The Eastern Shore of Virginia is a forgotten 70-mile-long strip of land between Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. Cut off from the rest of the state by busy waterways, this flat land remains rural in the face of modern urbanisation.
Where is the Eastern Shore?
The Eastern Shore sits at the southern tip of the Delmarva Peninsula. The peninsula (which consists of a small strip of Virginia, much of Maryland and almost all of Delaware) sits between the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean/Delaware Bay.
The land border between Virginia and Maryland starts on the west side of the peninsula on the 38th Parallel1 and runs roughly eastwards till it meets the Atlantic. The west point is roughly level with the Maryland-Virginia border in the middle of the Potomac River across the bay, and is said to be the point where Captain John Smith of Jamestown and Pocahontas fame landed to explore.
A number of reasons are given as to why the border veers slightly northwards. One is that there was confusion over the magnetic and geographic north. Another is that when delegations from the two states were working out the border, they started off marking out the trees along which the border ran. The Virginia delegate, a surveyor, had his eye on a bit of land near what is now Greenbackville. He suggested to the Maryland delegate that now they'd started the line he could finish off on his own. Unsupervised, the Virginia delegate changed the path of the border so he could get himself a waterfront estate.
History of the Eastern Shore
Originally settled by the Occahancock and Accomack Algonquins tribes, the first Europeans to explore the area were the French and the Spanish. Captain John Smith arrived from Jamestown in 1608 and claimed the area for the colony of Virginia. Smith also named an island after himself, for good measure.
The first European settlers arrived in 1620. With them came the first Africans to arrive in an English colony. Initially they were slaves, but were able to earn or purchase their freedom, and many settled on the Eastern Shore, forming the first African colony in America.
In 1634 Accomack County was formed, encompassing the whole of the Eastern Shore. In 1642 Governor William Berkeley renamed it Northampton in his attempt to get rid of 'heathen' names. Then, in 1663, the county was split, with Northampton in the south and Accomack in the north. Various legal wranglings with Berkeley meant that he disbanded Accomack in 1670, but it was reinstated a year afterwards.
Some of the villages along the coast formed strong relations with cities further up the East Coast, with steam boat services introduced. Chincoteague did so well selling seafood to New York that it left the Confederation during the civil war.
Life on the Eastern Shore
The Eastern Shore is divided up into two counties: Accomack in the north and Northampton in the south. The population is spread out in many small farming and fishing communities, with no large towns or cities on the peninsula.
Accomack is the larger of the two counties, though 65% of it is water. It has a land area of 1,179 sq km (455 sq miles) and a population of around 38,000. Its county seat is Accomac (renamed from Drummondtown in 1893). The largest town in Accomack is Chincoteague, which has a population of 4,000. Other major towns are Onancock with 1,500 residents and Parksley with 800.
Northampton County has a population of only around 13,000 and only 537 sq km (207 sq miles) of its 2,060 sq km (795 sq miles) is land. Its county seat is Eastville, which contains the oldest continuous county court records in the United States. Its largest towns are Cape Charles with about 1,100 people and Nassawadox with just under 600 people.
Geographically, the Eastern Shore is best described as flat. Views stretch for miles across farmland, interspersed with the occasional wood. The Atlantic coast consists of marshes and creeks behind a row of long, thin barrier islands which protect valuable wildlife habitat from the ravages of the ocean.
The Eastern Shore gives one a sense of being cut off from the rest of America. Washington D.C. is just over the bay, but it is a four or five hour drive away. Richmond, the state capital of Virginia, is about 380km (200 miles) away. Heading north out of Virginia, there is a large supermarket in Pocomoke City2. Salisbury, 50km (30 miles) further north has a long strip of large shops and a mall, and there is a collection of factory outlet shops by the holiday resort of Ocean City. Heading south across the bay you reach the massive Hampton Roads conurbation. The road from the Eastern Shore arrives in the tourist city of Virginia Beach and fairly near the naval base of Norfolk.
Working on the Eastern Shore
Most of the jobs along the Eastern Shore revolve around fishing and farming, and local crops include cotton and tomatoes. There are also a lot of chicken farms and a few chicken processing plants. Small fishing villages are dotted along both sides of the peninsula. The Eastern Shore is famed for its seafood, and its fresh oysters, prawns and crabs are sold all over the USA.
