Assateague Island
Administrative History
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Chapter VIII:

Thus was stated the primary purpose of Assateague Island National Seashore in its 1965 authorizing legislation. In this rather amorphous chapter, encompassing some of the major visitor pursuits and those park functions aimed at serving and regulating them, we touch upon what the seashore is most about. We shall pass over swimming and sunbathing, most popular of all but undemanding of more than routine management supervision, and go to selected activities that have particularly occupied Assateague's administrators.


The first Park Service facility at the seashore for informing visitors what they might enjoy there was the small geodesic dome in the traffic circle at the Virginia end approach, opened July 3, 1966. A temporary information booth at the Maryland end went into service July 13. The dome remained as a visitor information station through the summer of 1968, when its function was assumed by a larger dome at the Virginia beach (Chapter VI). The booth in Maryland was superseded by the headquarters visitor center, which opened in July 1967. [1]

Following a joint interpretive planning conference at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in November 1968, the Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife and the National Park Service prepared interpretive prospectuses focusing on their respective Assateague interests. The NPS prospectus, prepared by Supervisory Staff Curator Raymond S. Price of the Harpers Ferry Museum Support Group, was approved in June 1969. "The interpretive program, constructed around the theme of environmental awareness, will develop the dependence of the barrier island and the recreational environment on outside influences," it proclaimed in the idiom of the incipient environmental education movement. The program objectives would be to provide information on recreational resources and activities; to interpret Assateague's natural history, emphasizing man's role in its conservation; and to interpret Assateague's human history, emphasizing man's inability to establish himself permanently on the changing island. [2]

Proposed interpretive media included a mobile interpretive facility (a four—wheel—drive vehicle mounting a rear—projection screen and other equipment) and cartoon signs featuring Charles Schultz's "Peanuts" characters warning people to avoid damaging the dunes. Commenting on the prospectus before its approval, Superintendent Bertrum C. Roberts questioned the mobile interpretive device as possibly "'force feeding' the city visitor with a media he may well be trying to get away from." [3]

Still containing the mobile facility and references to the proposed connecting road down the island, the prospectus was en route to the printer in March 1973 when Superintendent Thomas F. Norris, Jr., had it shelved. "Many aspects of the current prospectus are based on proposals and development schedules which have been eliminated or tend to suggest themselves as being 'ripe for elimination' in light of recent NEPA guide lines and current environmental thinking," he wrote his regional director. Five years later, describing the Price prospectus as "invalid," Norris reported that a new interpretive prospectus would be undertaken as the Assateague general management plan and the Harpers Ferry Center five—year interpretive planning program were put in final form. [4]

The first interpretive beachwalks and campfire programs were offered on both ends of the island in 1969. In 1970—71 a more varied interpretive program included evening programs in a screened amphitheater (to keep out the biting insects) at Toms Cove. Evening programs in Maryland were held in the headquarters visitor center. New exhibits were installed at the headquarters center in 1973, followed by a saltwater aquarium in 1975. In 1974 "numerous marsh and clam walks" were underway, and popular interpretive canoe trips were inaugurated in the North Beach marshes with 10 donated aluminum canoes. [5]

A wooden platform overlooking Toms Cove was completed in June 1975, and five large "metal photos" depicting historic scenes of the area were installed on its railings. In 1976—77 the Service constructed a 3/4—mile nature trail through the adjoining marsh, complementing the similar Candleberry Trail constructed in 1973 in Maryland. [6] Eastern National Parks and Monuments Association, which had established a sales agency at Assateague in 1969, provided funds for 750 feet of boardwalking along the Toms Cove trail. Interpretive Specialist Sandra K. Hellickson prepared a guide booklet for the Virginia trail and Chief of Interpretation Larry G. Points wrote the Candleberry Trail guide.

