Cape Lookout National Seashore Historic Resource Study By

CHAPTER 9 Outer Banks Tourism and the Coming of Cape Lookout National Seashore

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Outer Banks Tourism and the Coming of Cape Lookout National Seashore

People who accept the expense and physical challenges of travel are motivated by widely varied factors: the spiritual significance of holy sites, the healing power of baths and springs and mountain air, the habitats of rare and beautiful creatures, the magnificence of monumental landscapes, structures or great art, or the hallowed ground of heroic battles.

From such places travelers seek spiritual enlightenment or forgiveness, treasured objects, historical understanding, physical or emotional healing, sensual satisfaction, enhanced social standing, or behind-the-scenes views of authentic cultural practices.1

Language used to describe such sought-after sites and their boons tends to be essentializing, romanticizing, and extravagant in its promises – promises that may be only loosely (if at all) related to fact. But at one level that is not a problem, since the main task of the language is to locate human needs and desires, and to promise to satisfy them through some particular travel experience.

Language deployed in this way inevitably contributes to the (frequently unverified) core of popular discourse – about “the South” or Appalachia, the Catskills, the Alps, the Rhine valley, or the Pampas. Or the Outer Banks.

Travelers who have come to the Banks for pleasure and recreation (in evidence as early as the 1790s but in growing numbers since World War II), have been attracted above all by both the spectacular maritime environment and what they understand to be the uniquely compelling features of local culture.

Areas that have attracted tourists over long periods of time have distinctive life histories. North Carolina’s two most developed and visited areas – the Outer Banks and coast to the east and the mountains to the west – have both been attractive tourist destinations since the late eighteenth century. But travelers to the mountains and the coast have sought very different experiences, distributed themselves very differently, and shifted their preferences over time in distinctive ways.2

Early nineteenth century mountain travelers and tourists clambered out of stage coaches into tiny inns, but their numbers grew with the opening of the Buncombe Turnpike in 1828, and accommodations improved. Wealthy lowland families came every summer – many believing that hot springs, sulphur springs, and mountain air had curative properties, and some built lavish summer houses.3 Small inns and hotels proliferated in the antebellum period. Buncombe County’s Sherrill’s Inn opened in 1834, Walker’s Inn in Andrews in the 1840s, Flat Rock’s Woodfield Inn, opened a decade later, Haywood County’s Battle House before 1850,and Blowing Rock’s Watauga Inn in 1888. Later hotels became grander. The sumptuous White Sulphur Springs Hotel in Waynesville (1878, 1893), the Green Park Hotel in Blowing Rock (1891), the Eseeola Inn in Linville (1892), Asheville’s massive stone Grove Park Inn (1913), and Blowing Rock’s Mayview Manor (1922) drew thousands year after year.4

The railroad punched through the Swannanoa Tunnel into Asheville in 1880, and electric trolleys arrived in 1889.5 From then until the Depression, the city witnessed boom development, much of it linked to tourism, some to its growing reputation as a health center for tubercular patients.6 [ILLUSTRATION: Mountain Sanatarium for Pulmonary Diseases 1870s UNCA. CAPTION: Mountain Sanatarium for Pulmonary Diseases. Asheville, 1870s].

Asheville experienced more of such growth than anywhere else in the North Carolina mountains, but other areas became tourist magnets as well – especially those along the Blue Ridge Parkway that linked the new Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah National Parks in the late 1930s.7 After World War II came strings of new motels in places like Maggie Valley, followed by ski resorts (Cataloochee was first in 1961) and posh gated communities such as Hound Ears and Invershiel, some of them developed by multinational corporations.

Four hundred miles to the east, on the Outer Banks, distinctive geography, climate and other factors configured tourism very differently. Visitors were drawn to the bathing beaches of Ocracoke as early as the 1750s, and to Nags Head by the 1830s. By1853, wealthy yacht owners had already formed an exclusive club.8 During the last half of the century, tourist accommodations were springing up from Currituck to Calabash. In the mid-1870s, Dr. G. K. Bagby bought and renovated Brunswick’s Atlantic Hotel, and beguiled guests with promises of A BAND OF MUSIC, FAST SAILING BOATS, BATH HOUSES, SURF BATHING, TEN PINS, and a dining table supplied “with all the luxuries from land and water.” [ILLUSTRATION: 1877 Atlantic Hotel Kell CarteretCoCivilWar_16. CAPTION: Advertisement for Brunswick’s Atlantic Hotel, July 1877. Kell, North Carolina’s Coastal Carteret County During the Civil War (1976), 16.]

The closing years of the century witnessed the proliferation of hunting lodges on the sounds. Around Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach, trolley and railroad lines were soon carrying throngs to brightly lit music and dance pavilions and elegant hotels. From the 1920s onward, highways, bridges and ferries brought ever larger streams of tourists, and hard-surfaced roads relieved the challenge of driving in the sand.

After the Depression and World War II, boom times soon returned. Beach resorts for people of modest means multiplied up and down the coast, and vacation homes and cabins stretched row on row behind (and sometimes on) the dunes. Legendary Outer Banks photographer Aycock Brown began his publicity blitz in 1952, and Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout national seashores followed in 1958 and 1966.9 Within a few years, subdivisions for beach homes stretched north toward the Virginia border, matched by gated inland golf communities. Sport fishermen began competing for water and fish with commercial fishermen. Taking advantage of new technologies, kite boarders now maneuver across the waves and hang gliders soar over the dunes.

Thus although tourism appeared at about the same time on both ends of the state, and has developed steadily since, it was configured in each place by particularities of terrain, climate, flora and fauna, public policy, and entrepreneurial and corporate activity. In this chapter we explore the eastern sector of this history – one of the most important contexts for the establishment, development and operation of Cape Lookout National Seashore.

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