An enduring ‘rite of passage’ in Manteo

By on June 11, 2023

Kids literally started jumping off the bridge as soon as it opened. (Photo courtesy of Theresa Christian)

Recalling that first plunge off the Cora Mae Basnight Bridge

There’s a classic rhetorical question that generations of parents have asked their children, usually to convey a message about peer pressure: “If your friends all jumped off a bridge, would you?”

When it comes to Manteo and the Cora Mae Basnight Bridge, the answer is a resounding yes—and has been for nearly 40 years.

The tradition is said to have begun when Princess Anne of England came to Dare County to walk across the bridge—located between the downtown waterfront docks and Roanoke Island Festival Park—when it officially opened in 1984. According to Beth Storie, a longtime Manteo resident who lives just a few blocks from the bridge, the princess had barely stepped off the structure when kids, and some kids at heart, began jumping off the bridge.

The jump itself, by local consensus is about 15 feet from the lowest point to 20 feet from the highest point. While bridge jumping can occur at any time, the most longstanding and celebrated tradition is to jump off the bridge on Dare Day, Manteo’s annual outdoor festival held on the first Saturday of June. This year was no exception, with onlookers watching as children as young as five took their first plunge off the bridge and into Dough’s Creek.

Over the years, it has become a rite of passage for Outer Banks kids and a celebration of the beginning of summer. For many locals who grew up on the Outer Banks, there is no time you feel cooler or braver than that first time you jump off the Cora Mae Basnight Bridge. First Flight High School teacher Jason Breiholz remembers participating in the tradition since the 80s.

“Every Dare Days in the 80’s and early 90’s it was a rite of passage for all the OB kids to jump off the bridge…there would be hundreds of kids jumping all day,” Breiholz recalled. “We used to have flip competitions. I’ll never forget some of the gnarliest belly flops I’ve ever witnessed or experienced. Fun times back then when the OB was really raw and not so developed.”

Manteo local Samantha Hart was part of the late 90’s generation of jumpers. “My favorite memory is jumping off the bridge on Dare days. We would have crowns on or dyed hair and just be running around downtown soaking wet in our bathing suits – looking for everyone, meeting back up with her friends, eating a soft-shell crab running up and down the dock—everybody dripping wet,” said Hart, who graduated Manteo High School in 2005.

She recalls kids trying to convince other kids to stand on top of the built-in benches at the very top of the bridge, which was the highest, most daring jump. Then some took it up a notch, like Josh Jones and his friends.

“Those were the days,” Jones said. “We used to set up makeshift ramps on the benches at the top of the bridge and launch ourselves off it on skateboards or bikes. We would have belly flop contests and act like we were wrestlers and dropkick or spear one another off the bridge. I could go on for hours about jumping off that bridge.”

Others were a bit more cautious. Lacee Moore says her first time jumping off the bridge was when she was about eight or nine. She had been riding around the sound on a jet ski with her dad and had stopped at the waterfront for ice cream when she saw a group of kids she knew jumping off the bridge.

“I was terrified the minute I saw them because I knew they would try to get me to jump,” she recounted. When they did run up to her and ask, she was relieved to use the excuse that her parents wouldn’t let her. “To my horror my dad responded, ‘You can. I’ll allow it. You got it.”

Begrudgingly and shaky, but not backing down, Moore made the jump as dozens of the young onlookers shouted, ‘Jump, jump!’

“I did it and felt like I had taken on the world. My dad was so proud and excited to tell my mom, who was not as impressed but still proud,” laughs Moore.

It’s fitting that this bridge would be a place where some young girls can summon courage and get a feel of independence. It was named after Outer Banks icon Cora Mae Basnight, born in 1910, who was a forward-thinking renaissance woman and an advocate for women’s rights. For decades, she played Agona in the Lost Colony, who herself was a vibrant character.

Basnight died at the age of 88 in 1998, and her granddaughter, Vicki Basnight, tells the Voice that her grandmother was a huge fan of the tradition.

“She absolutely loved that kids/folks jumped from her bridge. She was so proud when they named it after her. She would tell me stories of jumping from the docks [before the bridge was built] and how she learned to swim from them tossing her overboard. There are many stories of her and the Manteo wharf,” Vicki Basnight recalled.

In 2008 the bridge-jumping tradition was threatened when state officials put up signs by the bridge telling the public that the water quality was not safe and that no one should jump into the waters.

According to a story in the Virginian-Pilot, the signs were immediately spray-painted black in the middle of the night by an unknown individual. Manteo town officials responded to the signs by announcing that they would be jumping off the bridge on that year’s Dare Days celebration in support of the tradition.

The Pilot reported that then Manteo Mayor Jamie Daniels demanded in an email to a state official that the signs be taken down. Then Town Manager Kermit Skinner distributed an e-mail ahead of the Dare Days event, stating that town officials and their friends and families planned to leap off the Cora Mae Basnight Bridge “into the crystal-clear waters of Dough’s Creek.”

According to current Manteo Town manager Melissa Dickerson, the town has always supported the tradition, including removing debris and obstructions that could harm bridge jumpers, having divers check the area during training for the Roanoke Island Fire Department, and having larger debris removal events. When the town is notified of any obstructions in the water, the town staff works with their partners to remove them as quickly as possible.

“The tradition of jumping off of the Cora Mae Basnight Bridge has been a long-standing rite of passage for local young people on Roanoke Island, including myself,” said Dickerson. “I’ll be ready, camera in hand when it’s my son’s first time to jump!”

But it’s not just kids participating. On a summer night, you can find a group of Poor Richards patrons out for a late-night jump. And the new summer concert series brought to Roanoke Island Festival Park by Vusic OBX got concertgoers involved last summer as they jumped off the bridge fully clothed at the end of the shows.

“We think it’s super cool that people can add that to their concert experience memory bank,” said Rebecca Meyers, who operates Vusic OBX with her husband Brad. The Vusic OBX crew “actually made a pact last year that after our last show of the season we would jump off together. We did it and it was a super fun and wild way to celebrate our hard work all summer…We hope people continue the tradition safely and don’t forget to empty their pockets!”

Even Manteo High School teachers are getting in on the action, according to Mike Phelan, who teaches at the school.

“When I started teaching at MHS,” he said, “I convinced the other new teachers to jump off the downtown bridge by telling them it would give them street rep with the students.”



Comments

  • WindyBill

    Thanks for reminding me that there are still Great reasons to live here!

    Monday, Jun 12 @ 10:00 am
  • Just a mom

    Awesome story!
    I am glad kids and adults in Manteo still get to enjoy this tradition! Such a cool thing to carry on!

    Monday, Jun 12 @ 1:51 pm
  • Mary Ellen Riddle

    I enjoyed your nostalgic article, Maggie Miles. Thanks for the memories!

    Tuesday, Jun 13 @ 6:27 am