“When we look up and down the ocean fronts of America,” Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes observed with alarm in1938,
we find that everywhere they are passing behind the fences of private ownership. The people can no longer get to the ocean. When we have reached the point that a nation of 125 million people cannot set foot upon the thousands of miles of beaches that border the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, except by permission of those who monopolize the ocean front, then I say it is the prerogative and the duty of the Federal and State Governments to step in and acquire, not a swimming beach here and there, but solid blocks of ocean front hundreds of miles in length. Call this ocean front a national park, or a national seashore, or a state park or anything you please – I say that the people have a right to a fair share of it.68
Clearly, however, if citizens were to be shown the delights of unspoiled nature on North Carolina’s barrier islands, that nature would not only have to be protected by public ownership and prudent regulations, but also recovered and rebuilt. That certainly became abundantly clear with the formation of the first of the National Seashores on the Outer Banks, at Cape Hatteras.
As early as the 1930s there were plans for a state park in the area.69 In 1934, the National Park Service sent a reconnaissance team to examine the site, and they returned very enthusiastic. [ILLUSTRATION: NPS group tour of Cape Hatteras site 1934. CAPTION: Fig. 9-26: National Park Service group embarking at Oregon Inlet for tour of the Outer Banks as potential national seashore site, 1934. National Park Service photograph courtesy of Harpers Ferry Center; reproduced in Binkley, Cape Hatteras National Seashore Administrative History, 14] The creation of Cape Hatteras National Seashore was authorized by Congress in 1937. Key North Carolina Congressmen Lindsay C. Warren and Herbert C. Bonner, along with North Carolina illustrator, outdoorsman, conservationist and real estate man Frank Stick promoted the project skillfully and unremittingly.70
The project received a key boost when the Phipps family, having established hunting clubs at Buxton and Kennekeet, found themselves with other land they couldn’t sell during the Depression and didn’t want to continue paying taxes on. Stick helped them to arrange to convey it for use as a park (along with adjoining land of his own) as the park’s first land. It remained unclear for years whether the area would be a state park, a national park, or a national seashore. After years of indecision (both state and Federal), conflict, negotiation, and planning, Cape Hatteras National Seashore was finally established in 1953 and formally dedicated in 1958.
Significantly with regard to tourism, the legislation directed the National Park Service to develop “extensive facilities” for recreational beach goers, and to allow the Seashore’s use by commercial and sport fishermen and by hunters. To satisfy that requirement while continuing and extending the conservation efforts that had been integral to the Seashore’s establishment would prove a daunting task, as indeed it had been in virtually all national parks throughout the entire history of the National Park Service.71
This charge was rendered especially difficult by the presence of already established residential and commercial areas on the part of the Banks occupied by the seashore such as Rodanthe, Salvo, Avon, Buxton, Frisco, and Ocracoke. Rising populations and increased building in those locations put pressure on the Seashore, whose annual visitorship between 1955 and 2002 rose from about 260,000 to almost three million.72 In 2008, the Seashore had approximately 71 visitors per acre of park land, four times as many as Great Smoky Mountains National Park (17/acre/year), and fifty times as many as Yellowstone National Park. (1.4/acre/year).73
For better or worse, then, North Carolina’s first national seashore shared a boundary at numerous points along its length with areas intensively developed (and developing) for tourism. The best that could be hoped for was a mostly positive synergy between the two systems. That hope would be tested again on the new National Seashore created between Ocracoke and Beaufort Inlets a few years later.
The history of Cape Lookout National Seashore has always (indeed, even before it was founded and officially opened) been inseparable from the history of tourism (and related recreational use) on Core and Shackleford Banks – partly because early planning got underway in the late 1950s, when tourism was viewed as the next quick fix for economic development.