As part of a five—year plan to upgrade interpretation at Assateague, NPS interpretive planners at Harpers Ferry Center again raised the idea of a mobile interpretive van in 1978. Superintendent Norris shared his predecessor's resistance to the proposal:

Our years of experience have shown us that the great majority of day—use visitors are here for sun, sand, and surf. Through our handouts and bulletin boards, these people are aware of our interpretive offerings. Some of them participate, but most are not here for that kind of thing and we force nothing upon them. To assume that these people will utilize the van in numbers enough to justify the expense is a considerable gamble. [7]

The van proposal was dropped, but other components of the five—year plan were implemented. They included the film "A Very Special Place," which the staff released in an official premiere in February 1981; a new information desk and other modifications completed in October 1981 in the headquarters visitor center; exhibits for the Toms Cove visitor center, installed in July 1982; and a wayside exhibit plan still in progress at this writing.

The Harpers Ferry Center's Division of Publications produced a 176-page illustrated handbook on Assateague in 1980. Because its map appeared to show Toms Cove Hook as belonging to the National Park Service rather than to Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, Refuge Manager J. C. Appel refused to allow the publication to be sold in the refuge, including the Toms Cove NPS visitor center. The NPS regional office appealed Appel's prohibition to the Fish and Wildlife Service regional office, which over ruled the refuge manager on the issue. [8]


The first Service campground at Assateague was delineated in the inner dune area of North Beach in 1968. Because it lacked designated sites, there was no easy way to prevent overcrowding. It was replaced by a 126—site campground with fees in 1970, at which time three campsites for backpackers accommodating up to 20 hikers each were designated along the beach. [9] One was at Toms Cove Hook, where a youth group camping area was also established.

"While there is clamor for more public campgrounds on the island in the Maryland section," Superintendent Roberts wrote Senator Charles McC. Mathias, Jr., of Maryland in 1971, "we have concluded that to attempt to meet such a demand will destroy this resource." He described the Service policy of limiting crowding by designating campsites and noted that private campground on Chincoteague Island were meeting the demand in Virginia. "It is more difficult to establish this posture in Maryland," he declared, "because the Assateague State Park policy is to accommodate campers in spite of impact on the resource." [10]

The popularity of the interpretive canoe trips led the seashore to establish a bayside canoe—in camping system in 1976.

VIP Visitors

A select segment of the public got special treatment during the early years of the national seashore. As improved properties were acquired in Maryland, several formerly private dwellings became available for Service use. Two of these, the Bradley house and the Riden house, were reserved for vacationing members of Congress and ranking Government officials.

The Bradley house was occupied during 1967 and 1968 by a succession of distinguished personages, including Undersecretary of the Interior Charles F. Luce, Senator Henry M. Jackson, Representative Jerome R. Waldie, Ben Wattenberg, and H. Barefoot Sanders, Counsel to the President. During this period Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall and his family regularly stayed in the Riden house. After Udall left office in 1969, the Bradley house was converted to seasonal park employee quarters, and the Riden house assumed the function of accommodating other visiting VIPs. [11]

Although these guests put an extra burden on the seashore staff, Superintendents Roberts and Norris viewed the high—level contacts they made as valuable in furthering park aims. Roberts held several strategy sessions with Udall while the Secretary was in residence. Members of the congressional Interior committees who had gained a personal appreciation of Assateague were more inclined to be sympathetic when the park needed its appropriations ceiling for land acquisition raised. Representative Joe Skubitz of the House Interior committee got acquainted with the problems caused by off—road vehicles and became supportive of Service efforts to control their use. [12]

The VIP accommodations were phased out in the mid—1970s after adverse publicity in Jack Anderson's syndicated newspaper column and elsewhere. Assateague was one of several units of the National Park System accused of showing such undemocratic favoritism. Although the visiting officials had been charged for their accommodations, the rates were extremely low, and the Service found it difficult to publicly defend the practice of catering to those responsible for overseeing its functions. Like the Bradley house, the Riden house was turned over to park employees. Assateague's highest—ranking visitor ever was President Richard M. Nixon. The President arrived on the seashore headquarters lawn by helicopter on August 4, 1972 for a weekend at the beach house of Thomas B. McCabe, board chairman of the Scott Paper Company and a wealthy Republican supporter. (McCabe's property had been acquired by the Government in 1969 but he retained occupancy rights.) Nixon's retinue included Charles G. (Bebe) Rebozo, Robert Abplanalp, and John N. Mitchell, then running his reelection campaign. [13]

The Thomas B. McCabe house, north of Assateague State Park, Maryland, c. 1964. Occupied by President Richard M. Nixon Aug. 4-6, 1972. Protective dune line, foreground, reconstructed 1982 where vehicle located.

