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How The National Park Service Helped Bridge The Outer Banks

N.C. Department of Transportation
The Basnight Bridge (right) opened in 2019, replacing the Bonner Bridge (left), which has since been demolished. It connects the northern and southern parts of the Outer Banks over Oregon Inlet

If you’ve ever been to the Outer Banks, you’ve likely driven across the bridge over Oregon Inlet.

The three-mile-long Basnight Bridge opened in 2019. And for 55 years before that, there was the Bonner Bridge.

Connecting the northern and southern parts of the Outer Banks is vital for the residents of Hatteras Island. It brings in power and water. It’s the main evacuation route during a storm. And it allows access to the hundreds of thousands of tourists searching for a windswept beach every summer.

So it’s hard to imagine there was ever a time when there were questions about whether a bridge would be built at all.

The National Park Service Moves East

In 2007, historian Cameron Binkley was working for the National Park Service in Atlanta.

"Every day I would brave Atlanta traffic, get to the subway stop, into the headquarters building and I would be writing about the national parks, and wonder when I would actually get to work at a park," Binkley remembers.

Binkley's job was to document the history of the national parks in the Southeast. Most of it he could do from his office, but then he was assigned a report on Cape Hatteras National Seashore on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. And - just one time - he got to ride in the park plane.

"The park plane was one of these drug bust planes that had been seized by the government, and eventually transferred to the National Park Service; always, you know, an underfunded agency," he says, laughing.

"And it developed some mechanical problems, and then shortly after that the pilot - there was only one - developed some mechanical trouble with his heart and he was grounded, so they just got rid of the plane."

Between that nail-biting flight and plenty of other research, Cameron wrote a 264-page report on Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

But what does the National Park Service have to do with building a bridge?

That story arguably starts more than 100 years before crews ever mixed the first batch of concrete. This video from the state Department of Transportation sums it up:

"When a hurricane ripped through Bodie Island in 1846, a new inlet was born. Named for the ship that first found it, the Oregon Inlet severed the connection between Hatteras Island, its residents and the mainland," it says.

From the mid-19th Century to the early 20th Century, there weren’t many people living on or visiting the Outer Banks, but nearly 100 years after that hurricane opened up Oregon Inlet, this mostly pristine piece of land caught the eye of the National Park Service.

"The Park Service intelligently realized in the 1930s, that if it was going to survive as an institution, it needed to be bigger than just the great parks in the West. And it sees the opportunity to move east," historian Cameron Binkley says.

That included military parks, historic sites, and places ripe with recreational activities.

"The seashore areas that were less landscape and more people want to fish and swim and stuff like that. And so that's how you get the Park Service into the Outer Banks," Binkley says.

Congress authorized the creation of Cape Hatteras National Seashore in the 1930s. Then there’s some political maneuvering, fights over controversial no-hunting rules, doing some exploring for oil and finding no oil, paving a road on the island, and it finally opens in the 1950s.

Investors roll in and build motels and restaurants, and by then everyone wants to go.

"The private ferries weren't able to keep up with the demand," Binkley says.

In fact, so many people wanted to go that some were getting stranded for days on either side of Oregon Inlet. There’s a photo in Binkley's report of Packards, Plymouths and Chevys backed up for miles.

Traffic waiting in line for the ferry at Oregon Inlet, August 1956.
Verde Watson
National Park Service
Traffic waiting in line for the ferry at Oregon Inlet, August 1956.

"They had to deal with the problem on the ground, which is there's too many people here, so we're gonna have to create haphazard camping areas, which is not part of our management plan, which means that you're threatening to degrade the resource there," he says.

"Eventually, they just realize we need to build a bridge."

Enter Herbert C. Bonner

As Binkley says, North Carolina Congressman Herbert C. Bonner understood that a bridge was in the long-term interest of those investors who had already put their money in Hatteras.

"If you want the bankers to survive there as villages continue operating, they're not going to be able to do it with the economic basis that they had in the past," he says. "So this will allow them to stay there in their villages and to create a new way of making a livelihood, which is based on tourism instead of more traditional means."

So Bonner helped make the deal that would make the bridge.

The Department of the Interior would pay $500,000 toward the overall cost as long as North Carolina would maintain it as part of the state highway system. A year later, in 1963, the bridge was done, and without any arguments, it was named after Herbert C. Bonner.

The Gateway To Hatteras

On a rainy spring day in 2019, Gov. Roy Cooper was on the Outer Banks, helping dedicate the newly built Marc Basnight Bridge - named after the late state senator - over the Oregon Inlet.

"This is the perfect day for this, because it shows the resiliency and determination of the people of the Outer Banks. A little rain and a little wind doesn’t hurt people out here," Cooper said that day.

The new bridge cost $250 million. This time, the National Park Service didn’t need to chip in, but maybe in a sign of how important the bridge is, Dave Hallac was there, too. He’s the superintendent of Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

"This bridge represents the gateway to Hatteras Island, Ocracoke Island, most of Cape Hatteras National Seashore and Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. Folks, these are the jewels of Dare and Hyde Counties and the Department of Interior," Hallac said.

"The Department of Transportation connects people, places, communities and families, and I can tell you very confidently, they are the best friends that Cape Hatteras National Seashore has ever had."

Will Michaels is WUNC's Weekend Host and Reporter.
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