Corolla and the Currituck corridor of the northern end of the Outer Banks is steeped in history, mystery and legend. The Currituck Banks is a land of wild geese, open seas, sands – anchored by a lighthouse heart in the Currituck Beach Light.
As a traveler I am drawn to the history of the space, the residual energy and vibrations of the environs. It grounds us in the present – it is solving a mystery.
The waters of the Currituck Banks have long been valued for their abundance of fish and fowl and game. It is a dangerous beauty – a place that can haunt the soul with unbridled splendor and ceaseless blue sky colliding into hurricanes and hidden shoals. Perhaps that is why humans bond so restlessly with the sea – it tests us, it restores us and it reminds us of our fragile nature.
For centuries the Native populations including the Chowanoke and Poteskeet considered the area prized hunting grounds. In the early 1800s European settlers made a living from fishing and hunting, as well as salvage from nearby shipwrecks. They tended gardens and raised livestock, which ran at large on the barrier island. Salvaged items were used in creative ways for sustenance, supplies coming to the island sporadically.
Currituck is derived from a Native American term, Carotank, meaning: ‘land of the wild geese.’ For centuries this region was a mecca for migratory birds, sadly the population was greatly depleted from over-hunting in the late 19th-century…still Currituck is a wild land, never tamed, not quite broken.
It is hard from a 21st century perspective to fathom living on a land so marked by extremes in weather – from summer sunshine to brittle winters (yes the island gets very cold in the Winter with the sound occasionally freezing over)…imagine women and children working on the farm…so many stories of lives that have gone before us and the testimony they can give us today…what secrets did they learn from the land…what lessons can we learn today?
In 1892, a writer from Harpers Weekly reported on the Currituck Banks about this ‘bankers of the sea,’: “If there were any spot on earth that one would expect to find untenanted, it surely would be this stretch of sand between the ocean and sound…Yet there is a hardy race who have lived here from father to son for over a century. They exist entirely by hunting, fishing, rearing cattle and acting as guides.”
While many villages and settlements were abandoned or died out, Corolla, formerly known as Jones Hill, was able to sustain its population by way of an increasing demand for hunt-club tourism and government infrastructure.
Construction on the Currituck Lighthouse was completed in 1875, an anchor that towered 162 feet – the beacon and heart of the community. The light-keepers ad their families added several new residents to the village.
In 1874, the U.S. Life Saving Service established the Jones Hill Life Saving Station just east of the lighthouse. It was one of seven original life-saving stations on the Outer Banks. The surfmen (term for life saver) lived at the station with their families residing in the village of Corolla.
By the late 1800s, Jones Hill was big enough to have its own post office. The post office wanted an official name for the hardy Outer Banks town, which up to this point unofficially was known as Jones Hill. Corolla – the inner part of a flower- was submitted and chosen by the postal service…still islanders got the last word: after all it is Car-rah-la, not Corolla for locals.
By 1905, Corolla had a population large enough for a church and schoolhouse. The schoolhouse can still be seen in the historic village.
In 1922 the wave of hunt clubs started taking hold of the coast. The land of the wild geese was a hunter’s dream and wealthy northerners started pouring into the region – starting a hunting tourism economy. The greatest emblem of this is the Whalehead Club. The Whalehead Club was built by Edward and Marie-Louise LeBel Knight began work on a massive house on the Currituck Sound. The estate provided many work opportunities for locals. Click this link to learn about the history of Whalehead, including ghostly sightings.
The Depression hit the country hard, but the people of Corolla lived off the land and sea, participating also in WPA and CCC projects along the Outer Banks.
Today the area is a hub of tourism with a million visitors coming to the Outer Banks each year. The seas are rising and the barrier islands struggle against man-made restrictions on mother nature, yet resiliency remains in the blood of this sandy place. I don’t know what the future will bring for Corolla and the Outer Banks but right now we have a treasure in our possession and it is something that needs to be nurtured and cared for.
Today it is a gem of recreation, beauty, mystery and a last wild frontier…the final bridge from land to sea.
I absolutely love Corolla – it is a dreamworld of color and light – the writer soul in me loves the locally owned shops, the intricate history, the old wooden cottages and simpler lifestyle…I know that time has been harsh to the barrier islands – still for a second I am just overwhelmed by the tranquility and peace of this place. Walking around I cannot help but sense the spirits of former residents, imagining what their lives were like on this frontier…this land by the sea?
Contemplating the history of Currituck and Corolla I realize that while technology and societies change, human nature still battles adventure, angst, hope, despair – times shipwrecked in a fight of raging storms, perfect days in the sun. We cannot control life, but we can choose to live it set on hope, love, joy and faith. We cannot always stop the storms and their devastation, but we can allow the light to help us navigate through choppy seas.
To learn more about Corolla’s history and tourism: