By Ben Swenson | Correspondent
The first flight measured just 120 feet. The Wright Flyer, a rudimentary aircraft made from cotton cloth stretched over a wooden frame, propelled by a simple gasoline engine, was airborne for a turbulent 12 seconds before it fell back to earth.
Brief as it was, that takeoff in December 1903 was an unprecedented feat — powered flight. Brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright had made world history on the sands of Dare County, North Carolina.
And while that flight may be the most notable claim to fame for the state’s easternmost outpost, it is by no measure the only one. Dare County has a history rich with heroes and villains, settlers and castaways, pirates, Confederates and even Nazis.
As Joseph Schwarzer II, director of the North Carolina Maritime Museum System, Dare County, puts it, the area “has been at the crossroads of American civilization for more than four centuries.”
Much of the county’s territory exists on the Outer Banks, a long sliver of land where dunes shelter some 3,000 square miles of estuaries and inland coastal communities from the foul moods of the Atlantic Ocean.
At 1,562 square miles, the county is the state’s largest by area, though three-quarters of it is water. It runs from Duck in the north to Hatteras Inlet down south. A large part of the county, a sparsely populated peninsula, sits on the mainland. Roanoke Island, in between the two, is home of the county seat, Manteo — named for the chief of the local Croatan tribe during the contact period.
Englishmen first attempted North American colonization at Roanoke Island in 1585, and then again in 1587. About 120 English men and women made a go at settlement. They witnessed the birth of the New World’s first English child, a girl named Virginia Dare. But when the colony’s governor returned in 1590 from a voyage to England, the settlers had vanished. He found the word “CROATOAN” carved into a tree. Most assumed the settlers moved inland, possibly integrating with Native Americans, when they could no longer survive on the harsh, sandy, spit of land.
The area was remote and difficult to reach, making it the perfect playground for pirates, a haven for the independent or rebellious. Pirates and other scofflaws left few official records of their exploits, as they were always in a game of cat-and-mouse with law-abiding merchants and mariners. But their existence on the Outer Banks was genuine and threatening, as with the case of HMS Hady, which ran aground in 1696. Raiders took some of the ship’s cannons ashore, blasted holes in its side to keep it from becoming buoyant once again and emptied its cargo.
After North Carolina joined the Confederacy, the South’s forces constructed forts to protect the inlet between Hatteras and Ocracoke islands. Confederate raiders harassed American maritime commerce from the area until August 1861, when Union naval forces pounded the forts into submission, delivering the North’s first major victory of the Civil War.
In 1870, state legislators adjusted county borders and cobbled together the four disparate areas to create Dare County, naming it after the first child born in its borders. The new county remained a patchwork of scattered and hard-to-get-to settlements. Something as simple as a trip to the courthouse to file paperwork could require a two-day journey by sailboat. Residents conducted business in what historian David Stick called “the Dare County way,” in which the pace of everyday procedures and routines were slowed by the geographical challenges.
Seagoing vessels regularly used shipping lanes just offshore. The unfortunate ones ended their service there. The water off the Outer Banks is home to more than 2,000 shipwrecks, according to Mary Ellen Riddle, education and volunteer coordinator for The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras. More than 600 of those ships sit off Hatteras Island, Riddle says, where Diamond Shoals (shifting banks of underwater sand) have frustrated mariners for as long as they have passed over them.
Such treacherous water made lighthouses very important, and Dare County is home to two impressive examples: the Bodie Island Lighthouse, which is within sight of Roanoke Island, and Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, the tallest in the United States.
Although the sand and stiff winds weren’t always ideal for seafaring, those features nevertheless attracted the Wright Brothers, who at the turn of the 20th century, began working on powered flight. They loved the people and terrain of the Outer Banks. The locals “are friendly and neighborly and I think there is rarely any real suffering among them,” wrote Wilbur Wright in 1900.
Between 1900 and 1903, the Wrights spent warm months conducting thousands of glider flights. Their persistence culminated in success on Dec. 17, 1903. That afternoon, Orville sent a wire to Ohio from the Kitty Hawk Weather Station: “SUCCESS FOUR FLIGHTS THURSDAY MORNING ALL AGAINST TWENTY ONE MILE WIND STARTED WITH LEVEL FROM ENGINE POWER ALONE…”
The Wrights’ success put Dare County on the world map. But without any real network of bridges and roads, the area remained remote. That would change quickly with the construction of two bridges in 1927 and 1930, officially linking Roanoke Island, the Outer Banks and the mainland through what would eventually become N.C. Highway 12. Prior to that, people were forced to take ferries to the area. And, with no paved roads, more than a few found themselves stuck in the sand, sometimes staying there forever, according to Dawson Carr, author of NC 12: Gateway to the Outer Banks.
World War II brought the enemy to America. German U-boats prowled the waters off the Outer Banks, claiming hundreds of Allied vessels and earning its title of Torpedo Alley. American forces fought back, and within sight of Dare County, Navy, Coast Guard and Army vessels sunk four U-boats.
After the war, Dare County returned to business as usual. The milestone that solidified its place as an international tourist destination was the Dare Coast Pirates’ Jamboree, which held its first annual event in May 1955, according to Samantha Crisp, director of the Outer Banks History Center. “The Pirates’ Jamboree gave birth to the tourism industry because it brought large numbers of people to the Outer Banks for the first time,” she says.
Local organizers staged the festival in early May to extend the tourist season and included odd and, sometimes raucous, events, including the world’s largest saltwater fish fry and a mock pirate battle. The Dare Coast Pirates’ Jamboree had a 10-year run, during which it achieved the goal of accelerating Outer Banks tourism, Crisp says.
And for the past six decades, Dare County has relied largely on a constant stream of vacationers, who come to appreciate the sand, surf and sun that has drawn outsiders for centuries. Today the county is home to some 38,000 permanent residents and receives upwards of 1.5 million visitors annually.
The area has come a long way, but it’s still possible to glimpse life before beach cottages and booming businesses. The county has numerous areas protected from development, such as Jockey’s Ridge State Park, Cape Hatteras National Seashore and, of course, Wright Brothers National Memorial.
A lot has transpired since the colonists first landed on these shores nearly 500 years ago, but Dare County’s allure remains timeless.
“The sunsets here are the prettiest I have ever seen,” Orville Wright wrote from Kitty Hawk. “The clouds light up in all colors, in the background, with deep blue clouds of various shapes fringed with gold before.”
Reprinted from Distinction magazine.