Corolla history has deep roots dating back hundreds of years. Corolla was originally the name for a small village that sits beneath the Currituck Beach Lighthouse.
The place names of this area reflect the early Native American heritage. Currituck is a derivation of a Native American work meaning “land of the wild goose.”
Chowanog, Poteskeet and other tribes that lived on the mainland used the barrier island as fishing and hunting grounds and named it for its abundance of geese. Europeans, who began settling in the area in the 1600s applied the word to the barrier island, the county, the sound and two inlets.
In the late 1600s and early 1700s, a few European settlers resided on the northern barrier islands, but most people preferred to live on the mainland. Until the early 1800s, Currituck Banks was separated from Virginia by Old and New Currituck inlets and from Duck by Caffeys Inlet, so getting there was only possible by boat.
By the mid-1800s there were several communities, tiny hamlets really, dotting the northern Outer Banks.
There was Wash Woods nearest to the Virginia line, Seagull a little farther down near Penny’s Hill, Jones Hill, a.k.a. Whalehead or Currituck Beach (now Corolla), and Poyners Hill between Corolla and Duck. The communities were extremely isolated and remote, set amidst the untamed marshes and dunes of the banks.
The early residents of the banks fished and hunted to make a modest living. They tended gardens and raised livestock, which ran at large on the barrier island. The bankers patrolled the beach to salvage items that washed ashore from numerous shipwrecks, and they recycled many of their goods in creative ways because suppliers were hard to get. They traveled by boat to the mainland to sell waterfowl or fish, to purchase supplies or to visit friends and family. The locals also found work guiding and helping wealthy sportsmen from the north who hunted on the Currituck Sound.
In 1892, a writer from Harpers Weekly wrote about the Currituck Banks, “If there were any spot on earth that one would expect to find untenanted, it surely would be this stretch of sand between ocean and sound. …Yet there is a hardy race who have lived here from father to son for over a century. They exist entirely by hunting, fishing, rearing cattle and acting as guides.”
Of these villages, the only one that stood the test of time was Corolla. Other villages petered out as times got hard, but a few residents always hung in there at Corolla. The village was able to thrive partly because of its abundance of government jobs, which offered steady pay. In 1873, when the village was still known as Jones Hill, construction began on the Currituck Beach Lighthouse. The red-brick lighthouse, which towered over the small village and the banks, was completed and lit on December 1, 1875. The light keepers and their families added several new residents to the village.
In 1874 the U.S. Life Saving Service established the Jones Hill Life Saving Station just east of the Currituck Beach Lighthouse site. This station, which was later known as Currituck Beach Life Saving Station, was one of the seven original life-saving stations on the Outer Banks. Seven local men were hired to staff the station from December through March. The keeper in charge received a salary of $200 a year, while the six surfmen were paid $40 a month for four months, with an additional $3 for every wreck they attended. The surfmen lived at the station, while their families resided in the village.
By 1895 Jones Hill was busy enough to have its own post office. The postal service, notorious for changing the traditional names of Outer Banks villages, required that the villagers send in several suggestions for an official name. The story goes that they submitted Jones Hill and Currituck Beach and were looking for other suggestions when someone mentioned that the inner part of a flower is called a corolla. That name was submitted and chosen by the postal service, forever changing the name of the small village.
Corolla’s population was large enough to require a church and schoolhouse. The children of the village had been attending various small schools, but in 1905 Currituck County was ready to support the one-room local school. The county provided a teacher, schoolbooks and standardized grading, and all the children of all grades attended the school together.
In 1922 another work opportunity arrived in the village when Edward and Marie-Louise LeBel Knight began work on Corolla Island ( now the Whalehead Club). When the massive house on the sound was finally was finished in 1925, it must have been quite a sight to the modest-living locals. The residence provided many work opportunities for the locals. The Knights employed local men as caretakers and hunting guides to accompany their invited guests.
