Outer Banks Communities: Kitty Hawk

two laughing gulls
Two laughing gulls

Possibly one of the most well-known historical towns in the Outer Banks, and in the United States is the village of Kitty Hawk. It was from here in 1903 that Orville Wright telegraphed home that he and his brother Wilbur had succeeded. They had successfully built and flown the first airplane.

The actual flight, however, took place a few miles down the road In Kill Devils Hills on a high bluff that overlooks the Atlantic Ocean. The press, however, picked up on the origin of the telegram as Kitty Hawk, and the rest, as they say, is history.

That immortal flight may have put Kitty Hawk on the public awareness map, but the town's history dates back to land deeds recorded in the mid-1700s. The origin of the name is in some dispute. Some say that the name derives from the Native American name for the area, Chickahauk, which refers to the goose hunting season (also referred to as killy honker or killy honk). Researchers believe that Kitty Hawk was the closest English pronunciation to that Native American term.

Others say that Kitty Hawk evolved from "skeeter hawk" a mosquito hawk which was prevalent in the area, or from ospreys or other large birds that preyed on the kitty wren. The people who resided on the island spoke with a thick brogue, and as such "skeeter hawk" became "kitty hawk."

There were a few visitors to Kitty Hawk prior to turn of the century, but not many. At that time, getting to the island wasn't easy. Most of the structures there were hammocks perched on the protected side of the island, the sound side. Unlike Nags Head, which became a seaside destination after the Civil War, Kitty Hawk remained rather secluded.

Visitors to Kitty Hawk and other parts of the Outer Banks had a front row seat, though, for shipwrecks. Ships often ran aground around the Outer Banks, getting stuck on the offshore sand bars. As a result, in 1874, the U. S. Government established a Life Saving Station in Kitty Hawk. A keeper and six surf men manned the station and kept a lookout for ships and crews in trouble, salvage, and smugglers.

The station took part in the Wright Brother's flight in 1903, by providing weather information for the two men, and by providing the telegraph from which the news was spread to the world. The station made its own history, too. On December 3, 1927, the Greek tank steamer, Kyzikes got caught in a nor'easter off the shores of Kitty Hawk. Twenty-eight crewmen were rescued by the station with the help of one big bird, the Black Pelican. Apparently, this bird remained with the crewman, skimming the surface of the stormy seas, until help arrived. Thus began a legend which continued until the closing of the station in 1915.

It wasn't until the late 1920s, that tourism took hold of Kitty Hawk. A group of businessmen from Elizabeth City bought 7 miles of beach north of Kitty Hawk. They formed the Wright Memorial Bridge Company and by 1930 had built a 3 mile wooden bridge from Point Harbor across the Currituck Sound to the Outer Banks. Travelers could now reach Kitty Hawk and the other island beaches from the mainland by car. After that, vacationers paid $1.00 per car to cross the bridge and streamed into the little village.

Soon, development boomed and the area became rather pricey. The emphasis switched from hammocks by the sound to small wooden cottages on the open beaches of the Atlantic Ocean. These cottages quickly fell victim to the storms of the Atlantic, including nor'easters and hurricanes. Wind and rain would slap at the foundations until the sand washed out from under the structure. Soon the cottages were bowing and buckling and finally toppling into the sea.

Beach erosion became a serious concern. Federal coastal management laws were passed to prohibit any construction closer than 60 feet, as measured from the first line of vegetation on the coastline. The erosion began to threaten some historic sites, including the original Kitty Hawk Lifesaving Station, which had to be jacked up and moved to a more protected site to save it from the ravages of wind and water.

Development continued, and the wooden cottages continued to fall into the sea. Vacationers can see the remaining cottages as they drive the Beach Road down through Kitty Hawk. The Atlantic Ocean can be seen from the vehicle as can the old cottages that are still clinging to life. Visitors to Kitty Hawk may recognize the structures as those seen on the Weather Channel, after a particularly vicious storm assaults the islands. One vicious storm, Hurricane Isabel, struck in 2003 and took seven of those cottages with her.

Though the cottages are no longer viable, Kitty Hawk is alive and well, providing a popular vacation spot for families, retirees and college students. It is also the home of over 3,000 year round residents. The city extends for four miles along the island and is home to shopping, restaurants, quaint eateries, the Wright Brothers headquarters, and tree-lined streets. Water sports are popular in Kitty Hawk, and visitors can watch for dolphins in Kitty Hawk Bay.

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