Wash Woods; A Community Beholden to the Merciless Atlanic

If ever you wanted a taste of our forefathers’ hardiness, you’d find it at Wash Woods. There, in thickets of low-slung evergreens, far from any human population, are the hidden ruins of a community that had no roads in or out. That remoteness was responsible both for the village’s existence and for its undoing.

Even today, part of the mystique of Wash Woods is the formidable task of getting there. The abandoned hamlet is not quite at the ends of the earth, but it might as well be. Wash Woods now lies within False Cape State Park, as far southeast in Virginia as it’s possible to be.

Unless you travel by boat, there are only two approaches to the park, from the north through Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, or from the south, via the roadless beaches of North Carolina’s northern Outer Banks. Whichever way you choose, there is no driving inside the park itself.

False Cape State Park is primitive and offers little in the way of modern amenities–a fact that attracts those trying to escape civilization. The park is long and narrow, and separates the Atlantic Ocean from the broad expanse of Back Bay.

Technically False Cape lies on a peninsula, but the skinny neck of land, just a half-mile wide in one spot, effectively acts as a barrier island. Dunes along the ocean give way to dense groves, which, in turn, give way to marshes. Wildlife abounds, and you’ll find ample evidence of opportunistic species that can make a living despite the sand and storms that would drive so many others off–sea grasses, evergreen shrubs and trees, mushrooms, sea birds, mice, foxes, deer. In spots, freshly-dug depressions in the ground are clues that feral hogs have been rooting for food.

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The southern head of Sand Ridge Trail and my hiking partner pointing out a mushroom

I recently chose the southern approach to Wash Woods while on a family vacation to the Outer Banks. I parked at the fenced state line; even if I had wanted to go farther, the pilings and barbed wire would’ve made that impossible. In addition to keeping yokels from four-wheeling on the sensitive habitat at False Cape, the closed access also keeps out North Carolina’s famed wild horses, which are seen all the way up to the border.

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The fenced state line and a North Carolinian horse

Here is a link to False Cape State Park on Google Maps

My son and I saw few other hikers that day, despite the cloudless sky and mild weather. The two-and-a-half mile hike to Wash Woods was a wannabe backwoodsman’s dream. The only sign of civilization on the southern end of the Sandy Ridge Trail are power lines that loom above it for a couple hundred yards before veering off. The trail snakes through wild territory and it seems possible you’re the only person for a mile or more in any direction.

How did a 300-person-strong community end up on this remote shoreline? Legend has it Wash Woods’s pioneers were shipwrecked sailors some three or four centuries ago–seamen who mistakenly made a left turn thinking they were rounding Cape Henry to the north.

No one’s sure if that’s precisely how Wash Woods began, but there was certainly a thriving community here by the late nineteenth century. That’s when the United States Life-Saving Service, a forerunner of the Coast Guard, established a couple stations near Wash Woods. Some of the men in the community were surfmen for the Life-Saving Service, patrolling the ocean beaches on foot in all sorts of foul weather, looking for vessels in distress, mounting harrowing rescues when they found one. Many a ship’s crewmen owed their lives to the Life-Saving Service.

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The sandy trail to Wash Woods and the grown over cemetery

In those days, crops thrived in rich soil at Wash Woods. Residents lived off the fat of the land. Berries were plenty in clumps of lush bushes. The sea offered a bounty of fish and crabs. Waterfowl were so numerous they darkened the daytime sky. Young men served as guides for out-of-towners who hunted and fished the rich grounds of Back Bay. Wash Woods had a store and a two churches, one of which was built from cedar that had been the cargo of the wrecked schooner John S. Woods.

Residents didn’t need roads in or out of the remote community because they had almost all they needed there. When time came to make trips to larger towns north and west, residents went by boat or by carriage along the beach.

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The church steeple and brick foundation

Still, life at Wash Woods must not have been easy, because the wind coming off the Atlantic was persistent and, at times, angry. Much of the vegetation there is scrubby, knotted and leaning from constant exposure to a stiff breeze. The hike into Wash Woods from the south was all the more difficult because walking on the loose sand is more difficult than on firm ground. Windblown grit is irritating can be painful on exposed skin and in the eyes. Along the treeless beach the summer sun is oppressive. In the relative safety of the shady evergreens the mosquitoes are relentless.

Despite those challenges, this was a land well-loved, a narrow strip of ground that called to people, provided them a respectable living. But ultimately, and fatally, this was a tenuous land, because the interface between vast continent and wide-open sea is among the most vulnerable patches of earth.

Storms battered this community, washing sand and saltwater over fertile fields–hence the name Wash Woods. Many folks left Wash Woods by the 1920s and the Hurricane of 1933 sent all but the most devoted packing. Improved navigation had a hand in the site’s abandonment, too. Coast Guard stations every few miles became obsolete, and by the middle of the twentieth century, those near Wash Woods had been shuttered. The Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962 moved along any holdouts who had remained behind in the village they loved.

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Wash Woods headstones

But traces of what they left behind are still there under swaying strands of Spanish moss. A cedar steeple and a crumbling brick foundation remain from Wash Woods Methodist Church. The headstones honoring the people who surrendered their earthly remains to this community lean from the sandy and leaf-strewn ground. Their inscriptions are still legible. Visitors have left seashells as a tribute.

If you sit and listen carefully in that fading, silent cemetery you can make out distant waves crashing onshore–a beautiful sound, a sound imbued with so much meaning. A sound that will never leave Wash Woods.

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A windblown tree at False Cape State Park

About Ben Swenson

Ben lives in Williamsburg, Virginia. He is writing a book on places of historic value that have been forgotten and are being reclaimed by nature. Abandoned Country is a companion blog to that project. You can contact him at benswenson@cox.net
This entry was posted in Bay Islands, Cemeteries, Ghost towns. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Wash Woods; A Community Beholden to the Merciless Atlanic

  1. kevin says:

    The coast guard station in the Park. Should be rebuilt.

  2. michael barnes says:

    As a child I spent my summers there and know all that was there as well as north and south of Wash Woods. Dammed shame the Park and Refuge locked it all up so that only a couple of employees from God knows where get to use it as their personal playground. I am almost 61 now and loved and enjoyed all of it back in the late fifties thru the sixties. I saw it all and lived it breathed it and loved it and truly miss it. Those glorified tour guides have no clue what it was like before they REMODELED it. MANAGEMENT MY ASS !!!!! Government screws it up again.

  3. CDouglas says:

    thanks for the info. we visited back bay/false cape 3 or 4 years ago from the north end. we caught the tram in the heat of the july sun, and made the 3/4 mile walk to the beach for some fun in the surf and sand. the remoteness of the area is both inspiring and fretful. we made it back alive. even though we had less than 2 hours before the tram picked us back up, we had a great time. we didn’t visit wash woods, but will plan on it with our next adventure.

  4. Robert Clark says:

    I spent part of summer vacations,1948_1949 in the home of Lonny Bowden at Wash Woods,NC. We slaughered sheep that he raised in the sand flats. We walked there from Va Beach, anout 37 miles.

  5. Shirley says:

    I have family that is buried there and we use to visit their grave sites back in the 60’s. we also lived on Sandbridge beach where my Daddy net-fished for a living. We lived there until the Ash Wednesday storm blew our house down. Darn, I miss those days and want to visit Wash Woods one more time to show my children and grandchildren.

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