The presidential visit required extensive preparations and heavy logistical support. A U. S. Park Police detail was called in to help the Secret Service secure the perimeter of the McCabe property, and the park headquarters was largely taken over for communications purposes. The seashore staff obtained at least some lasting benefit from the disruption, however. Previously the park had experienced difficulty getting the oversand vehicles it needed for management purposes. Just before the President's arrival, five new four—wheel—drive vehicles magically appeared, and they remained at the seashore thereafter. Among them was a large van that was put to use shuttling lesser VIPs to the Riden house. [14]

Visitor Fees

The Chincoteague—Assateague Bridge and Beach Authority had collected a toll at its bridge for public entry to its facilities at Toms Cove Hook beginning in 1962. The Park Service acquired the Authority's interests in October 1966 and with the Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife (BSFW)continued entrance fee collection at the Virginia bridge in May 1967. Initially revenues were credited to both bureaus equally, but following a solicitor's opinion assigning primacy to the wildlife refuge, BSFW assumed acountability for all income in July. (Under the Refuge Revenue Sharing Act, 25 percent of the collections went to Accomack County.) Fee collection was suspended in the summer of 1970 after Congress failed to renew legal authorization for the activity, but it was resumed in 1971. [15]

An entrance fee (as opposed to the user fee first charged for camping in 1970) was collected at the Maryland portion of the seashore beginning in 1971. Part of its justification was uniformity, to preclude Virginia complaints of unequal treatment. The balance was threatened in 1973, when implementation of Public Law 92—347 amending the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act prevented BSFW from collecting entrance fees for refuge recreational facilities. Again opining that BSFW had primary jurisdiction over the entire Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, including Toms Cove Hook, the Interior Solicitor's Office ruled out entrance fees there. Uniformity was maintained by dropping the Maryland fee as well. Through a legislative error, authority for camping fees also ceased in August 1973. Maryland seashore campers overstayed, NPS rangers found time limits difficult to enforce, and public complaints ensued. [16]

Camping fees were restored in 1974, and a $1—per—vehicle user fee for the Maryland developed area was established in lieu of the former entrance fee—a distinction surely lost on the public. The following year the Service approached Representative Thomas N. Downing of Virginia with a legislative proposal to authorize an equivalent entrance fee at the south end; Downing was firmly opposed, and the Service retreated. [17]

Still seeking to right the balance, the Service instituted a user fee in the summer of 1977 at Toms Cove Hook. It was charged for occupants of cars only during the peak seven—hour period of the day. Responding to objections from the Chincoteague town manager, Secretary of the Interior Cecil D. Andrus stated that the fee was only for use of the beach facilities, that it would insure equal treatment for seashore users in Maryland and Virginia, and that it would encourage more pedestrian and bicycle travel to the beach from Chincoteague campgrounds and motels, thereby reducing automobile traffic. [18]

The Virginia user fee survived until 1979. It was abandoned after Cleveland F. Pinnix, consultant to the House Subcommittee on National Parks, and Sharon Allender of the Solicitor's Office successfully contended that the facilities at Toms Cove did not meet the criteria required for fee collection. That being the case, the charge was a de facto entrance fee and thus unlawful within the bounds of the wildlife refuge. [19]