In 1959, the state of North Carolina passed legislation to establish an Outer Banks state park south of Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and land acquisition began. Three years later the North Carolina Seashore Park Commission urged transferring state-owned Outer Banks property to the National Park Service for Cape Lookout National Seashore. Between 1963 and 1966, various bills were introduced in Congress to establish the Seashore.74 By mid-1964, both the Secretary of the Interior and the President had signed on to the plan. Congressional approval followed in early 1966.75
Earliest detailed planning for the new National Seashore assumed that fairly dense facilities for tourists, and for moving them from place to place, would be central. As early as 1963, a National Park Service development map showed a possible “highway causeway bridge” and a ferry crossing North River Channel and Shackleford Slue to Shackleford Banks. [ILLUSTRATION: 1963 devel plan map with causeway bridge to Shk Bks. CAPTION: Fig. 9-27: 1963 General Development Plan Map, Cape Lookout and Shackleford Banks. National Park Service, Denver Service Center.] It showed a motor road leading all the way up Shackleford Banks almost to Barden Inlet, with picnic and parking areas, docks, a “marine supplies” store, beaches with dressing rooms and shelters, a ranger station, and a visitor center along the way. It was, in a word, a plan premised on rather intensive tourist facilities development that was consistent with the Park Service’s Mission 66 program, which was drawing to a conclusion in 1966.76
The new Seashore was located, said a Congressional report two years later, within 250 miles of five million people, large numbers of whom could be expected to visit.77 Local boosters were quick to take up the theme. Raleigh News and Observer reporter Roy Parker, Jr. wrote in mid-summer of 1965 that “Cape Lookout Expects to Attract Million in Five Years,” and a few months later his fellow writer Roy Hardee reported that local officials were predicting “a bright future for the economic and tourist development of Carteret County” with the opening of the Seashore.78 Besides the causeway or ferry, Hardee reported, the sound side of the Banks was to be dredged to create a boat channel “running the entire length of the new Seashore area” and the dredging spoil used to build a fifty-foot protective berm on the ocean side.79
The expected gains from tourism were welcomed, but a few worries surfaced early on about a possible down side. Entrances to the Seashore must be carefully protected, Hardee wrote, so that no “honky-tonks and shacks” would be allowed, and highways crossing the Banks (between ocean and sound, presumably) had to be avoided.80
As it turned out, tourist facilities for the new National Seashore were scaled back, and tourism gains proved much smaller than anticipated. No causeway or ferry was put into place; no Shackleford Banks facilities of any kind were built. And many fewer than the anticipated number of tourists came; even by the mid-1980s, annual visitation was still only about 100,000.
Initially, however, the major problem was not how much tourist development the National Park Service was to do, of what kind(s), and where to put it, but how to finish acquiring the final few necessary parcels of land. They were in the hands of powerful people, well aware of the quick rise in land values following the announcement that the new Seashore was to be built, and committed to private models of development.
From the 1920s on through the late 1960s, latter-day sport hunters organized and established hunting clubs and lodges – generally less grand than their predecessors from the late nineteenth century. Several such groups used buildings in Portsmouth into the 1950s and 1960s. The small, two-room Ed Styron House was leased for that purpose until 1989. In the early 1950s, the former Portsmouth Life-Saving Station (built in 1894 and decommissioned in 1937) was sold to a private hunting club. The club built a landing strip adjacent to it, obliterating the old Marine Hospital site. [ILLUSTRATION: Portsmouth LSS landing strip DW photo 20080315. CAPTION: Fig. 9-28: Landing strip next to Portsmouth Life-Saving Station, March 2008. Photo by David E. Whisnant.] The recently established Salter Gun Club also began in 1965 to use the Dixon-Salter House, which dated to 1900.81 And in 1930, the Raleigh News and Observer reported that “a big club owned by northern interests” was being planned for Salvo, and that the wealthy Phipps family, owners of “private shooting estates” in several countries, had bought 800 acres near Buxton on which to develop “a great shooting property.”82 The Core Sound Gun Club bought what would turn out to be a key 900+ acre parcel.
