Cape Lookout National Seashore Historic Resource Study By

The Nags Head and Ocracoke Nodes: Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Century Tourism

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The Nags Head and Ocracoke Nodes: Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Century Tourism

The earliest inn-like establishment we have seen reference to was the Eagle Tavern, situated at Hertford on one of the long fingers of Currituck Sound, was taking guests as early as 1762. Opened initially in the owner’s home, it grew to twenty-five rooms spread across six lots. George Washington reportedly stayed there while surveying the Great Dismal Swamp.11

Charles Jordan’s tavern in Hertford did not spark a tourism boom on Currituck Sound, however. Early beach goers preferred Ocracoke or Nags Head. “This healthy place,” Jonathan Price wrote of Ocracoke in 1795 in his publicity brochure promoting Shell Castle, “is in autumn the resort of many of the inhabitants of the main.”12 In the early years of the nineteenth century,, Washington, North Carolina, businessman and entrepreneur John Gray Blount took his extended family on summer vacations to Ocracoke, where they were entertained by John Wallace, Blount’s partner in the development of Shell Castle.13

Even tiny Portsmouth, which did not attract a significant number of tourists until the boom in sport hunting toward the end of the nineteenth century, had become a vacation haven for some families by the 1840s and 1850s. Among them was the Havens-Bonner family from Washington NC, members of which frequently made month-long trips to Portsmouth for health reasons, during which they enjoyed the delights of seaside life. “Dear Husband,” Mary Havens wrote from Portsmouth on 15 September 1857,

Fryday [sic] evening we went to the beach . . . on horseback . . . . We went up past the habitable part of the Island then across to the beach riding all the way down . . . . The sun had just sunk to rest, when we got there. There were 25 [of us] in all . . . . It was the wildest sight I ever looked upon, the children were in the surf while the older ones were handing out supper . . . . It was a delicious repast, though ordinary food. Then with one accord all threw themselves on the bosom of old Ocean. Such delightful enjoyment was never mine before (in that way). All were happy. I suppose we remained an hour, the moon rising, but still greater enchantment when we turned our faces homeward, where we arrived all safely and were soon wrapt in the arms of Morpheus.14

Nags Head received early interest from Perquimans County planter Francis Nixon who bought 200 acres there and built a summer house. He later sold lots to others, but within a few years shifting sands were threatening summer houses built on the lots he had sold. Nevertheless, by 1838 the area had its first hotel, and by 1841 the Ocean Retreat was also being advertised as a “new hotel.” [ILLUSTRATION: Ocean Retreat hotel ad Old North State and NH Advocate 25May1841 Bisher Cottages p7.jpg. CAPTION: Fig. 9-4: Ad for Ocean Retreat Hotel, 1841. Old North State and Nags Head Advocate (Elizabeth City), 25 May 1841. Reproduced from Bisher, “The ‘Unpainted Aristocracy’: The Beach Cottages of Old Nags Head,” North Carolina Historical Review (Autumn 1977), 7.

By 1850, it was clear that the difficulty of reaching Nags Head was a major problem. Soon a steamer began to ferry guests down the Blackwater River in Norfolk, into the Chowan and across Albemarle Sound and Roanoke sounds to Nags Head. A new half-mile railroad carried them back and forth between the beach and the hotel. The strategy worked, other steamers increased the frequency of trips, and hotel rooms filled by satisfied visitors (including newspaper editors from Norfolk who wrote glowing reports of the growing resort).15 [ILLUSTRATION: Nags Head hotel ad North State Whig 11June1851 Bisher Cottages p7.jpg. CAPTION: Fig. 9-5: Nag’s Head Hotel advertisement in North State Whig (Washington), 11 June 1851. Reproduced in Bisher, The "Unpainted Aristocracy": The Beach Cottages of Old Nags Head, North Carolina Historical Review (Autumn 1977).]

George Henry Throop, who visited Nags Head in the late 1840s, lamented the passing of what one could already describe as old Nags Head, when only three families had houses there, no roads had been cut or hotel built, and the “restraints of fashionable life” had not yet appeared.16 He was nevertheless charmed to see “the contrast between the white sand-hills and the dark, beautiful green of its clusters of oak . . . the neat white cottages among the trees, the smoke curling lazily from the low chimneys, the fishing-boats and other small craft darting to and fro . . . .”