In the 1930s it is said that more than 100 people lived at the village of Corolla. The Depression hit hard in the rest of the country, but on the banks people were able to survive off the wealth of the land and sea. During the period after the Depression, CCC and WPA boys were hired all along the Outer Banks to construct the high dunes and plant stabilizing grasses along the oceanfront. This project changed the geologic patterns of the barrier islands, preventing ocean overwash in serious storms. Little did anyone know then that these dunes would eventually lead to increased soundside erosion.
World War II had a strong impact on the village of Corolla. The U.S. Coast Guard leased the Whalehead Club to use as a training base, bringing hundreds of sailors to the village. The Coast Guard had barracks and support buildings around the village and out on the beach near the Coast Guard Station (formerly the Life Saving Station).
German U-boats came close to the shoreline of the Outer Banks, and locals were required to darken their windows and use no headlights when driving on the beach. The village bustled with the influx of servicemen; the church services were full and the post office and store were always busy.
After the war, the population of Corolla dwindled rapidly. Many residents left the banks to look for jobs on the mainland. The lighthouse, electrified in 1938, no longer required several keepers, just a caretaker. (The villagers, however, didn’t get electricity until 1955.) In the late 1950s Corolla’s population reached its lowest point. The school closed for lack of students, and there were only three families residing in the village. The church sat empty. The Whalehead Club was empty most of the year, though it was used as a boy’s school, Corolla Academy, in the summers. Later the Whalehead Club was converted into a most inappropriate use as the headquarters for Atlantic Research, a rocket fuel testing facility.
In the 1970s only about 15 people lived in the village. People who visited or lived there back then say that Corolla felt like the absolute end of the earth. The road leading to Corolla was just a clay trail along the soundside, with “truck-swallowing holes” and sugar-fine sand that was nearly impossible to drive through. The Whalehead Club and lighthouse buildings were in grave disrepair. Corolla was wild and rugged and overgrown. It was the last coastal getaway of the grandest kind, and anyone who ever went there fell in love with it just exactly like it was.
In the 1970s alternative vacationers were beginning to discover the isolated beaches of the Currituck Banks. Since there were no paved roads leading into Corolla, people drove on the beach from Virginia or Duck. But in 1974, U.S. Fish and Wildlife blocked the Virginia border to prevent excessive traffic in its Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Corolla residents were given special passes to be able to go through the gate. The border is still closed today.
Meanwhile, developers were buying up sizeable chunks of the Currituck Outer Banks. Ocean Sands and Whalehead were the first large-scale developments on the banks north of Duck. To access these properties, in 1975, one of the developers built a private road from Duck almost all the way to Corolla. To keep people out of the private developments, the developers constructed a guard gate at the south end of the road. The guard was not allowed to let anyone but property owners past the gate. Sightseers were turned away, but many of them drove up on the beach anyway.
The southern guard gate didn’t come down until October 1984, when the state took over the road and made it part of N.C. Highway 12. The state extended the road to pass thought Corolla, and it was the village’s first paved road. With the road open, interest in real estate jumped immediately, and the rest of the Currituck Banks story is quite apparent today.
Development came quickly. Former residents say the change was cataclysmic. Over the next decade, more than 1,500 homes were built on the Currituck Banks between the Dare County line and Corolla village. (In 1984 there were 422 homes, but by 1995 there were 1,966 homes.) By the year 2000, there were 2,750 homes in that same area. Almost all of these homes are second homes and vacation rentals, sitting empty for most of the year. More than 50 percent of the homes are greater than 5,000 square feet.
All this development quickly filled the empty land on the Currituck Banks, the land that used to provide a nest of isolation to Corolla village. Miraculously, the tiny village has managed to keep its boundaries and to keep typical Outer Banks development out, though it is a much different place today than it used to be. Many of the historic buildings have been adapted to modern uses, but their character and the sense of village is still intact.
But don’t mistake what you see today for what Corolla village used to be. Many of the buildings you see today are new construction or have been moved to the village from other places. Down the road, the Currituck Beach Lighthouse and the Whalehead Club have developed modern appeal as tourist attractions. Even so, these attractions and old Corolla village buildings stand in marked contrast to the modern development of the Currituck Outer Banks, helping us to remember that Corolla does indeed have a past.