Simultaneously, private developers with visions of major tourist enclaves bought large parcels on the Outer Banks. Powerful Sanford industrialist (and member of the state Banking Commission) Charles M. Reeves, Jr. owned 230 acres near the lighthouse and 500 acres at Drum Inlet.83 On the smaller parcel he planned to lay out roadways and more than 700 residential building lots. Other space was reserved for motels, and Cape Point itself looked to Reeves like a prime site for a hotel. [ILLUSTRATION: Master Plan Map 1964 CALO_623_60966.pdf. CAPTION: Fig. 9-29: Charles M. Reeves, Jr., Master Plan, Proposed Cape Lookout Development, 1964. Rader and Associates, Miami, Florida. National Park Service, Denver Service Center.] Reeves was willing to sell his property, providing he could get what he thought it was worth. In the late 1960s he sold his 500 acres at Drum Inlet for only $46/acre, but the 230 acres near the lighthouse he sold in 1974 brought him $1.5 million ($6500/acre).84
Negotiations over the Core Banks Gun Club land dragged on for more than nine years, nearly derailing plans for the entire park at the outset. Expected difficulty in acquiring the Club’s land led to its being excluded from the original legislation in 1963. A half-dozen years later it had still not been acquired. Condemnation proceedings were halted when the state Supreme Court ruled that the state lacked authority to condemn it. Meanwhile, even the 1.5 acres owned by the much less powerful Salter Gun Club had to be obtained through what a state official called a “painstaking, cat-and-mouse process.”85
To get the Gun Club’s land, the Supreme Court said, special legislation would be required. It was introduced and passed quickly in mid-1969.86 As late as 1974, legislation to establish the park still excluded the land.87 Meanwhile, more and more titles were turning out to be complicated and obscure, and the estimate for acquiring all the necessary land had risen from $265,000 to $13 million. The Gun Club’s land was finally bought for $3,000/acre at the end of 1974. The Club was given a twenty-five year lease on part of the property. The lease expired in late 1999, and eighteen months later, Governor Holshouser presented deeds for 16,600 acres to the National Park Service.88
The Reeves and Gun Club purchases could have– but still did not quite – mark a full and decisive shift from private to public ownership and development, from private clubs and subdivisions on the southern Banks to a seashore that would fully realize Secretary Ickes’s vision of nearly forty years earlier.
Another round remained to be fought with another group of private interests, however. After World War II, sport fishing had become a major business on the Outer Banks. A major impetus at the southern end had come unbidden in 1933, when a hurricane opened Barden’s Inlet, separating Core Banks from Shackleford Banks.89 “It was almost as if, when the water rushed out, the twentieth century rushed in,” islander Irvin Guthrie reported. Anthropologist Barbara Garrity-Blake notes that the new inlet “provided easy access to the ocean for sport fishermen, transformed Harkers Island into a ‘jumping off place’ for tourists, and led to tourism-related development. Mrs. Harkers Lodge, located at Shell Point, became the island’s first motel and an attractive lodging for fishermen. Between 1930 and 1950, Harkers Island population grew almost fifty percent (from 854 to 1244).90By the mid-1950s, a National Park Service survey counted thirty to forty fishing cottages on Core Banks.91
Sport fishing in coastal North Carolina would eventually grow into a $1 billion per year industry. In 1991, a million individual anglers, more than a quarter million recreational boats, nearly 200 charter and “head” boat operators (nearly a third of them out of Carteret County) were pulling nearly 14 million pounds of fish (more than 200 species) out of the water every year. Suppliers of boats and motors, fishing gear and clothing, and other services added to the industry’s importance. Shore fishermen were responsible for roughly half the harvest in any year.92 [ILLUSTRATION: Model A Ford beach vehicle Portsmouth 1975 c36.tif. CAPTION: Fig. 9-30: Antique Model A Ford modified for fishermen’s use, ca. 1975. Cape Lookout National Seashore archive photo.]
