The Impulsive Traveler: Mystery, history and horses on North Carolina’s Outer Banks


The historic Whalehead Club, originally known as Corolla Island, was built on the Outer Banks in the 1920s by wealthy industrialist Edward Collings Knight Jr. for his wife, Marie Louise, as a winter home. (Zofia Smardz/The Washington Post)
October 28, 2011

“There are 13 of us,” says my sister, nodding meaningfully as I join her at the door of the historic Whalehead Club. Whoa! Thirteen. On a moonlight ghost tour. Now that. Is. Spooky. . . .

Spooky, of course, is what we’re after on this nearly full-moon October night in the old mansion-turned-museum on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. But alas, once we get going, I’m not really feeling it. We make our way from room to darkened room, up the staircase and down, listening to unlikely tales of smoking paintings and self-igniting candles and murder in the kitchen, and I’m thinking ho-hum.

Corolla, N.C.: How to get there, where to stay and what to do

Uh — wait a minute. Murder in the kitchen? Of the lady of the house’s ne’er-do-well brother, you say? Well, that is interesting. But hmm. There was no mention of any such event in the regular historical tour we took a couple of days earlier. Are you sure about that? Well, it certainly does add that necessary little frisson to the evening.

But it doesn’t quite fit with the picture of wealthy industrialist Edward Collings Knight Jr. and his wife that you get on the daytime audio tour of their winter vacation home near Corolla, a village on the northernmost reaches of the Outer Banks. There are (Mc)mansions galore on the Banks these days, of course, but back in the Roaring Twenties, the Knights’ splendid 21,000-square-foot, five-story art nouveau house, with its sweeping grounds on Currituck Sound, was truly one of a kind. And unlike many a McMansion, it was a welcome addition to the neighborhood, bringing jobs and riches to a fairly impoverished region.

So murder and coverup? Seems out of sync with old-timers’ memories of the Knights’ generosity and graciousness. But then again, the wealthy pair did have their little, oh, oddities. There was Marie Louise’s passion for hunting and her preference for pants over party dresses. And then the couple’s separate (though adjoining) bedrooms. The tour describes this as “common for the period.” But what about that other, not-so-common adjoining bedroom to Knight’s, where his friend and doctor, Harry Knapp, routinely slept? Okay, Knight had a heart condition. But still. . . .

I could be completely wrong, of course, but hey. I’m not the only one to wonder about the arrangement. Two years ago, at my nephew’s wedding on the Banks, the maid of honor, a local girl, planted the seeds with her stories of Banker lore and gossip about the Knights and their grand house. When she was a kid, the place was nothing but an abandoned wreck that teens liked to prowl around. Ditto the empty lighthouse keeper’s residence beside the nearby Currituck Beach Lighthouse. You know how stories pile up around mysterious places like that.

Today, the mystery’s mostly in the mind. Both buildings have been rescued and spiffed up to perfection as part of Currituck Heritage Park, a 39-acre enclave on the sound that encompasses the Whalehead Club, the still-operating lighthouse (last one built on the Banks, in 1875, its red bricks left unpainted to distinguish it from its iconic black-and-white brethren farther south), a wildlife center and Historic Corolla Village, a group of restored buildings that formed the little fishing village in the late 19th century.

Poking around the park on a drizzly day, we pick up some less well-known Outer Banks history. Because Roanoke we know. And Kitty Hawk, of course. But who knew that in the early 20th century, the waterfowl were so plentiful on Currituck Sound — the body of water separating the Banks from the mainland is on the Atlantic Flyway, the north-south migration route for many a goose, etc. — that locals did a booming business selling their catch to restaurants in the Northeast? Pretty soon, natch, the sportsmen wanted in on the action, and hunt clubs proliferated. Then the Knights built their haven, dubbed Corolla Island, so that Marie Louise — sorry, no ladies in the clubs — could get her hunting jollies, too.

After the Knights died and the waterfowl declined (totally unrelated!), the estate served variously as a World War II Coast Guard receiving station, a weekend playground for a wealthy Washington meatpacker (he gave it its present name), a boys’ academy and a secret research center for a company trying to develop a solid rocket fuel. Wouldn’t have been hard to keep things secret around here: Before a paved road from the more southerly town of Duck was laid in 1985, this was one tough spot to get to. “It was a really desolate place,” declares our ghost tour guide.

I can almost see that as we stand on the front lawn watching the waters of the sound lap against the edges of the grass and the moon rise high among the clouds. It’s as still as can be, and if I block out the lights from Route 12 with my hand, pretty dark. But not too dark for us to spy a pale white egret wading in the water near the boathouse.

That whole waterfowl thing is pretty fascinating, but, well, I admit it: We can’t help migrating, like most of the tourist pack, toward another kind of wildlife. We skip the wildfowl center in favor of the restored historic schoolhouse that’s home to the Corolla Wild Horse Fund, a nonprofit group that manages the area’s herd of 128 (at the moment) colonial Spanish mustangs.

Executive Director Karen McCalpin fills us in on the state of the herd, the direct descendants of steeds the conquistadors brought to America 500 years ago, and the group’s efforts to protect it. Which can be a challenge, what with all the commercial tours that haul visitors up and down the beach in pursuit of a glimpse of the animals. Before that darned road was extended to Corolla, the horses used to roam all around the area. But now they’re fenced off — for their own sake — on a 135-acre stretch of beach. And trying to catch sight of them is like a search for the Holy Grail.

Which doesn’t mean that my sister and I and our husbands wouldn’t like to see them, anyway. But even though we have a four-wheel-drive vehicle — required to navigate the seaside strand — we’re not about to join that pack of rubber-neckers. Especially after we drive up to the beach entrance and spot a tow truck straining to haul a Jeep Cherokee out of the sand.

We repair instead to the nearby Currituck Banks National Estuarine Research Reserve, per McCalpin’s suggestion. “There are a couple of harems that like to hang out there,” she confides. “You might just happen to see them.”

We follow the boardwalk through the maritime forest of the preserve all the way out to where it ends at the edge of the sound. It’s a gloriously warm and sunny day — who’d think it was the middle of October? — and the marsh grasses ripple golden yellow against the water’s blue.

“Here, horsey, horsey,” call the husbands (such comedians), but there are no ponies anywhere. Just dragonflies darting among the reeds and a lone osprey making, yes, lazy circles in the sky. It’s beautiful and serene and, when we stop to listen, so hushed that it’s almost . . . spooky.

Corolla, N.C.: How to get there, where to stay and what to do

Zofia Smardz is deputy editor of The Post's Travel section. She joined Travel after eight years editing provocative opinion articles in the Sunday Outlook section.
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