Last September, while vacationing on North Carolina's Outer Banks, my darling wife and I rode our bikes from the rental property where we were staying over to the Whalehead Club island. We then walked the self-guided tour trail along the marshland adjacent to the Club. One of the informational panels along the trail mentioned that during the early twentieth century, when flocks of waterfowl took flight off the water, their numbers would completely blacken the sky. Of course today, one is fortunate to glimpse any sign of waterfowl in the Currituck Sound area. On our bike ride over, we also had a chance encounter with an employee of the Corolla Wild Horse Fund. That morning she had just completed a helicopter ride over the refuge area to conduct a headcount of the wild horses. One quote of hers struck me. Something to the fact that she was surprised that the OBX barrier reef has not yet sunk into the sea due to the level of land overdevelopment.
Now for some very abbreviated history and background of Corolla, NC. Native Americans from the mainland used the northern area of the barrier island as their hunting and fishing grounds. They gave it the moniker Currituck, meaning "land of the wild goose". Europeans settled into the area during the 17th century. On the first of December, 1875, the beacon from the red-bricked tower known as the Currituck Beach Lighthouse made its debut and filled the night skies of Corolla. By 1890, some 200 self-reliant people lived in the Corolla village. It was in the roaring 1920's that wealthy industrialist Edward Knight and his wife Marie-Louise had an expansive home (known later in 1940 and now as the Whalehead Club) built on the man-made island on the sound side near Corolla Village. During that first year of construction of the 5-chimney, sunshine-yellow home, the couple invited wealthy friends from the Northeast for sumptuous evening dinner parties followed by a morning of waterfowl hunting. Visions of The Great Gatsby abound. As an indication of the horn of plenty, by the end of that first season, the Knights and their guests had bagged 751 waterfowl. This level of waterfowl hunting continued at the estate for at least the next nine years until Mr. Knight's health decline in 1934 and eventual demise in 1936. In the 1940s, the village population had swelled to almost one thousand year-round residents. After the war, the population dwindled to only three families during the 1950's (when electric power first became available to the village commoners - the Knights had their private generator) and peaked to fifteen people as late as the 1970's! Since then, the village and the club have been faithfully and wonderfully restored, vacation homes built, and infrastructure developed. So where does that bring us today and was it worth the trip?
Well first off, let me personally attest that the restored village, Knight home, and Currituck Beach lighthouse are very serene, quaint, authentic, and photogenic. The Corolla beaches are pristine, well maintained, and void of crowds in the early fall. Our canine companions are welcomed at many rental properties and on the beach. There very well might not be any beach area in the world quite like Corolla with its historic village, lighthouse, Art Nouveau style mansion, estuarine nature preserve, and nearby wild horse refuge. Not much to complain about here. So I won't. Yes, from the air, I am sure that the northern OBX looks way overdeveloped. But relative to other eastern USA beach resorts, it feels on the ground to be just right. Although, the loss of the blackened sky is most regrettable. But I am certain that more than just a gaggle of privileged guest hunters at the Knight estate decimated the waterfowl along the Atlantic Flyway. Hopefully (there's that word again), lesson learned.
See OBX image gallery at http://dworr.zenfolio.com/corolla
D W Orr
Environmentalist, Historic Preservationist, and Photographer
Harford County, Maryland
August 12, 2015 (night of the Perseid Meteor Shower)
Currituck Lighthouse and Whalehead Club
Knight Mansion (The Whalehead Club)