The obliteration of the Marine Hospital site was by no means the only damage that decades of tourism and recreational used had occasioned on the Outer Banks. By the 1950s, when the formation of Cape Lookout National Seashore first began to be contemplated, it was already clear that repairing those damages would have to be an early order of business. As early as 1968, F. Ross Holland reported that fishermen and other users had left their imprint upon the banks. “Clusters of fishermen's shanties,” he said
dot the landscape; for the most part they are tarpaper shacks that would be a disgrace in the worst city slum. Worn out and broken down dune vehicles in all their unsightliness are much in evidence. These rusting cars or small trucks with snow tires or extra wide tires on the drive wheels are collected together in various spots in what appear to be Core Banks junkyards. Many individual buggies dot the Banks, abandoned by their owners where they broke down. All the vehicles are gradually being covered by the drifting sand, and one wonders how many sand dunes with their crowns of sea oats hide earlier versions of dune buggies.
Eight years later, the Raleigh News and Observer reported, a “rusty fleet of more than 2,500 abandoned vehicles” – automobiles, pickup trucks, vans, and even Model A Fords – lay on the beaches, waiting to be crushed on site, buried, or hauled off in a barge.93 [ILLUSTRATION: Junk cars at CALO lighthouse g115.tif. CAPTION: Fig. 9-31: Removing junk cars from Cape Lookout National Seashore with lighthouse in background. Car on bottom appears to be a ca. 1962 Chrysler; one in middle probably a Ford, ca. 1962-63; one on top likely a 1955 Chevrolet. Note fishing rod receptacles on front bumper of middle car. Since the cars would presumably not have been abandoned when new, the 1960s models would likely have been abandoned after the National Seashore was created. Southeast Regional Office archive, National Park Service]
Nearly ten years after the new National Seashore was authorized, but before it actually opened, DurhamSun writer Bill Noblitt lamented both the rusty automobiles and the shacks and old trailers (250 or more of them) that littered the landscape around five fishing camps frequented by doctors, insurance men, and workingmen “serious [enough] about fishing” to build the flimsy structures and haul them out to the Banks.94 “Don’t call them sportsmen,” News and Observer writer Bob Simpson cautioned a year later in an article on the “squatter boom” on the Banks. Simpson explained that “squatters” (“upstate greedies”) were “claiming the right to the land” by throwing up shacks on it “when the rightful owners were in good faith selling it to the state.”95
Obviously there was room to maneuver with regard to the terminology concerning the fishing-related structures that dotted Cape Lookout National Seashore’s acres, but there was no denying that scores of them were out there. A map of existing development prepared by the National Park Service in 1977 showed 51 such structures on Shackleford Banks. Nearly 275 were on Core Banks, scattered from just below Shingle Point to around Swash Inlet.96
Unsightliness was only part of the problem, however. In his 1976 study of barrier island ecology, Paul J. Godfrey took a broader approach. Unfortunately, he said,
a good many people have shown no respect for the Outer Banks environment and have spoiled a great deal of it . . . . There are a great many [surf fishing] camps on the island where the fishermen stay; clusters of them are sometimes surrounded by rings of abandoned cars towed there in an effort to protect the buildings from the sea . Fishermen bring to the island an old car which they drive up and down the beach until it wears out or gets hopelessly stuck. This in itself does no real harm unless the car is driven over dune grass or through bird nesting grounds, but the car is eventually left to rust on the beach . . . . There are probably over a thousand such hulks on Core Banks.
As for the camps themselves, Godfrey observed, some are made up of “neat, decent little buildings,” but many “are unsightly, vermin-infested hovels surrounded by rubbish.”97
A challenge even more legally, politically, and (especially) culturally complicated than that on Core Banks awaited the Park Service when it began in 1978 to acquire land on Shackleford Banks.
Considered broadly, the land the state and Federal governments had to deal with on Core and Shackleford Banks might be thought of as falling into a handful of categories: (1) historically “settled” land, such as Portsmouth, Diamond City (before it was blown away) and other small early fishing villages on Shackleford Banks (e.g., Lookout Woods); (2) historically public or “commons” land, such as beaches – to which the public’s increasingly restricted access so troubled Harold Ickes in 1938; (3) state institutional lands, such as those appropriated at various times (and for varying lengths of time) for lighthouses, life-saving stations, military installations, or the Coast Guard; (4) privately held speculative lands, bought as investments or for speculative development; and (5) what one might call legacy lands – bought (or not) and occupied long enough to have acquired deep and complex cultural and social meanings.
