Summer tourism in Nags Head began in 1830's

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Marjorie Berry

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Sunday, June 10, 2018


It’s summertime in Elizabeth City once again, a time when we realize just how lucky we are to live so close to the beach. Summer weekends find many of us heading across the Camden Causeway Bridge in search of sun, sand, and sea.

But we’re not the first to seek nearby ocean breezes in the summertime. Nags Head began life as a resort in the 1830s, when a Perquiman’s County planter built the first summer residence there. Soon other planters of the region followed suit, and a summer resort sprang up on the soundside at Nags Head.

Getting to the beach was a lot harder back then than it is now. Families traveled to Nags Head by steamboat or schooner. They carried with them horses, cows, servants, and articles of furniture —everything they would need to set up housekeeping for the summer.

The resort quickly grew in popularity. By 1838, there was a definite need for a public house at Nags Head to provide bed and board for visitors and nightly entertainment for all. The first hotel was built mid-way between the ocean and the sound, and contained 200 rooms.

The first summer denizens of Nags Head were the wealthiest and most sophisticated of the area’s planter class. According to David Stick, in his book The Outer Banks of North Carolina, the hotel’s ballroom hosted “a company that would have done credit to any of the popular watering places in the country…the ladies were as pretty, and as tastefully dressed as if they had just returned from the vendors of fashion in Paris.” Fox hunting among the sand hills was a favorite pastime, with horses and hounds brought over from the mainland.

The first summer cottage on the oceanfront at Nags Head was built by Dr. William G. Pool of Elizabeth City. At the time, this was considered an outlandish and foolhardy move. Dr. Pool purchased 13 lots on the oceanfront and literally had to give them away! Of the 13 original cottages built on these lots, eight remain today, forming Nags Head’s historic district. They are known collectively as The Unpainted Aristocracy.

Much has changed since the early days, but Nags Head remains a popular summer destination.