At road's end in Outer Banks is scenic, growing beach town COROLLA

June 04, 1995|By John Camejo | John Camejo,Contributing Writer

When people say "the Outer Banks," most of us think of Nags Head, N.C. (strip malls, arcades, all-you-can-eat seafood bars, barbecue and pool halls.) Nags Head is where I spotted my first El Camino with a Confederate flag on the hood and license plate. Said vehicle also featured what I discovered was the traditional 20-ounce "Big Gulp" cup, doubling as a dashboard spittoon.

The Outer Banks also conjures up images of Kill Devil Hills (where people can pay money to sandblast their bodies while hang-gliding and like it); Kitty Hawk and the Wright brothers monument; Cape Hatteras with its camping, fishing and sandbag world.

But now people are becoming familiar with the more remote towns at the north end. The town of Duck, 85 miles north of Cape Hatteras, until recently was the end of the asphalt line along the Outer Banks.

The asphalt line now ends just north of Duck, in the town of Corolla. Named after the inner petals of a flower, Corolla has become a developer's dream and a conservationist's nightmare. The only vehicles that can get around are ones with four-wheel-drive.

The Currituck lighthouse is the towering symbol of Corolla. It was first lighted Dec. 1, 1875, and is built of red bricks to distinguish it from the other regional lighthouses. It is unpainted, and visitors can see the multitude of bricks that form the structure (approximately 1 million). The nearby lightkeeper's house, a Victorian "stick style" dwelling, was constructed from cut material that was shipped by the U.S. Lighthouse Board and assembled on site.

Only two keepers and their families ever lived in this isolated seaside setting. The lighthouse was used by the U.S. Coast Guard during World War I as a watchtower. In 1939, the lighthouse was automated and no longer required daily maintenance. It was later used as a hayloft for the Coast Guard horses that patrolled the beaches during World War II. By 1950, the lighthouse had begun to fall into a state of disrepair. At about that time, it won recognition for its architectural significance and historic value, and it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Despite this honor, the keeper's house became more dilapidated from nature's harsh elements as well as vandalism.

In 1980, the house received a boost from a group of preservation enthusiasts who formed the Outer Banks Conservationists. The group received an $18,000 grant from the North Carolina Department of Conservation and a lease that charges the conservation group with the responsibility of restoring the keeper's house. Debbie Westner, the current site manager/lighthouse keeper, calls this place home and herself a "love slave."

"The work never ends. The buildings were partially covered in vines, the windows were broken, floors had to be repaired -- you name it. We have support from generous donors, through memberships and the flock of summer tourists that pay an admission fee to climb the 214 steps to the top of the lighthouse." Last year, 60,000 people paid $3 each to see the top of the lighthouse.

Ms. Westner says she also has gone to area businesses for help. "We have solicited donations from the local storekeepers, who, by the way, merchandise the image of the lighthouse in every form imaginable. So far we have received two $25 checks. But we continue to forge ahead," she says.

"With the endless amount of souvenirs that they sell with the image of the lighthouse, one would think that they would be somewhat generous to our project."

Development vs. preservation

Perhaps the lack of enthusiasm stems from locals' fear that tourism will mean more development, and more development may endanger the fragile ecological balance of the island.

Like the lighthouse, the wild horses of the Outer Banks are wildly merchandised in Corolla. There are about 18 of them left. Today, the horses can be seen grazing in several small herds around the beach homes and the newly planted sod near the mall next to the local Brew Thru -- a drive-in beer joint. Indeed, the slow-paced lifestyle is slowly being swallowed up by modern suburban symbols. There is a Food Lion, a souvenir city and a pizza place in Corolla too. Visitors out for some exercise run on the asphalt near traffic, perhaps going for that city fix. (Psssst . . . the beach is on the right; the sand and sea air are good for your legs and lungs.)

Corolla is not what it used to be. I remember larger herds of wild horses and more open space from my first trip to the area just seven years ago. The horses are starting to disappear because tourists forget to slow down when they drive, and for this reason alone several horses have been killed.

"Families have been seen feeding them pizza, which horses were not meant to eat. The horses get colic and they can die" says Lisa Heeter. "Families pose for pictures and have their babies sit on the wild horses." Ms. Heeter, wife of local artist

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