The difficulty of acquiring land for the new National Seashore depended to some extent upon the category to which it belonged. Shell Castle Island had been abandoned for a century and a half; Portsmouth had been almost completely depopulated for decades, and remaining property owners were fairly easy to deal with. Access to public beaches was not under threat as it would soon become further north and south, where private tourism development was burgeoning. State institutional lands could fairly easily be conveyed and repurposed as governmental needs and priorities changed. Acquiring private speculative lands (such as those of Charles Reeves, Jr.) could be legally challenging and expensive, but they could ultimately be obtained. Legacy lands could be a much more complicated matter, as they proved to be on Core and Shackleford Banks.
The Core Banks buildings were mostly clustered on lands between the lighthouse and the Coast Guard station. Some had been purchased when they were decommissioned by the Coast Guard; others had been built in the area. Years of regular use had formed a tight-knit and supportive community. Families who owned and used the houses were loath to see their community come to an end.
A Coastwatch article in 2003 evoked the ties individuals and families formed to the area, and their relationships with other families who used the cottages regularly year after year. Some houses had been updated with generators, but most had changed little. June Long’s father had started coming in the 1920s, and continued until his death in 1972. “This place means everything to me,” said Wilson Davis of the Coca-Cola house his family had been returning to every year with their children since the 1950s. “It is my family’s history.” Some of the owners were given 25-year leases when the land was transferred to the National Park Service in 1976, but negotiations and law suits continued for years.98
As Beal and Prioli have outlined it, the more contentious Shackleford Banks challenge was focused by two groups: seasonal surf fishermen and local people who had long maintained cottages for seasonal and occasional use. The surf fishermen were disturbed by planning for the park that proposed wilderness designation for Shackleford Banks. That designation would ban all structures and private motor vehicles, including those taken to the Banks by the fishermen for more than twenty-five years – many of them ingeniously designed and built with great care.99
The fishermen (most of whom were not from Carteret County), fearing the elimination of their sport, responded immediately and negatively. They finally agreed to the Shackleford Banks wilderness designation, but asked to retain their customary practices on Core Banks and Portsmouth Island. For the most part, state officials and agencies agreed. Park officials therefore rejected the contrary position of conservationist groups.
Having reached an agreement with surf fishermen, the state turned to acquiring Shackleford Banks land. In that effort, they faced the fully array of issues attaching to legacy lands. The many beach cottages and houses on Shackleford in some respects resembled buildings used by tourists and seasonal visitors, but those who had built them were by no reasonable definition “tourists.”
Certainly they were not squatters like those further north on Core Banks, though in fact only a very few of them actually owned the property on which the more than fifty cottages stood. They were mostly local people who had built the structures, had occupied them for years, and practiced what Prioli called “gentle land use” that contrasted sharply with the Core Banks squatters’ practices. For generations they had considered the land commons or communal property. The buildings, Prioli notes, were not just weekend retreats, but rather “extensions of their primary homes” that “connected them spiritually with a past that was increasingly threatened by the tourism and commercialism that were rapidly overrunning their mainland environments.”
So distressed were they that their houses were going to be destroyed that they burned them one night in December 1985. For good measure, outraged owners also torched the only two houses that had qualified for twenty-five year leases. Unknown parties also burned the Cape Lookout National Seashore visitor center on Harkers Island, including data on important wildlife research. Despite an FBI investigation, no one was ever charged with the arson.100 Conflicted feelings between local people and Park Service personnel lingered for years.
In any case, the history of tourism on the southern end of the Outer Banks bequeathed a complicated social, cultural, political, and economic dynamic to the developers and managers of Cape Lookout National Seashore – one within which the constant challenge of mediating between private rights and the public good, cold legalities and intense sentiment could not be avoided.