around Nags Head has shopping and wonderful restaurants. If you want wilderness and wildlife, you’re talking Hatteras and Ocracoke.”

Most old-time looking area: “On Hatteras Island. It must be like the Outer Banks had always been. I love riding through there for miles and miles. It’s listed as a scenic byway, and it really is. It’s probably my favorite scenic ride. Ocracoke is the same. ”

Auto tip: “When I go to any beach area where there’s salt air, I have my car washed when I come home. Salt can corrode the metal.”

Favorite places to eat: “One on the U.S. 64 Bypass (on Roanoke Island) is called the Lone Cedar Cafe ( and is owned by (former N.C. State Sen.) Marc Basnight. It’s a wonderful place to see. You can also watch ospreys feed their babies.

“Miller’s, near Nags Head, is also a good place ( There’s a place on Hatteras Island called The Froggy Dog ( I tease my wife about the name every time we go by it. I’ve never been there, but it has a reputation for being good.”

Best deals for your time and money: Wright Brothers Memorial (“probably the most historically important place on the Outer Banks”), Jockeys Ridge State Park (“I’m too old to hang-glide or ride a boogie board, but I like to watch others doing that. And it’s great for sunsets”) and the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum on Hatteras Island.

Best cheap thrill: “Driving the Bonner Bridge on N.C. 12, over Oregon Inlet, connecting Bodie Island and Pea Island. You’re up high so it’s a great place to see the Banks from above. It’s a little bit scary now because the bridge is so old: It was built in 1963.”

‘NC 12’ book review

There have been many books about highways – Route 66 and the Blue Ridge Parkway come quickly to mind – and the story behind each road involves quelling the tussles among geography, nature, engineering and government.

What sets N.C. 12 apart is its impermanent nature: As long as hurricanes hit the the Outer Banks and its sands continue to move, this 85-year-old project will never be truly complete.

That caveat comes through loud and clear in “NC 12: Gateway to the Outer Banks,” by Dawson Carr (UNC Press, $14). The title is spot-on: Without that ribbon of asphalt and the bridges few could visit the fragile island chain and fewer could live there.

Carr, 79, originally from the Fayetteville area and now living near Pinehurst, is a retired educator who is drawn to history. He first became well-acquainted with the Outer Banks when researching and writing “The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse: Sentinel of the Shoals.”

Most of the new book concerns the myriad obstacles that faced those who wanted a public road on the Banks and linkage to the mainland. Heroes include visionary politicians, some known, some forgotten; among the villains are Frances, Floyd, Isabel, Irene and Sandy – hurricanes so destructive that their names were retired.

It’s all great background for Banks visitors. Most useful, though, is the back quarter of the book – a mile-by-mile drive down N.C. 12 from the Corolla area to the ferry landing at Ocracoke.

John Bordsen