April 28, 2009
Paved Roads on Ocracoke
In 1942 the Navy paved the first road on Ocracoke Island. Islanders
called it the Ammunition Dump Road. From the Navy base (which included
the Coast Guard Station property, as well as where the National Park
Service Visitors Center, public parking area, Ocracoke Preservation
Society Museum, and public docks are now located) the one-lane concrete
road ran along the harbor, turned at the Anchorage Inn, turned down the
Back Road, turned again by the Ocracoke Coffee Company, then T-ed. From
the T the Navy provided concrete aprons. It was there that they dumped
spent ammunition shells and other wartime debris.
After the war the Navy vacated their buildings, and Ocracoke was
forever changed. By the early 1950s more concrete roads were laid down
around the northern shore of Silver Lake (in front of the Community
Store), and past the Island Inn (then called the Silver Lake Hotel), to
the bald beach. From the Inn, another pavement was laid "down point"
past the lighthouse.
For years Ocracokers had relied on the mailboat Aleta to carry them
across the sound to see relatives, to shop, and to visit doctors and
dentists. Few had ventured to bring motor vehicles to the island before
the roads were paved.
(Click on photo to view larger image.)
In the 1950s islanders began bringing more trucks, cars, jeeps, and army surplus vehicles to Ocracoke.
In 1950 Frazier Peele from Hatteras started the first car ferry service
across Hatteras Inlet. At that time there was no paved road from
the inlet to Ocracoke village. Typically, Frazier operated his service
at low tide, when cars could travel the hard-packed sand at the edge of
the surf. It was an adventure to drive onto Frazier's homemade barge,
cross a sometimes rough inlet, disembark by driving through shallow
salt water, then negotiate an uneven beach fraught with patches of
quicksand, broken shells, and timbers from wrecked sailing vessels.
Frazier Peele's Ferry:
(Click on photo to view larger image.)
Near the village the adventure continued as cars gathered speed and
raced across the "Plains," an area of tidal flats and soft sand that
stretched from the very edge of the village (near where the Variety
Store sits now) to "First & Second Hammock Hills" (across from the
NPS campground). Not a blade of grass, shrub, or tree graced the area
(with the exception of the occasional small dune crowned with sea
oats). Today that stretch is thick with myrtles, yaupons, cedars, and
By 1956 many of the sandy lanes in the village had been paved with
asphalt, and a hard surface road was constructed from the edge of the
town to the beach about three miles from Hatteras Inlet. Soon
thereafter WWII metal landing mats were laid down between the new
state-operated ferry landing and the aspalt road. The mats were only
one lane wide, with turnouts every 1000 feet. Drivers of vehicles
traveling in opposite directions would have to guess who should pull
off to let the other pass. Sometimes neither guessed right and one
driver would have to back up to the nearest turnout. Driving off the
mats was guaranteed to get the vehicle stuck in the soft sand.
Several years ago I was given an 8mm home movie taken in 1956 or 1957.
Although the visitors who took the movie had arrived by mailboat, they
traveled to the north end where they shot several scenes. Clayton
Gaskill was kind enough to capture several dramatic views from the
movie, reproduced below. The first scene is a composite that Clayton
put together from several frames. The white space at the top and bottom
is just that (white space) where he "feathered" the edges as he joined
individual shots together. However, notice the wide sandy tidal flat
stretching from the ocean (on the left) to the sound (beyond the right
border). Bones of a nineteenth century shipwreck are visible in the
sand to the left (along with the top of a sign and post in the extreme
bottom left corner). The landing mats curve off into the distance
behind the truck. A sign warns drivers, "One Traffic Lane for 3 Miles.
Passing Lane at 1000 Ft Intervals." Between the truck and the sign, in
the distance, are small hills covered with scrag cedars and other
Click on any of the photos below to view a larger image.
Below are three individual segments of the above photo (they're fuzzy
and indistinct in places, but are the best I've got).
The Truck and the Landing Mats (Power Poles in the Distance):
The Warning Sign:
Soon after this movie was taken the landing mats were removed, and
the paved road was extended all the way to Hatteras Inlet. During this
period the continuous row of dunes was created between the road and the
Atlantic Ocean. Many people are unaware that this dune line is largely
artificial. Although there were scattered natural dunes here and there
along the beach, the construction of a continuous protective dune was
authorized to keep high tides from washing across the newly built paved
Low areas were most prominent at the north end, around the present day
pony pen, and at the Plains. Before the artificial dunes were built the
Plains (from the edge of the village to the campground) and the three
miles to the South Point were prime nesting areas for shore birds.
The new dunes (built by successive layers of slatted wooden fencing
covered by blowing sand, then planted with sea oats and other beach
grasses) prevented ocean overwash, thus protecting the highway, but
changing the ecology by allowing the growth of grasses, bushes, and
trees where birds had nested...and later on, the introduction of
nutria, mink, rabbits, rats, snakes, and feral cats, many of whom
preyed on the eggs of the remaining shore birds.
Today, most visitors, many National Park
Service employees, and even newer residents and younger natives are
unaware of the dramatic changes brought about by the construction of
paved roads and a protective dune line on Ocracoke Island. We may not
want to return to the way things were before World War II, but we
should at least know what has happened.