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What Island Am I On?

 In Back In The Day, Coastal Life, History, Summer 2024

A Birdseye View of Our Shifting Sands

Photo Above: On September 18th, 2003, Hurricane Isabel hit Hatteras Island with wind speeds up to 105 mph.
The storm surge produced a 2,000 ft. long and up to 15 ft. deep inlet, which wasn’t closed by the Army Corps via dredge and fill efforts until late November of that year.

Standing on the beach in Nags Head, looking out into the ocean, you’re in your “happy place,” but where and what is that place exactly? We’ve all heard, “the Outer Banks is a series of Barrier Islands,” and many businesses and place names reflect that fact, but what does it really mean? Even after living in Kill Devil Hills for years and talking to various knowledgeable folks, I found there was no straightforward answer to this basic question: where are we?

Let’s settle a common grammar miscue, first: you are not in the Outer Banks, you’re on the Outer Banks. When referring to an island (barrier island to be specific in this case) in total you or what is being described, are on it, and when you refer to a specific area within that landmass, then the preposition “in” become appropriate. For example, “I live in Kill Devil Hills on the Outer Banks.”

The next basic concept to understand is geographical: barrier island. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) defines barrier islands as, “A constantly changing deposit of sand that forms parallel to the coast.” NOAA further explains how they are created, “waves repeatedly deposit sediment parallel to the shoreline. As wind and waves shift according to weather patterns and local geographic features, these islands constantly move, erode, and grow.” Therefore, from Hatteras to the southern end of Carova, you are on a Barrier Island Chain, as the narrow strip of sand based land was once, and may once again, be separated from the barrier spit or peninsula that currently connects the Outer Banks to Virginia. What separates these barrier islands from each other are openings called inlets, defined by Britannica as, “a narrow area of water that goes into the land from a sea or lake.” More specifically, the inlets that separate barrier islands are tidal inlets, which an article for the Journal of Coastal Research defines as, “major tidal channels separating individual barrier islands or barrier spits and adjacent headlands.”

Over the known history of the Outer Banks, these inlets have opened and closed many times, due to both natural occurrences and man’s intervention. Archaeological research, historical documents, and modern geographic technology have combined to form an understanding of where these “paleo-inlets” or “relict inlets,” as closed inlets are scientifically known, were located. Many of these closed inlets are on the northern beaches, where former inlets were used as fishing access for native populations and ports during 17th thru 19th centuries.

The Currituck Banks
North of the Dare county line on the Currituck Banks, there are at least six known inlets which opened and closed during the period from 1585 to 1828, including the most southern Caffey’s inlet, near Duck. When New Currituck Inlet, dating back prior to 1713, closed due to shoaling in 1828, it was the last of these inlets. The closing of these inlets directly affected the ecology of the Currituck Sound taking its roughly 100 square miles from saline to brackish. According to a US Fish and Wildlife report, this transformation changed the existing ancient oyster bed to underwater vegetation, which introduced more fish of freshwater varieties.

While they existed, the Currituck inlets served as the northern point of our barrier island chain that occasionally extended all the way to what is now known as Bodie Island, first written about as “Bodies Island” in 1709 by John Lawson in his “A new Voyage to Carolina.” For Bodie Island’s northern end, from before 1585 to 1811, there was an inlet named Roanoke Inlet located roughly where Outlets Nags Head exists today. This inlet was extremely important whilst it was open for ships carrying cargo to the inner banks port of Edenton. The population of Roanoke Island, a true geographical island, swelled during the colonial period through the early 1800s due to its proximity to this inlet.

Bodie Island
According to the National Park Service website, in 1709 Roanoke Inlet was described as having a 10-foot draft which would fit most cargo ships of the era comfortably. Shipping boomed but by 1811 both navigable inlets north of Ocracoke, including Currituck and Roanoke, had closed, and though the Oregon Inlet was opened during the Great Havana Hurricane of 1846, it was shallow and treacherous for many years, and to this day needs constant dredge maintenance. Over the decades following Roanoke Inlet’s closure, major effort and money was spent in an attempt to reopen and reestablish Roanoke Inlet and revive the economy based on the ships traffic, but these efforts ultimately failed.

In the National Park description, Bodie island extended 9 1/2 miles south from Roanoke inlet to where the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge begins today. The historic building you see from the bridge was once called the Bodie Island Lifesaving Station. Also intermittently connecting to or known as Cow Island or Micher Island, Bodie was separated from the southern islands by Gunt Inlet from pre-1585 through 1796, then New Inlet, and then by its current southern point Oregon Inlet, formed by a hurricane in 1846. Due to the timing of these inlets, and when geographical names were designated, that means that, from the Oregon inlet to the southern points of the Currituck Banks, somewhere around Duck near Caffey’s Inlet, you are on Bodie Island, while north of it is considered the Currituck Banks.

