Outer Banks Communities: Nags Head

hang gliding school at Jockey's Ridge
Hang gliding school at Jockey's Ridge

Nags Head has been a popular vacation spot for over 150 years. As a result, when vacationers think of the Outer Banks, it's Nags Head that often springs to mind.

Nags Head, like many of the other towns and villages on the Outer Banks has a style of its own. The town sits on a strip of island which boasts sand dunes so tall they can be seen from the sea for miles. These dunes played a major part in the town's history, too. Legend claims that from these very dunes, pirates lured other ships onto the shallow sands of the shore to pillage and plunder their wealth.

Though the pirate legend comes from the time of Blackbeard in the late 1500s and early 1600s, the name Nags Head didn't appear on maps until 1783. Some historians claim that the town's name came from that legend of piracy.

Other stories, however, claim that the name Nags Head is simply an echo of a town in England. Many of the first explorers to the shore of the Outer Banks came from England. These sailors reported that back in England, their Nags Head sat high on a point in the Scilly Islands, and was the last sight of home as they headed west to the New World.

The pirate legend has another form, that of "land" pirates instead of those who sailed the seven seas. As the story goes, some of the settlers in the 1700s realized that piracy could be quite profitable. These settlers were dubbed "Bankers" and would attract ships to the shores by tying lanterns to their horses and walk the animals up and down the shore at night. Ships just off the coast would spy the lights and assume they belonged to ships closer to the beach. These ships would steer toward the lights, run aground and be pillaged by the "Bankers".

Which of these reports is true and accurate may never be known, but the village's beginnings as a vacation destination are well documented. According to David Stick in The Outer Banks of North Carolina, Francis Nixon, a planter from Perquimans County, came to Nags Head in 1830 to build a summer residence to "escape the poisonous miasma vapors and the attendant fevers." The planter decided on a site near the tall sand dunes that overlooked the sound, and paid $100 for 200 acres. Nixon's foray into the beaches of Nags Head set a precedent, and opened the door for other families to come enjoy the beach during the summer.

Eight years after Nixon bought his 200 acres, Nags Head's first hotel was built. The grand two story structure was also the first hotel on the Outer Banks and sat halfway between the ocean and the sound. With room for over 200 people, the hotel offered a bowling alley, an elegant ballroom, and a pier that extended half a mile out into the sound. Soon, doctors, lawyers and mainland farmers were bringing their families to enjoy the beauties of the Outer Banks. By 1850, the population of Nags Head included 576 year-round residents.

These first homes and the hotel were all built on the sound side of the island. It wasn't until 1866, that someone built a house near the ocean. William Gaskins Pool, a doctor from Elizabeth City, was that person. He paid $30 for 50 acres and built a one-story cottage just 300 feet from the ocean breakers. Dr. Pool's foray into ocean-side building convinced others to give it a try. By the early 1900s, cottages were being built on near the ocean, many of them on logs so they could be moved back as the sea encroached upon the sand. In 1961, Nags Head incorporated and the area officially became a town.

Many things have changed in Nags Head over the centuries. Tourism brought development and nearly 3,000 year-round residents. The ocean brought sand shifts and changing topography. Those imposing sand dunes that once dominated the landscape are confined now to Jockey's Ridge State Park, which boasts the largest sand dunes on the East Coast.

The allure of Nags Head, however, has remained much the same. There are beautiful beaches, water sports, hiking and biking, wildlife preserves, art galleries, and some of the best seafood on the East Coast. Vacationers can shop, dance, kayak, or simply lie on the beach and get away from it all. After 150 years, Nags Head is still a great vacation spot.

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