“Planters, merchants, and professional men,” Throop reported,

usually have a snug cottage at Nag's Head, to which they remove their families, with the plainer and more common articles of household furniture, one or more horses, a cow, and such vehicles as are fitted for use on sandy roads. . . . [S]ometimes half a dozen servants accompany the family. . . . It costs but little, if any more, to keep them here than it would to leave them at home.

To supply the needs of the visitors and their retinues, three or four packets ran weekly from Elizabeth City, Hertford, and Edenton (79). Amusements were abundant: fox-hunting, fishing, bowling, local excursions, strolling on the beach, and swimming in the surf. [ILLUSTRATIONS: The Beach at Nags Head 1860 Harper's New Monthly Mag May 1860 p729 (Bitmap). CAPTION: Fig. 9-6: The Beach at Nags Head, 1860. Harper's New Monthly Magazine, May 1860, 729]

But the main attraction was the hotel, thronged, he said, by “[s]cores of children and youth, whole regiments of young ladies and young gentlemen . . . , until the worthy innkeeper stood aghast” (47) “A siesta after the late dinner,” Throop reported,

leaves you time for a short stroll about sunset; and after tea, dressing is the universal occupation. At length . . . the musician makes his appearance. The . . . sets are formed, and the long-drawn "Balance, all!" gives the glow of pleasure to every face (160).

About local people Throop appeared puzzled and divided. “Where, who, and what are the bankers?,” he asked.

To say the truth, I have seen but little of them. . . . I know that they are the landholders along the ridge[s] . . . I have seen them mending their nets, I have chatted with them, and yet I know but little of their character and habits. My friend Dr. A -- tells me that many of them are miserably poor . . . . Altogether, they seem to be a peculiar people. They are isolated from the social intercourse, which, in the more densely-peopled communities of the mainland, refines and elevates the individual. They look very jealously, I am told, upon strangers; but are clannish, and therefore honest and social among themselves (162).

Throop’s uncertainty about what to think with regard to the bankers foreshadowed themes that would become nearly ubiquitous in the years ahead. What was already clear to him, however, was that trying to build a durable resort in such an unstable environment was fraught with difficulty. All around him, he saw

the gradual entombing of whole acres of live-oaks and pines by the gradual drifting of the restless sands from the beach. Not a more melancholy sight in the world. In a morning's walk, you may pass hundreds of enormous oaks, the topmost branches barely visible above the surface, while their roots may be scores of feet beneath the surface, strangled by the merciless sands (45).

The summer cottage and hotel culture of Nags Head proved long-lived. A visitor from Norfolk in 1851 found a settled community already twenty years old. Its members were accustomed to pass the weeks, he said,

in refined social intercourse, surrounded by the health reviving breezes of old Ocean, the season of the year that would expose them to sickness on their plantations. [The cottages were] of considerable size . . . built in the fashion of regular homesteads with spacious porches and balconies and convenient out houses as if for permanent occupancy. They are generally situated on high hills with beautiful wooded sides commanding a magnificent prospect of the ocean and sound . . . . 17

The hotel housed Federal troops during the Civil War, but the cottagers returned as numerously as ever at war’s end, and a new hotel and new cottages were soon erected.18 Twenty years later, memories of elegant social life were undimmed. “At the house,” recalled a Raleigh student,

we find the usual throng of summer boarders . . . lounging or promenading on the piazzas: here a party starting for a drive, there a crowd of excursionists landing from a sloop . . . . We wander over . . . one of the [hotel’s] upper verandas. . . . [A] familiar, longed-for voice calls to us, and . . we are soon on our way to the ocean. Along the beach extends a row of houses grown old and gray under the suns and rains of many summers . . . . 19

Storms, fires, and wars interrupted the idyll at times. A fire in 1903 destroyed the hotel – by then a 150-room structure.20 The steamers continued to arrive nevertheless, and in the mid-1920s Nags Head thrived, as it has continued to do since. [ILLUSTRATION: Nags Head ad 2July1926 Eliz City Independent Bisher Cottages p14. CAPTION: Fig. 9-7: Advertisement for Nags Head featuring steamers to Elizabeth City. Elizabeth City Independent, 2 July 1926. Reproduced from Bisher, “The ‘Unpainted Aristocracy’: The Beach Cottages of Old Nags Head,” North Carolina Historical Review (Autumn 1977), p 14.]

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