Assateague Island
Administrative History
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Chapter I:

Private Subdivision and Development, 1950—1962

The passing of Assateague's congressional champion coincided with a major new push for private development of the island. A group of Baltimore and Washington investors headed by Leon Ackerman acquired 15 miles of the ocean side of Assateague north of the Virginia line. In February 1950 they commissioned Robert C. Walker, an engineering consultant, to survey, subdivide, and plat the area for recordation. [8] Ackerman paved a road—"Baltimore Boulevard"—down the island, erected numbered street signs for the unbuilt lateral streets, and inaugurated a major sales campaign with full—page advertisements in the metropolitan papers for his development, named Ocean Beach. The promoters ferried prospective buyers from South Point at the tip of Sinepuxent Neck on the mainland to Assateague, where they were enticed to purchase residential and commercial lots at prices from $1,250 to $8,500 (as of September 1954). The opening of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in 1955, easing access to the Eastern Shore from the Baltimore and Washington metropolitan areas, proved a boon to the venture. Visions of seaside vacation retreats and expectations of speculative profits from resale led some 3,200 parties to acquire 5,850 lots at Ocean Beach by the early 1960s, although fewer than 30 dwellings were constructed. [9]

street sign
Remnants of Leon Ackerman's Ocean Beach subdivision on Assateague, c. 1965.

As it had done 20 years earlier, the National Park Service undertook another survey of potential national seashores along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Among the 126 areas considered was Assateague. The survey report, issued in 1955 after an 18—month study funded by the Mellon Foundation, described the Maryland portion of the island as "the site of one of the largest seashore developments along the Atlantic coast." It concluded that "the advanced stages of real estate development appear to preclude the possibility of this area being set aside for public recreational use," while suggesting that the Virginia portion had potential for recreation compatible with its status as a wildlife refuge. [10]

In 1957 Atlantic Ocean Estates, Inc., acquired much of the northern end of Assateague from the Delaware Mortgage Company and subdivided it into 1,740 lots. An intensive sales promotion featured radio broadcasts in which listeners were offered "down payments" of up to $1,000 if they could identify familiar "mystery tunes" like "You Are My Sunshine" and "The Missouri Waltz." Many sales followed, although there was no legal access to the subdivision across the private 671—acre McCabe tract to the south, no streets or utilities were ever installed, no lot was ever improved, and the rapid westward migration of that end of the island—frequently overwashed by the ocean—resulted in the permanent inundation of many tracts, which quite literally became "Atlantic Ocean Estates." (John T. Moton, the principal of this operation, was jailed in the unrelated Maryland savings land loan scandal of 1962.) [11]

During and after the early Federal interest in a national seashore encompassing Assateague, the state of Maryland found the island worthy of consideration for a state park. State planners proposed such a park on Assateague in 1940 and again in 1952, each time without result. Then in 1956 Leon Ackerman's North Ocean Beach, Inc., donated its interest in 540 Assateague acres to the state. [12] The donation was not entirely altruistic. Those with a financial stake in the island wanted nothing more than a bridge link to the mainland, for ease of access and for the increase in property values that would surely follow. The landowners and other interested private investors attempted to finance and build their own bridge, but this venture got no further than the construction of a causeway stub out from the bay side of the island. A bridge built by the state would solve the problem. To justify such a public expenditure, there had to be a comparable public interest on Assateague—ergo, the contribution of land for the state park.

The Maryland Board of Public Works accepted the donation, following which the Maryland General Assembly authorized establishment of the Assateague State Park and appropriated $750,000 for additional land. The private Assateague interests were repaid when the General Assembly authorized construction of a bridge to the island park in 1961 and appropriated 1,500,000 for the purpose the following year. (The bridge and its approaches ultimately cost the state $1,709,026.) [13]

Just as prospects looked brightest for the island's landowners, a storm on March 6, 1962, devastated Assateague. The protective dunes were severed in many places, and high winds and water destroyed all but the sturdiest structures. Only about 16 cottages, 17 gun clubs, and a few other buildings remained in the Maryland portion, many of them older structures on the relatively sheltered bay side outside the Ocean Beach subdivision. [14] The road down the island was variously washed out and buried. The suitability of the shifting barrier reef for private development, always a matter of doubt, was called much more widely into question.

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Last Updated: 27-Oct-2003