As a region constantly changing at Mother Nature’s hand, the history of the Outer Banks has been sculpted by the ebb and flow of natural events. The ferry system of the Southern Outer Banks is no exception. After a violent hurricane in 1846, Hatteras Island was severed from the Northern Outer Banks, creating what is known today as Oregon Inlet. During the same storm, the island was also separated from what is now known as Ocracoke Island, just south of Hatteras Village, creating the Hatteras Inlet.
To provide locals with access to necessary goods, services, and medical attention after the separation from the mainland, boat captains began small ferries. The most famous of these captains was Captain Tillet, who created a private ferry system in the 1920’s, which included a tug boat and a barge that transported people and vehicles back and forth across the shallow waters of the Oregon Inlet, thus providing locals with access to what they needed. His ferry system also enabled adventurous visitors the opportunity to discover the island’s incomparable seascape, wildlife and fishing, and from there, the travel industry of Hatteras Island took off.
Word started to spread and as Captain Tillet’s ferry became widely renowned. In the 1940’s and 50s, an influx of people began visiting the area. This got the state’s attention and the North Carolina Department of Transportation eventually took over the operation to ensure the safety of so many citizens. Thus, the NC Ferry System was established. More routes were set up along the coastline where transportation had previously been limited to private ferry or boat.
As the creation of the inlets changed the course of fishing in the region by providing direct access to the Gulf Stream for the Inner Banks, the ferry system did the same for visitors from all over the world, as it provided access to launching points that set out into the Atlantic Ocean, where they will enjoy some of the best fishing conditions in the world. Unexplored areas of the coast became accessible because of the ferry system, making the trip to the otherwise isolated islands of Hatteras and Ocracoke easy and enjoyable.
By the late 1950’s the state-run ferries were carrying more than 2,000 passengers across Oregon Inlet every day, which therefore became expensive, thus the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge was created. It was the ferry system, however, that ultimately opened the door for mainstream tourism to the southern Outer Banks and today, well over a million visitors cross the Bonner Bridge each year to visit Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands.
The southern Outer Banks ferries now have many routes, but the most popular for visitors is the ferry from Hatteras Island to Ocracoke Island. It is free to the public and it takes about an hour to cross the Hatteras Inlet.
For complete ferry schedules and updated information, click here.
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