Traveling from Hampton Roads to Cape Hatteras and Back Again

I just noticed today that there are no utility poles where I live. I live in a rather large townhome community in York County, Virginia (which is part of Hampton Roads), and have done so for the last year. Not only have I lived here, but I’ve also biked through the area every day in search of exercise…and yet I never noticed until today that there were no utility poles around. I’m not sure if I’m singularly unobservant, as Sherlock Holmes would say, or just average-ly unobservant. (For example, I asked my father a trick question a few minutes ago – if he knew how many utility poles there were around here, and received a pitying look in return.)

I went looking for utility poles today because I’d been doing research about them on the internet. I was trying to find out what all of the paraphernalia suspended from the poles were. Electricity wires, phone wires and cable TV, presumably, but I wanted to know which wires were which.

And why was I doing research on the internet? Because I’d gotten back from a day trip to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina the day before and had decided to find out, not only about utility poles but other mundane items that had aroused my curiosity on that trip.

My parents and I went to Cape Hatteras for the day. I was going in order to acquire information to write a travel article, to be entitled “A Day Trip to Cape Hatteras”, my dad went in order to climb to the top of the lighthouse so that he could say he’d done it, and my mom just went along for the ride. My dad did the driving, I sat in the passenger’s seat with a notebook, a pen, and an eagle eye, and my mom sat in the back and read Imperial 109, by Richard Doyle (which is a pretty good book, by the way, all about a round-the-world journey via flying boat just before World War II.).

The Cape Hatteras lighthouse is one of the most popular destinations for tourists to North Carolina, whether they come from Hampton Roads, Virginia or anywhere else in the United States or the world. The current lighthouse has stood on the island of Cape Hatteras since 1870. In 1999 it was moved intact, in a tremendous feat of engineering, from its old location – where it was in danger from the encroaching sea – to a location 2,900 feet away. It continues to stand tall and its light continues to shine, and while one can walk around the lighthouse and visit the gift shop all year round, people can only climb the lighthouse (for $6.00 per head, discount for seniors) from May through early October of each year.

Since the lighthouse is so popular, I wanted to keep an eye out on our drive to see what other interesting sights I could point out to the readers of my travel article. So as my dad drove along, I looked at everything…and things that I’d seen practically every day suddenly seemed to stand out to me. I started asking my dad questions, much as a little kid always does…”what’s this, why’s that”, etc., and my dad couldn’t answer most of them. So I started to keep notes of these little points of sudden curiosity so that they wouldn’t slip my mind when the trip was over.

It’s very pretty scenery from York County towards the North Carolina, taking Highway 64 a little ways through Norfolk and then through a tunnel and then over the bridge spanning the Chesapeake Bay. Once you’re away from the coast there’s forests lining the road (no longer a highway), interspersed with small towns.

As I watched the scenery, I noted the green mile post signs…and I got to wondering…from where did those mile posts originate? I’m not talking about the big signs that say how many miles it is to one city or another, but the ones that just count miles themselves…and have nothing to do with the distances between the towns. From where did those mile posts start, and why?

I still haven’t found out. I’m guessing that when you get on a new road, those mile posts measure the length of the road from its beginning to its end. Perhaps these can be used to identify one’s location if you have a flat tire or something and have to call a tow truck out to get you.

Anyway, as I had mentioned those signs were green. That got me wondering about the other colors that signs used. The color code is obvious: “green with white letters for informational signs, such as directions, distances, and places; brown with white for signs to parks, historic sites, ski areas, forests, and campgrounds; and blue with white for rest areas, food, gasoline or petrol, and lodging.” But I wondered…when had this color code started, and why did they choose the colors they chose for each one?

Well, in my web research for that I found some interesting things. Streets signs became uniform in the United States in the early 1930s. Why do signs have different shapes? Because back then electricity wasn’t quite as well-spread as it is now, and so the signs had to be identified by shape – such as an octagon for a stop sign, a triangle for a yield sign – in case the words on them couldn’t be seen.

Why octagon for stop and triangle for yield? Well, it was down to what signs were thought to be needed the most. Round and octagon shapes “required the most cutting and wastage, [so] they were chosen for the fewest installations.”

Then I became intrigued by what people call “History on a stick,” the highway marker system. As you drive along our historic highways (there’s lots of them on the way to and in North Carolina, as there are everywhere, obviously) I began to wonder, as we zoomed past, why they were put where they were, when it was practically impossible to read them. Had they been put in place in the 1930s, when cars didn’t go very fast for the most part and the pace of the drive was such that people could slow down and see what they were driving past?

All states have their own highway marker program. While the markers in Virginia and North Carolina appear to have the same design…other states seem to use their own design.

Anyway, every state has its own criteria for choosing what events, places or people are honored with a marker – but an average person or business can request that a marker be placed somewhere. The info below is from the Virginia Highway Marker website:

“The highway marker program, begun in 1927 and administered by the Department of Historic Resources (DHR), is one of the oldest in the country. The markers, silver with black letters and emblazoned with the state seal, carry historical inscriptions commemorating sites, individuals, buildings, and events of statewide or national interest. Local governments, private organizations, or individuals can sponsor new markers, which cost $1,350 (Note this does not include possible erection expenses in certain jurisdictions). Marker content must be approved by the Board of Historic Resources, and the Virginia Department of Transportation maintains the signs once they are erected.”

North Carolina’s highway marker program didn’t begin until 1935, according to their website. (South Carolina’s highway marker system started in 1905!)

I’m a collector of just about anything that catches my fancy, so as we drove down to Cape Hatteras and I kept seeing these signs, I decided I’d start a collection of photographs of them. I collected four ‘with one blow’ as we entered the town of Buxton…which is where the Cape Hatteras lighthouse is located. The Diamond Shoals has a marker right next to the Graveyard of the Atlantic marker, and within a few feet of these two there’s a marker for the Cape Hatteras lighthouse (as if it needed one with the lighthouse just a few hundred yards away!) and a sign that commemorates the sinking of the U.S. S. Monitor in a gale off the coast in which 16 crew members lost their lives.

So as you can see when you’re driving around the United States heading for tourist destinations…or for any destinations, for that matter, keep a weather eye open and your curiosity on full, and, to return to my Holmes analogy….see and observe (and think!). You’ll be glad you did.

The websites listed in the Resources section serve as the webography/bibliography for this piece.

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