Once again the balance was destroyed as only Maryland beachgoers were charged. Abandoning efforts to regain uniform fees, Superintendent Richard S. Tousley discontinued the Maryland user fee in June 1981. Tousley's s successor, Michael V. Finley, was behind the move as Tousley's assistant and firmly supported the no—fee policy, assuring its continuation for the foreseeable future. [20]


The Chincoteague—Assateague Bridge and Beach Authority, operating under a Government lease in Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, in turn assigned responsibility for beach facilities at Toms Cove to a concessioner, the Assateague Beach Corporation (ABC). Beginning in 1962, ABC built and operated a bathhouse, restaurant, and other public use development at the beach end of the Authority's access road. Before acquiring the interests of the Authority in October 1966, the Service requested a legal opinion as to the continuing rights of ABC. The Solicitor's Office concluded that the Interior Department would supplant the Authority in its contractual role with ABC and would be bound to perform the contract unless ABC were willing to terminate or renegotiate it. [21]

In its first years of seashore operation, the Service was dissatisfied with the performance of its inherited concessioner, whose facilities and standards it judged deplorable (Chapter VI). Superintendent Roberts approached the management of the Authority, which still existed pending final payment of its outstanding obligations. The Authority cooperated by expressing the view that its intent in the concession contract did not entail any Federal obligation to ABC. On this basis the Solicitor's Office reversed its opinion. [22]

Roberts informed Louis J. Steacker, ABC's principal, of the latest legal opinion in June 1970 and notified him that his contract would terminate with the impending dissolution of the Authority. The relationship was finally severed three years later, concluding food service at Toms Cove; ABC's other functions were absorbed by NPS. ABC thereupon filed suit in the U.S. Court of Claims for recovery of approximately $1 million in damages. A hearing was held in October 1974, at which the Government conceded liability for breach of contract and damages of $100,000. In December 1975 the judge recommended an award of $114,408. [23] ABC did not deal.

Public Transportation

Public transportation to and on Assateague was a favorite theme of those advocating elimination or restriction of private automobile access. The master plan team briefly considered public transportation in 1967 but rejected it as infeasible. The Morris plan for Assateague sponsored by the National Parks Association the following year would have banned automobiles and conveyed all visitors by bus (Chapter III). The Service regarded the automobile ban as inconsistent with its legal mandates and judged that buses would be insufficiently patronized to justify their expense.

A limited form of public transportation was tried on Toms Cove Hook in 1970 and 1971. A "sand tram" consisting of a tractor with sand tires pulling modified farm trailers ran along the beach between the parking area and the vicinity of the Coast Guard station in an attempt to disperse the crowds. The Toms Cove concessioner operated the tram, charging adults a dollar and children 50 cents. Superintendent Norris found its use by only 2,208 visitors in 1970 disappointing and judged the efforts at interpretation en route "only moderately successful." [24] Extension of the automobile road down the hook in 1971 helped discourage greater use of the sand tram that year, and the venture was abandoned thereafter.

In June 1976 a contract transportation study was completed by Vollmer Associates of New York. Because the Maryland end of Assateague was considered to have no significant traffic problems, the study focused on the Virginia end where cars sometimes backed up into the town of Chincoteague on peak summer weekends. The contractor was asked to evaluate the feasibility of a bus system from Chincoteague to the beach.

Vollmer recommended transporting people from and to the major lodging concentrations and campgrounds via reconditioned British double—decker buses for public appeal. Seashore staff were not impressed, believing that beach—goers with all their gear would be unlikely to foresake their cars unless automobile access were much restricted. Regional Director Chester L. Brooks expressed concern about high maintenance and repair costs of the British buses and handicapped access to their upper decks. His preference was for "elephant trains" for their economy and expandability to meet varying needs. Donald Benson of the Denver Service Center called the proposed buses "a bit 'Mother Goosey'!!" The Vollmer plan was not implemented. [25]

In its 1982 General Management Plan for Assateague, the Service pledged itself to "encourage the development of a privately operated shuttle bus service from the town of Chincoteague." There was little expectation that such service would be forthcoming soon.

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Last Updated: 27-Oct-2003