Bridging North Carolina’s Coast
Three-mile-long Umstead Bridge (Dare County Bridge 9) built on US 64 by the State Highway Commission in 1955-1956 to connect the mainland with Roanoke Island (Durwood Barbour Collection of North Carolina Postcards, UNC-Chapel Hill)
Although Roanoke Island lays claim to the first attempted English settlement in the New World, the Roanoke Colony, the low-lying islands and shallow waters so treacherous to navigation long made the Outer Banks one of the most isolated and sparsely settled areas of the East Coast. Access was provided only by water transport and by 1900 development was limited to a handful of small villages, tiny resort towns such as Nags Head, and the stations established by the US Lifesaving Service. By the 1920s it was increasingly obvious to local developers that the future of the Outer Banks as a tourist destination was tied to improving highway connections with the mainland. They found, however, that they had little influence with the State Highway Commission and all of their proposals for bridges were turned down as too costly. The Commission was focused on improving a system of primary highways on the mainland and not yet ready to reach out to the barrier islands, a situation that was to change only in the 1950s.
Local businessmen initially took matters into their own hands by forming private toll-bridge companies. In 1928 in Dare County they built the Baum Bridge (replaced in 1951) over Roanoke Sound between Roanoke Island and the beach. They followed this in 1930, also in Dare, with the crossing that truly opened the islands to development, the Wright Memorial Bridge (replaced in 1966) that carried NC 158 over Currituck Sound. The Great Depression slowed development on the islands, but following World War II and into the 1950s, the Outer Banks became the tourist destination that developers had long desired, and the State Highway Commission began taking an increasingly active role, especially after buying the toll bridges and making them free. The second span to connect the islands and the mainland was the William B. Umstead Bridge, erected by the State Highway Commission in 1955-1956 to carry US 64 over the Croatan Sound (Dare County Bridge 9). The nearly three-mile-long bridge was the biggest state bridge project of the 1950s, based on overall length and expense, but the crossing posed few major technological challenges. The bridge was formed of an extensive series of conventional steel stringer and girder-and-floorbeam spans, none of which extended more than 130 feet.