America's First Beach Is on the North Carolina Outer Banks


When you think of America's National Park Service, you might think of the forests of Redwood National Park, or perhaps towering peaks like the ones in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. You might not, however, think of beaches. That's okay — neither did the U.S. government when the National Park Service was first established. It would be another two decades before America named its first National Seashore. But once you hear the fascinating history behind the one they chose, you'll understand why they had no option but to give it this honor.

A Silver Lining in the Storm

Cape Hatteras on the Outer Banks of North Carolina is no stranger to hurricanes — not today, and not in the early 20th century. In 1933, it saw a record number of Atlantic hurricanes and tropical storms that left the surrounding area devastated by eroding the shoreline, stripping most of the vegetation, and even knocking some buildings off of their foundations. It also caused property prices to bottom out. The locals realized that in order to keep the land liveable, something had to be done about the shoreline erosion.

A good portion of the shoreline was owned by the family of famous philanthropist Henry Phipps, and they found themselves in a predicament: They could either continue to pay taxes on their mostly worthless land or donate it to the State of North Carolina. They went with the second option. The man they chose to help them broker this deal might as well have been written in the stars: Frank Stick was a real estate agent who also happened to be a conservationist with lofty dreams of creating a national seashore park.

This was a good time for lofty dreams. To fight the poverty and unemployment wreaked by the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had instituted the New Deal: a series of public-works projects designed to benefit the nation while putting Americans back to work. With some savvy politics — an editorial here, a committee formation there — Stick became the chairman of the North Carolina Coastal Commission and received funding and workers for his plan to fix the shoreline's erosion problem. As the U.S. government became better acquainted with the area through the conservation project, people in power began to understand just how important Cape Hatteras and the Outer Banks were to the nation's history.

America's Beach

Like the rest of the country, the Cape's first inhabitants were Native Americans. While little is known of their early history, things start to clear up around 500 A.D. when the Algonquin Indians settled North Carolina and eventually divided into several tribes. The Croatoan Indians were likely the ones inhabiting Cape Hatteras when European explorers first encountered the Outer Banks: An Italian explorer mapped the coasts in 1524, and Spanish explorers used Cape Hatteras as a waystation on their journeys from the West Indies back to Spain. And of course, just 50 miles up the coast at Roanoke Island is where Sir Walter Raleigh and his men established the first English colony in America in 1587.

The Outer Banks may have been the site of the first English colony, but it was also the site of an event that's arguably even more historic: the Wright brothers' flight of the first successful airplane. Today, Kill Devil Hills, the site of that historic flight, is home to the Wright Brothers National Memorial.

Frank Stick's vision included all of these important sites, putting Fort Raleigh, Kill Devil Hills, and especially Cape Hatteras in a starring role of a more than 100-mile stretch of shoreline alongside the region's ever-changing barrier islands. In 1937, the National Park Service created Cape Hatteras National Seashore not only to conserve this important place in American history, but to ensure that the American public would have a beach of their own that wasn't fenced off for private use. Since then, nine other National Seashores have been created, making appearances on virtually every American coast. But there's a reason the Outer Banks was first. If you pay Cape Hatteras a visit, it'll surely tell you why.

For more information about planning a visit to The Outer Banks of North Carolina, check out

Written by Ashley Hamer October 13, 2018