Assateague Island became dedicated as a National Seashore on September 21, 1965, but its rich history and culture begins long before.
At one time Assateague was not an island, but rather was connected to the popular Fenwick Island. A storm in August of 1933 ripped through the long island opening an inlet between the southern end of Ocean City and the new Assateague. Taking advantage of this new opening, the inlet was fortified to keep it open, allowing passage from the ocean to the bay. To this day you can stand on the tip of either island and view the other from across the inlet.
Prior to this split of land, beginning in about the late 1850’s, there had been a few small but not permanent communities. Of these, the most notable were Green Run, located in the present day Maryland district, and Assateague Village, located in the present day Virginia district. The majority of residents in these small villages supported themselves working as watermen or for the United States Life-Saving Service. The USLSS was comprised of four stations on Assateague from 1875 until 1915. It was then combined with the Revenue Cutter Service to form the United States Coast Guard. The village of Green Run had a resort hotel which provided livelihood for many. Assateague Village located below the lighthouse, was the largest community on the island. In 1890 the county constructed a one-room school and hired a single teacher for grades one through six. This village was partially isolated and villagers were able to till ground for vegetables, and kept horses, sheep, hogs, chickens, and ducks. The population of the villages had declined by about 1922.
In the 1950’s, there were plans to create a resort town called “Ocean Beach”. This community was to have 15 miles of continuous beach with the entire area platted for housing, commercial zones, coastal highways, streets and parks. A second development was also located at the north end of the island. The pamphlet for the community proposed building sites 100 feet wide by 200 feet deep (about a ½ acre) all “at the average man’s pocket book”. The Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962 ripped through Assateague destroying existing structures and roads, making it obvious that the barrier island was too unstable to support permanent structures on its ever changing topography. The federal government then purchased the land. Although this community was never realized, Assateague still attracts over a million visitors each year who come to relax and recreate on its undeveloped beaches.
The Maryland side of Assateague and waters surrounding the entire island became a National Seashore on September 21, 1965 for the enjoyment of present and future generations. A two mile portion of the Maryland district is Assateague State Park (est. 1956). The National Park Service was able to include the entire island and surrounding waters as a National Seashore through funding and building a bridge. The bridge connected the preexisting Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge (est. 1943) which is located in the Virginia district, to Chincoteague Island and its communities. No longer would people rely on boats to visit the undeveloped beaches and its wildlife.
Additionally, the waters surrounding Assateague are valued by the aquaculture industry providing a livelihood for many in the surrounding area. Watermen “farm the water”; raising and harvesting clams and oysters. They mark their leased underwater grounds with poles to distinguish their private boundaries from public grounds. You may also notice structures over the water that look like small shacks on stilts. Those raised shacks from the past are watch houses where watermen would stay to keep watch over their harvest and store aquaculture equipment. Should a trespasser attempt to steal from a waterman they would likely be confronted. Surprisingly, due to small town populations watermen often knew their trespassers, or were even related to them!
Today, Assateague serves as a public land where visitors can come to relax, recreate and immerse themselves in the resource. Popular activities include walking the beach, swimming, surfing, wildlife viewing, birding, crabbing, fishing and kayaking. Over 1 million visitors come to Assateague each year, including the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge located in the Virginia district of Assateague Island.
Last updated: February 22, 2021