Historical Sites in the Outer Banks

Second in a series on the Outer Banks

The Outer Banks are full of attractions, both natural and manmade.  The following is a non-exhaustive list of historic sites I visited in 2011.

Wright Brothers National Memorial

The Wright Brothers National Memorial, located in Kill Devil Hills, commemorates where the Wright Brothers tested their gliders and eventually made their successful powered flight in 1903 (officially per the FAI “the first sustained and controlled heavier-than-air powered flight”).  OBX’s breezy weather was favorable to conducting tests.  The Wright Brothers would scarcely recognize the sprawl that has popped up around their then-remote testing site.  (History books often record the flight as taking place at Kitty Hawk, the closest settlement at the time.)

Replica of the Wright Flyer
Replica of the Wright Flyer

There is a good museum at the site with replicas of the Wright Flyer (the original is in the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in Washington DC).  There are replicas of the Wrights’ hangers and launching rail as well.  Markers indicate the distances achieved in their first four powered flights on December 17, 1903.

I was surprised to learn that John Thomas Daniels, Jr., the photographer who took the iconic photograph of the Wright Brothers’ first flight had never taken a photo before.  I can only imagine the privilege of having one’s first photograph become what some people would argue is the most important photograph of the 20th century!

Monument on a hill at Wright Brothers National Memorial
Monument on a hill at Wright Brothers National Memorial in infrared

Atop Kill Devil Hill sits a monument to the Wrights.  This hill was stabilized from a dune that the Wrights conducted tests on and looks different than it appeared during the Wrights’ era.  The monument also pays tribute to those that inspired the Wrights, most notably German glider pioneer Otto Lilienthal.  Lilienthal, after he was mortally wounded in an 1896 glider accident, became my nominee for man with the best last words in history when he told his brother, “”Opfer müssen gebracht werden!” (“Sacrifices must be made!”).

A metal sculpture representing the Wrights' first flight is popular with children
A metal sculpture representing the Wrights’ first flight is popular with children
Hanger replica
Hanger replica
Stones marking the end of each of the Wrights' first four flights
Stones marking the end of each of the Wrights’ first four flights


The Outer Banks are one of several locations nicknamed “The Graveyard of the Atlantic” due to the thousands of shipwrecks that have occurred there.  The Diamond Shoals off Cape Hatteras are particularly hazardous, where the Gulf Stream and Labrador Current render the undersea topography in such constant flux that charts don’t even claim to offer accurate water depths.  In addition, due to its geographic location off the coast and the interaction of the two currents, OBX is particularly vulnerable to storms.

Bodie Island Light, Outer Banks
Bodie Island Lighthouse (1872)

A network of lighthouses help mitigate these navigational hazards.  Each of OBX’s lighthouses have a unique black and white daymark pattern for identification purposes.

Cape Hatteras Light
Cape Hatteras Light

Queen of the OBX lighthouses is the candy-striped Cape Hatteras Light (built 1870), guardian of the Diamond Shoals.  It’s the tallest brick lighthouse in the United States.  Visitors may choose to climb 259 steps to the top, although in some ways the spiral staircase is more impressive than the view.  Incredibly, the entire lighthouse was moved intact 2,900′ (880 m) in 1999 after severe erosion threatened to topple the lighthouse.

Building in the Cape Hatteras Light complex
Building in the Cape Hatteras Light complex
Interior of Cape Hatteras Light
Interior of Cape Hatteras Light
View from the top of Hatteras Light
View from the top of Hatteras Light

Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station

Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station, built 1874. HDR
Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station, built 1874. HDR

Rodanthe is home to the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station.  This is a museum preserving a rescue station operated by the United States Life-saving Service and its successor, the United States Coast Guard from 1874 to 1954.  Its finest hour may have occurred during World War I.  On August 16, 1918 the British tanker SS Mirlo was split in two by an explosion attributed to a German submarine, U-117  (some accounts say the ship was torpedoed but based on the sub’s reported position, it was probably sunk by a sea mine U-117 deployed earlier).

36 members of the crew escaped in lifeboats, but the remaining crew were trapped when their lifeboat capsized during launch.  Six of Chicamacomico’s surfmen reached the stricken ship, the ocean’s surface surrounding it covered in burning gasoline.  They maneuvered their boat through a gap the flames, rescuing the remaining six survivors clinging to the capsized lifeboat.  The surfmen then guided the other two lifeboats to shore; all but nine of the crew of 51 survived.

Breeches buoy drill
Breeches buoy drill

Although no longer an active Coast Guard station, USGS personnel stationed nearby occasionally come to perform demonstrations using the old equipment.  I had the opportunity to view a demonstration of a crew setting up the beach apparatus for a breeches buoy rescue (though they used an older, simpler, and less safe method, the bosun’ chair, for their “survivor” to ride in the actual demonstration).  If a ship ran aground, the rescue crew on shore could launch a rope with a small cannon.  Once set up at both ends, the ship’s passengers and crew could be evacuated by riding in the breeches buoy much like adventurers ride zip lines today.  The buoy is described by Ralph Shanks and Wick York in their book The U.S. Life-Saving Service as “a common cork-filled life ring (a circular life preserver) with a pair of short-legged oversize canvas pants sewn inside.”

Breeches Buoy
Breeches buoy at Chicamacomico

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