Pea Island
The Southern end of Bodie Island, prior to the opening of the Oregon Inlet, was on the north end of what is now the Pea Island refuge. While most references cite the origin of Pea Island following the creation of the Oregon Inlet, the Outer Banks History Center shared with us the 1833 deed of sale for Pea Island, 13 years before Oregon Inlet had been formed. Per the deed Benjamin Fowler, Jr. sold, “Thomas J Charlton certain tracts of land or parcels of land lying… in Currituck County at new inlet so called and known by the name of Pea Island.” This deed’s description of the land and the 1836 reporting of the “piratical” wreck of the Steam Packet William Gibbons, indicate Pea Island existed south of New Inlet prior to 1846. The Gibbons wreck involved around 150 passengers, including 40 of whom were women and children, were happened “on the South Point of Boddy’s Island near New Inlet.” Contemporary articles go on to describe the ship succeeding in getting back afloat only to succumb to, “being driven by the breakers across the inlet and grounded on the southside, being the northern point of the Chicamacomico Banks,” and goes on to describe the passengers coming ashore and finding the only shelter, “on Pea Island where there was a fishing house not inhabited.”

The southern end of Pea Island, when sold in 1833, seemingly was located near Chickinacommock Inlet, which separated Pea Island from the Tri-Villages area. After Chickinacommock, Loggerhead Inlet, and others closed, Pea Island joined the barrier island spit connected to Hatteras Island as it sits today. Storms rather recently have created and/or reopened inlets, seen where the Etheridge Bridge is located, and while it was open, it was known as “New New Inlet.” First opened in 1657, there is nothing “new” about this inlet. You can even see the pilings from the State Highway Commissions wooden bridge built over its 1932 reopening in 1934-35 through the behest of the Stick family, well known for their historic efforts in helping to create the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

Chicamacomico Banks and Hatteras Island
The Tri-Villages of Rodanthe, Waves, and Salvo also currently lie on the barrier island spit connected to Hatteras, but for many years and on maps they were some iteration of the Chicamacomico Banks, with Rodanthe still embracing its Chicamacomico origins despite the postal services’ refusal to use that name. While little mapping is available of the many inlets that opened and closed between New Inlet and Buxton, geophysical mapping surveys have shown evidence of at least ten existing at some point between Rodanthe and Avon.

Another look from above of the New Inlet, re-cut in 2011 by Hurricane Irene. Shortly after the storm, a temporary metal span referred to by locals as the “Lego bridge” was constructed. Although the inlet closed up, the temporary span was replaced in 2017 with a more permanent structure, named after Captain Richard Etheridge, who was the first African American to command a Life-Saving Station when the service appointed him in 1880 as the keeper of the Pea Island Life-Saving Station. Photo courtesy of USGS.

Another look from above of the New Inlet, re-cut in 2011 by Hurricane Irene. Shortly after the storm, a temporary metal span referred to by locals as the “Lego bridge” was constructed. Although the inlet closed up, the temporary span was replaced in 2017 with a more permanent structure, named after Captain Richard Etheridge, who was the first African American to command a Life-Saving Station when the service appointed him in 1880 as the keeper of the Pea Island Life-Saving Station. Photo courtesy of USGS.

Just North of Buxton, on Hatteras Island, there was an inlet known as Chacandepeco, for an unknown amount of time prior to 1585 until 1672. Near to this long closed inlet was what’s known as the Buxton Inlet that opened during the catastrophic Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962. That inlet remained open for almost a year and took building a temporary wooden bridge, that was also destroyed by a storm the following December, and then required extensive dredging and other efforts to close. South of Buxton on Hatteras, is Frisco and then Hatteras Village, separated by inlets on record only first in 1933 and then again in 2003, as a result of Hurricane Isabel (thus its moniker, the Isabel Inlet).

On its southern point, Hatteras Island defines itself from Ocracoke with the current Hatteras Inlet opened in 1846, as a result of the same storm that opened Oregon Inlet. Old Hatteras inlet, about 10-miles south, was open from before 1657 until the 1760s, but aside for a few years in the early 1840s when Wells Creek was opened, Hatteras and Ocracoke were connected between the 1760s through 1846.

The Outer Banks are barrier islands that contain islands and are also connected to a peninsula. So, you could be on a barrier island spit that was an island and still bears its name, like Nags Head on Bodie Island. You could also actually be on an island, like the Town of Manteo, on Roanoke Island. Parts of barrier islands disconnect and reconnect in different areas, as part of Bodie Island became part of Pea island and the Chicamacomico Banks joined both Pea island and Hatteras.
Inlets have opened and closed due to both natural and manmade efforts, with effects of both fairly nuanced and still being studied. Therefore, like so many aspects of the Outer Banks, our location is complex and changing, enveloped by many layers of known and unknown history.

Jes Gray
Author: Jes Gray

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