America’s National Seashores

September 3 is Labor Day. Visit the National Archives website to learn more about records related to the holiday. This post comes from Danielle Sklarew, an intern in the National Archives History Office.

This Labor Day, whether you’re in Massachusetts, down south in Florida, or along the west coast of California, you can visit one of America’s 10 National Seashores.

But how did these beautiful beaches come to be protected and cared for by the Federal Government?

The story starts with Cape Hatteras, a portion of the Outer Banks in North Carolina. In 1937, Congress designated Cape Hatteras as the first National Seashore. However, it was not until 1953 that the government had acquired enough land to establish the park and welcome visitors.

Bodie Island Light Station and Visitor Center in the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, ca. 1995-2013. (National Archives Identifier 7720856)

Why was Cape Hatteras the first? Driven by locals wishing to protect the recreation area, North Carolina residents partnered with the National Park Service to designate it as a no- development area, preserving the beaches for visitors. In the Outer Banks, 70 miles of shoreline was protected in order to maintain the scenic beach region of Cape Hatteras and its wildlife, including sea turtles and many species of birds.

Its most iconic element, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, was first built in 1803 and reconstructed in 1853 to make it taller and more visible to ships. Today, visitors can climb the lighthouse for a great view of the first-ever National Seashore.

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in North Carolina, 5/20/1893. (National Archives Identifier 7682781)

The creation of the first National Seashore coincided with the expansion of the National Park Service beginning in the 1930s. During this period, NPS aimed to protect more natural resources and make them accessible to the public.

In the 1950s, studies of beaches showed how valuable seashore land had become, especially as an increasing number of beaches were becoming privately owned. Shortly after, there was an initiative to create more National Seashores, and by the end of the 1970s, Congress had established 10 National Seashores. 

The second National Seashores Congress created was the Cape Cod National Seashore in Massachusetts, in 1961. The legislation was originally co-sponsored by Massachusetts Senator—and future President—John F. Kennedy but did not pass until Kennedy had been in the Executive Office for seven months. Being able to sign the legislation was very personal to Kennedy, as he spent many summers in the Cape Cod region.

Today, the National Park Service–run Cape Cod National Seashore attracts many visitors to its beaches and trails for walking and biking. Forty miles of beach are protected in this area less than two hours away from central Boston.

The largest National Seashore encompasses the islands of two different states: Florida and Mississippi. Gulf Islands National Seashore stretches 160 miles on the Gulf of Mexico. This National Seashore includes three 19th-century military forts that were built to protect Pensacola Harbor in case of a war. The forts were used during the Civil War as the area became a battleground. Fort Pickens, Fort McRee, and Fort Barrancas remain places to visit and study the past within the National Seashore grounds.

Gulf Islands National Seashore Site Map, Project Years 2004-2012. (National Archives Identifier 33754082)

On the West Coast, there is only one National Seashore. Point Reyes National Seashore is just north of San Francisco, CA. Point Reyes is the home to over 1,000 species of animals and plants, tall cliffs, and sandy beaches. This National Seashore has important historical significance. Most experts agree that Sir Francis Drake landed in a cove within the property of Point Reyes in 1579, making Drake the first European to come ashore in California.

Point Reyes Light Station, California, 9/24/1928. (National Archives Identifier 45709183)

The area where Drake is believed to have landed is now named “Drakes Cove” within “Drakes Bay.” Both Drakes Cove and Drakes Bay have been a part of the larger Point Reyes National Seashore since September 13, 1962, when President Kennedy signed the legislation.

Thanks to the efforts of the National Park Service in preserving these seashores, we are all able to enjoy the pristine ocean fronts and take in the natural landscapes and wildlife of some of the most beautiful parts of the country.

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