A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

Murphy to Manteo: Finding new adventures, historic detours, and the soul of North Carolina on the state’s longest highway: U.S. Route 64. Read the series. We’re sitting at a crossroads:

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

Murphy to Manteo: Finding new adventures, historic detours, and the soul of North Carolina on the state’s longest highway: U.S. Route 64. Read the series. We’re sitting at a crossroads:

Coastal Crossroads in Whalebone Junction

Jennette's Pier is the most noticeable landmark at Whalebone Junction.

Illustration of Highway 64 traversing North Carolina

Murphy to Manteo: Finding new adventures, historic detours, and the soul of North Carolina on the state’s longest highway: U.S. Route 64. Read the series.

We’re sitting at a crossroads: When the light turns green, Alex and I will leave U.S. Highway 64 behind and cruise across an imaginary line in the sand, so to speak, and onto NC Highway 12. Even as we idle at Highway 64’s eastern terminus, we feel a sense of forward momentum. Our 4-month-old son, James, is in the backseat, screeching like a happy little seagull. It seems like everything we do now is a first, even if it’s not our first. Our first family road trip. Our first family vacation to the Outer Banks. Everything is different now, but in the best way. First stop, Jennette’s Pier — as soon as the light changes.

For many, this sandy intersection at Milepost 16.5 on the southern end of Nags Head is a place of possibilities, promise, and beginnings. As cars loaded up with beach chairs and umbrellas and coolers and bikes coast onto Highway 12 North, a road trip suddenly becomes a vacation, a whole week at the beach unfurling ahead. When they turn south, they immediately enter Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and the rest of our chain of barrier islands beckon.

But back in the day, before there were beach houses and bridges and blacktop, this place was known simply as “the end of the road” — unless you pulled over at Alexander and Neva Midgett’s Esso filling station to empty air from your tires so you could keep driving south on the sand.

Whalebone skeleton positioned in the heart of Whalebone Junction in the 1930s

When Alexander Midgett moved a whale skeleton to his Nags Head service station in the 1930s, he gave Whalebone Junction its name and laid the groundwork to make it a destination. Photography courtesy of Alan Eldridge Collection (AV5259), Outer Banks History Center, Manteo, NC

In the early 1930s, Alexander Midgett found a dead whale washed ashore on nearby Pea Island and used his Ford Model T truck to drag it up past the high tide line. About a year later, he returned to collect the bones. He brought them back to his service station with the help of a private ferry, scrubbed them with lime, and put them back together at the edge of his property — in what is now the center of the junction — to entice drivers to pull over.

His scheme worked. The bright white, 72-foot whale skeleton soon became a roadside attraction. Alexander renamed his Esso station the Whalebone Service Station, and the area began to grow: restaurants, beachside motels, a pier. After Alexander’s death, Neva carried on, often taking calls from fishermen hundreds of miles away who wanted to know if the fish were running. By the time a real road was paved to Oregon Inlet in 1951, Whalebone Junction had become more than a place to turn around. It was a destination.

• • •

Standing at the end of Jennette’s Pier, breathing in the scent of salt and sea, I keep an eye on flying fishhooks in case I need to shield James while Alex badgers nearby anglers about what they’re casting for. It’ll be a few years before James reels in anything, of course, but for now, he seems perfectly content watching the waves and the gulls.

Built in 1939, and rebuilt in 1945 and 2011, Jennette’s was the first pier on the Outer Banks and one of the area’s first social hubs. Originally 754 feet long, it now juts 1,000 feet into the ocean. Today, the iconic pier is a part of the North Carolina Aquariums system and is home to an ecofriendly educational center, where children and adults alike can explore interactive science exhibits and, of course, learn how to fish.

Overhead view of Whalebone Junction in the 1950 where US Route 64 intersects with US Highway 158 and NC Highway 12

Whalebone Junction looked much different in the 1950s, when the Outer Banks we know today was still taking shape. Photography courtesy of David Stick Papers (PC5001), Outer Banks History Center, Manteo, NC

I look back toward the shore, toward all that activity, and try to imagine how it appeared to visitors in the ’40s and ’50s, when you could see clear over to the Whalebone Service Station. When fishermen fueled up and shared fish tales just across the way at Sam & Omie’s and Owens’ restaurants, which opened in 1937 and 1946, respectively.

Eventually, the Midgetts’ service station burned down, and the whale bones disappeared. (According to locals, several ended up in front yards, with a few of the vertebrae being used to hold flowerpots in Manteo.) But the name stuck. And so did Whalebone Junction’s reputation as the gateway to the Outer Banks, to adventure, to vacation.

Today, Whalebone Junction is one of the busiest intersections on the Outer Banks, yet Milepost 16.5 still offers a peek at the old ways, if you know where to look: At Dune Burger, originally That’s A Burger, one of the Outer Banks’ first drive-up burger joints when it opened in the ’50s. At the Sea Foam Motel, built in 1948. At Holy Trinity by the Sea Catholic Chapel, formerly the Jokers Three dance hall and bar. At Sam & Omie’s and Owens’, which have become destinations for generations of vacationers. In the wild yucca growing in the sandy soil, descended from Neva Midgett’s plants, which once grew around the old Whalebone Service Station.

Jennette's Pier at sunset.

Anglers flock to Jennette’s Pier at sunset to catch bluefish, mullet, and flounder. Photography courtesy of VisitNC.com

Even at Jennette’s Pier. Sure, it’s not the real Jennette’s, as some Nags Head natives still refer to the original. But when you stand out at the end of the pier, surrounded by fishing lines and smiling, sunburned faces, you can still feel the soul of the Outer Banks and the promise of its simple pleasures. Of beach burgers and a drive down the Beach Road with the windows rolled down and a sandy little boy with endless summers stretching out before him.

It’s true, what they say. When one journey ends, another begins.

More to Explore: Plan the ultimate beach day around Whalebone Junction with our guide to what to do and where to eat at ourstate.com/nagsheadguide.

This story was published on May 15, 2024

Katie Schanze

Katie Schanze is an associate editor and digital content editor at Our State.