Outer Banks Communities: Kill Devil Hills

Wright Brothers Memorial
Wright Brothers Memorial

Though the telegram was sent from Kitty Hawk, Orville and Wilbur Wright's historic flight actually took place four miles south in Kill Devil Hills. That flight, however, is not the town's only claim to fame. Kill Devil Hills is also the most populous town on the Outer Banks, and the first town to incorporate.

The villages and towns on the Outer Banks have some interesting names with some interesting history. Kill Devil Hills is a perfect example. The town's name has several different possible origins. One legend claims that the town was named for the horrible-tasting kill-devil rum that washed up on shore from shipwrecks hundreds of years ago in the Colonial days.

Another legend claims the village was named after Devil Ike, a scoundrel who blamed the wreck of his ship and the loss of his cargo on the devil. As the story goes, Ike was so angry he chased the devil into the hills and killed him.

A third tale insists that the town was named for a banker who had traded his soul to the devil for a bag of gold. The banker attempted to kill the devil atop one of the dunes. Whatever the origin of the names, the town's history dates back to long before the Wright Brother's flight.

From the fist attempt at settlement in the late 1500s, the town has been mostly a fishing village. In 1879, the federal government established a lifesaving station at Kill Devil Hills, adding lifesavers to the small population of fishermen and salvagers. There were only a few permanent residents at that time, and even on December 17, 1903, when the Wright Brothers made their manned flight, only a handful of locals were there to view the spectacle.

The town didn't really begin to grow until the bridges were built from the mainland to the barrier islands. Kitty Hawk to the north and Nags Head to the south both had docks for ships for passengers traveling from Norfolk or Elizabeth City. Until cars were able to easily reach the Outer Banks, Kill Devil Hills remained an uncrowded seaside town.

The boom really began in 1952. That summer, Lindsay C. Warren, U. S. Representative for North Carolina, was vacationing on the islands at the Croatan Inn. As told by historians, Warren met William Lewark, Captain of the Kill Devil Hills Coast Guard, on the hotel's deck. At that time, the view included about four dozen cottages on the beach. Warren warned Lewark that overexpansion could be a problem, and that Kill Devil Hills should be zoned.

Warren also advised the Coast Guard Captain to create a town, which is exactly what Lewark did. He drafted a petition and brought the residents together for a vote. Ninety of the 93 voters said yes to the incorporation, so on March 5, 1953, Kill Devil Hills officially became the first town on the Outer Banks.

Two years later, in May of 1955, the town almost became the shortest-lived town on the Outer Banks. The residents protested the new town's taxes, which had jumped from 10 cents per $100 property value to 30 cents per $100, and voted to repeal the town charter. Eight months later, though, the North Carolina Supreme Court restored the town's charter when it ruled that the resident's referendum to repeal had been invalid. Once the charter was restored, developers began to sell prime plots of land from card tables under beach umbrellas on the pier. Plots in Avalon, the first subdivision of Kill Devil Hills, sold for $250 a piece. Business boomed, and in the 1970s the area had new year-round residents, summer cottages for rent, and motels for vacationers.

In 1978, McDonald's opened a restaurant in Kill Devil Hills, becoming the first fast food joint on the Outer Banks. Pizza Hut and others soon followed to create what the locals call French Fry Alley by the early 1980s.

Condominiums sprang up on the beaches like weeds. Concerned about the beaches' visual appeal, the county commissioners established a height limit of 35 feet on all buildings. Streetlights arrived in 1986 to give the town a subtle glow, and the first large shopping center hit town in 1989. Today, Kill Devil Hills is home to 6,200 permanent residents, and is a popular vacation destination, especially for families. The area is perfect for kite flying, kayaking, surfing, shopping, dining, and air tours. And, of course visitors can share in a piece of history, and stand on the very spot where the Wright Brother's made aviation history.

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