Monday, November 12, 2007
Riding the Outer Banks ferries
Drive down the N.C. Outer Banks from Nags Head or Manteo or Kill Devil Hills. At Oregon Inlet, in the north, cross what is known as a high-rise bridge. Continue for another 30 or 40 miles toward Cape Hatteras down the long, narrow strip of land that separates the Atlantic Ocean from the calmer waters of Pamlico Sound.
About halfway down you will notice a place where the ocean washed across the island in a recent hurricane. Except for the efforts of the N.C. Department of Transportation, which sent crews and bulldozers to fill in the gap in the sand, there would be a new inlet there.
An inlet is a gap in the narrow sand bank that encloses the North Carolina sounds and that lets sea water and estuary water be exchanged between the open ocean and the more protected coastal waters and wetlands. The inlets are endlessly shifting and changing as strong tidal currents and storm-driven waves move sand onto or away from the shore.
Hurricanes often cut new inlets through the Outer Banks. Water surges over the barrier island and cuts a deeper and deeper channel into the sand as it rushes through. It's the coastal equivalent of a gully or canyon, but everything happens in fast motion during a hurricane
It's very difficult to build a bridge over an inlet because the sand is so unstable and the tides and currents are so swift. Building the Oregon Inlet bridge near Nags Head was quite an engineering feat, and I believe it is the only bridge on the Outer Banks that spans an inlet. Other bridges link the islands to the mainland, spanning the slower moving waters of the sounds.
Here's what Wikipedia says about Oregon Inlet: it was created by a hurricane in 1846. So it is very new. One of the ships that rode out that storm in the sound was named the Oregon, and it gave its name to the new channel.
Here's what's even more interesting: Wikipedia says that Oregon Inlet, like many other inlets along the Outer Banks, constantly "moves southward due to drifting sands during tides and storms. It has moved south over two miles since 1846, averaging around 66 feet per year."
The inlet that now separates Hatteras Island from Ocracoke Island was also opened up by the great storm of 1846. The same storm nearly closed up the inlet on the opposite end of Ocracoke Island, sending the once-prosperous ports at Ocracoke Village and Portsmouth Village on the other side into a steep decline. Portsmouth Village was abandoned in the early years of the 20th century.
One inlet that has been fairly stable since the late 1600s is Beaufort Inlet, about 75 miles down the coast from Ocracoke. Beaufort has been a fishing port since about 1710, and nearby Morehead City is one of North Carolina's two modern deep-water seaports. Morehead City was founded in 1857 and then developed when the harbor was linked by rail to the more densely populated Raleigh-Durham area.
Inlets, then, are bad places to try to build bridges. There is a project to replace the one at Oregon Inlet, which costs a fortune to maintain, with a bridge that would be built farther away from the inlet and the pounding waves of the ocean. If you want to move people and vehicles from island to island rather than from island to mainland, what is the solution? Ferries.
Posted by Ken Broadhurst at 4:45 AM