Assateague Island
Administrative History
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Chapter I:

The Island Becomes

Assateague Island in approximately its present configuration dates from 1933. Approximately, because the island has ever been characterized by change: most dramatically the apparent erosion of the north end during the past 50 years and the extensive accretion at its southern extremity for more than a century. Nineteen thirty—three, because a storm in that year defined the present (more or less) island via the cutting of Ocean City Inlet, which severed its contact with the mainland to the north. The resulting landform, comparable to those lining much of the nation's Atlantic coast, is a low strip of variously vegetated sand, now some 37 miles long and from one—quarter to 2—1/2 miles across, comprising about 19,000 acres. The northern 22 miles are in Maryland, the southern 15 lie in Virginia.

In the natural course of events the 1933 inlet, like others preceding it up and down the barrier formation, would have silted in from sand borne by the prevailing littoral drift southward along the coast. To keep it open for navigation between the Atlantic and the bays separating Ocean City and Assateague from the mainland, jetties were soon constructed into the ocean from the south tip of Ocean City and the north tip of Assateague. The jetties, in addition to keeping the drifting sand from clogging the inlet, impeded its natural progress onto the north coast of Assateague. This "starvation" of the littoral drift has resulted in a pronounced westward recession of the northern six miles of the island toward the mainland. To the south the unimpeded littoral drift has extended Assateague some six miles since the mid—19th century, forming Toms Cove Hook. With and without human intervention, Assateague has been and will continue to be a dynamic piece of real estate.

Despite their location adjacent to the megalopolis of the northeastern United States, Assateague and most of the Delmarva Peninsula to which it belongs long escaped the burgeoning urbanization of the region. The north portion of the future island was subdivided in 1890 by the Synepuxent Beach Company, and a second subdivision under the name South Ocean City occurred about 1920. [1] Existing only on paper, these prospective developments came to naught. The southward expansion of the incipient resort of Ocean City was effectively halted by the cutting of the inlet in 1933, which left Assateague accessible only by boat. Several small settlements farther south had declined to the point of disappearance by that time, leaving the island occupied primarily by personnel of four small Coast Guard stations and seasonal users of several hunting lodges.

Early Federal Interest, 1934—1949

Long a favorite locale for fishing, hunting, and bathing among regional residents, Assateague first came to national attention for such recreational pursuits in 1934. In that year the National Park Service of the Department of the Interior undertook a survey of lands along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts to identify those with potential to be acquired by the Federal Government and administered by the Service as national seashore recreational areas. Assateague Island and the adjacent mainland comprised one of 12 areas found to qualify for such status by virtue of their natural qualities, recreational values, and propinquity to major populations. (Cape Hatteras, the first area subsequently established as a national seashore, was another.) In September 1938 Service representatives Victor H. Cahalane, Harry T. Thompson, Merel Sager, and Wendell Little prepared a specific report to NPS Director Arno B. Cammerer on the seacoast between Rehoboth, Delaware, and Chincoteague Island, Virginia. A year later Park and Recreation Planning Consultant T. H. Desmond flew over the area and relayed his favorable findings to Conrad L. Wirth, then Supervisor of Recreation and Land Planning for the Service. "One excellent feature of the area," Wirth stated on the basis of these reports, "is that all human use may be concentrated in the northern section between Ocean City, Maryland, and Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.... The 34—mile strip between Ocean City and Fishing Point [the south end of Assateague ] could be preserved without any roads whatsoever." [2]

These explorations led Director Cammerer in April 1940 to recommend to Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes the "particular suitability of the Rehoboth—Assateague area for establishment as a national seashore." Ickes approved further investigation of the proposal. [3] On the legislative front, Representative Schuyler Otis Bland of Virginia cooperated by introducing H.R. 9718 in the 76th Congress on May 9, 1940, to provide for the establishment of a Rehoboth—Assateague National Seashore in Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. The bill called for Federal acquisition of up to 75,000 acres between Cape Henlopen, Delaware, and the south end of Assateague Island, one quarter of which could be on the mainland side of the bays and inlets west of the barrier islands. At least half the lands or funds for acquisition were to be donated from other than Federal sources. The towns of Rehoboth, Bethany Beach, Ocean City, and Chincoteague would be excluded from the national seashore.

Representative Bland introduced similar bills in the 77th, 78th, [4] 79th, and 80th Congresses, but the House took no action and no companion bills were introduced in the Senate. The Park Service continued to monitor the area. In July 1941 the prominent landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., accompanied by Ben H. Thompson, Chief, Land Planning Division, made a land and aerial survey of the proposed seashore. Olmsted's report selected stretches north of Ocean City as advantageous for seashore recreation and recommended a stabilization study for building up Assateague, which was low and subject to overwash in several places. Pursuing this recommendation, Field Supervisor A. Clark Stratton of the Region One Office and Senior Engineer E.F. Preece of the Washington Office studied the problem in the spring of 1942 and recommended beach protection measures similar to those undertaken by the Service at Cape Hatteras. [5]

The National Park Service was not the only Federal bureau interested in Assateague. On May 13, 1943, the Fish and Wildlife Service of the Department of the Interior established Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on the south end of the island. The refuge lands, acquired with funds from the sale of Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamps ("duck stamps") under the Migratory Bird Conservation Act of 1929, came to include virtually all of the Virginia portion of Assateague (more than 9,000 acres) and just over 400 acres near the state line in Maryland. During the next decade sand flats were diked and water control structures installed to create 11 freshwater impoundments covering more than 2,800 acres. Established primarily to support the migration of the greater snow goose, the refuge has come to be occupied or visited by over 275 species of birds and is one of the showplaces of the National Wildlife Refuge System.

Outflanked on the south and cognizant of insufficient political support for the 75,000—acre Rehoboth—Assateague proposal, the Park Service lowered its sights in 1947. Its "Supplemental Report on the Proposed Rehoboth—Assateague National Seashore" that July recommended acquisition of only 12,700 acres in Delaware and 7,300 in Maryland, the latter to include Maryland's portion of Assateague Island and land north of Ocean City. The fact that the state of Delaware owned much of the ocean frontage there and would presumably donate its holdings to the Federal Government was cited to justify the feasibility of the project. The report noted, however, that "the feeling of members of the Delaware State Park Commission toward this procedure was definitely not enthusiastic in August, 1940"—a situation that apparently held. [6] Representative Bland introduced a scaled—down Rehoboth—Assateague bill at the beginning of the 81st Congress in 1949, but it got no further than its predecessors. [7] Bland's death in office the following year ended legislative activity on the subject for more than a decade.

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Last Updated: 27-Oct-2003