Erosion is hardly a new issue on the Outer Banks – in fact, sand-fixation efforts date back to the 1930s when a few of President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs provided the manpower needed to create a protective line of oceanfront sand dunes from Corolla to Ocracoke.
The stock market crash of 1929 heralded changing circumstances across the nation, which coincided with several other factors that were contributing to a large economic downswing. On the islands now known as the Outer Banks, tourism was virtually nonexistent at the time and even so-called “steady” jobs as lighthouse keepers and lifesavers with the U.S. Coast Guard were increasingly hard to find.
It’s unsurprising, then, that residents of these barrier islands began to rally behind plans to improve access by petitioning for bridges and hard-topped roads to open the area to tourism. But state officials stalled, citing concerns about the effects of hurricanes and other storms that often devastated these low-lying islands. Two particularly virulent hurricanes laid waste to the Outer Banks in 1933, which increased the need for further action.
Shortly thereafter, the North Carolina Department of Conservation and Development proposed a sand-fixation plan for the barrier islands that made a solid case for creating a protective line of oceanfront sand dunes stretching from the Virginia border down to Ocracoke Island. This dovetailed with a set of initiatives that the Roosevelt administration had put in place as part of a “New Deal” to provide employment for American citizens.
Two of these federally funded New Deal programs were the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The first CCC camp was set up on Roanoke Island in 1934, along with camps in Kitty, Nags Head, Roanoke Island and Rodanthe for transient workers with the WPA.
Though workers with the CCC and the WPA performed a number of assorted tasks on the Outer Banks from 1934 to 1941 – including repairing schools, digging drainage canals and making improvements to the old Fort Raleigh site – one of their largest, and arguably their most enduring, endeavors was their shoreline stabilization project.
One of the first steps in this process involved building timber and brush fences that were placed along the natural contour of the shoreline. Blowing sand soon got trapped in these fences, allowing the dunes to grow in size. Once the dunes were tall enough to provide a protective barrier, a variety of native beach grasses, shrubs and trees were planted to further anchor the dunes and keep them from drifting.
By the time the project ended when America became involved World War II, more than 142 million square feet of grasses and 2.5 million shrubs had been planted to create almost 150 miles of local oceanfront dunes.
Though they’re not always a perfect means of keeping the ocean at bay during some of the more intense storms that the Outer Banks is still famous for, those man-made dunes remain here to this day, acting as a first line of defense when it’s necessary to try and turn back the tides.
Ironically, some contemporary coastal geologists have since argued that the artificial dune line is actually making the Outer Banks more vulnerable and contributing to erosion by prohibiting the natural barrier island migration patterns. But that’s a hot topic and one that will have to saved for another article.
Research assistance for this article came from the Outer Banks History Center, a regional archives and research library of the State Archives of North Carolina. In 2016 the History Center Gallery in Manteo presents “Explore Your Outer Banks Parks: Celebrating a Century of the National Park Service.”