The tourist industry has been vital to the Eastern Shore for many years. In the early part of the 20th Century, places like Franklin City3 drew in crowds from the big cities. Today many people from Washington, Baltimore, New York and New Jersey are buying second homes in the area for weekend breaks.
The state government of the Commonwealth of Virginia has tried to encourage their struggling economy by decreasing taxes on tobacco. This means that along US Route 13 approaching the Maryland border are a multitude of shops selling cartons of cigarettes to take across the state line. There is even a huge, weather-beaten Indian 'Peace Token' sign on US Route 13, which is almost as amusing as the giant billboard nearby that asks you to believe that a local real estate agent was really born Randy Million.
The southern part of Northampton County is trying to make a name for itself as a commuter belt for the Hampton Roads conurbation across the bay.
The region has a population of 50,000. Of these, roughly 61% are white (with Accomack having a higher percentage of whites than Northampton), 35% are black and 5% Hispanic. Around 3% are of mixed ethnicity. There are also populations of Pacific Islanders, Native Americans and South Asians.
Average incomes on the Eastern Shore are fairly low. The average household brings in around $30,000 a year and 18% of the population live below the poverty line.
24% of the population are under 18, 8% are between 18 and 24, 26% are between 24 and 44, 25% are between 45 and 64 and 18% are above 65 years old. Males make up 48% of the population.
How to Get Around the Eastern Shore
US Route 13 runs the entire length of the Eastern Shore. It comes south through Delaware and Maryland and then runs south through the Shore and over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel into Virginia Beach and on to North Carolina.
The opening of the Bridge Tunnel (see below) has meant that US Route 13 has become a viable short cut for people travelling from New York, Philadelphia and New England, to avoid them having to trek around the Washington and Baltimore beltways. Drivers from New Jersey and New York can also use the Lewis-Cape May ferry to cross the Delaware Bay and follow US Route 113 south to US Route 13. These shortcuts mean that more heavy traffic is using US Route 13. Tourists may chose to take one of the back roads that run roughly parallel to US Route 13 to see some of the little towns of the region and avoid being run over by chicken lorries or tailgated by pick-ups or SUVs.
There are a couple of primary Virginia State Highways, most notably the one to Chincoteague, but generally all the roads are high numbered back roads.
The Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel
Regarded by some as a wonder of the industrial world, this 37-kilometre (23-mile) -long bridge complex joins the Eastern Shore to the rest of Virginia. Before this opened in 1964, the only ways off the Delmarva peninsula were by ferry or by driving up to the north end of the bay.
With 28km (17 miles) of water to cross, any structure would be impressive, but the engineers of the bridge complex also had to cope with one of the busiest shipping routes in the country. As well as serving the busy ports of Baltimore and Newport News, the stretch of water has to allow access to the US Navy's Atlantic Fleet. The prospect of building a bridge high enough to allow a nuclear aircraft carrier to pass underneath, and which can also withstand the punishments dealt out by the ocean and Atlantic hurricanes, was pretty daunting.
20km (12 miles) of the bridge complex consists of two parallel double-lane trestle bridges which run out 10 metres above the water of the bay. When the complex was opened there was only one trestle built, but a second was built in the 1970s to improve capacity and offer some redundancy. High level bridges cross two of the shipping channels, while the two busiest shipping channels are not bridged; they are tunnelled. Two mile-long tunnels were built, one crossing under Thimble Shoal Channel (the shipping channel for Hampton Roads) and the other going under Chesapeake Channel (the shipping route for routes into the bay). Both tunnels are two-way, and although plans have been suggested for parallel tunnels, nothing has yet been confirmed.
Each tunnel runs between two football field-sized man-made islands. One of the islands contains a visitor centre, a café and a fishing pier. The bridge complex is patrolled by its own police force who amuse themselves by tailgating cars to try to get them to break the strict speed limits. Signs above the tunnels say that speeds are monitored by aircraft, though it is difficult to imagine a helicopter fitting into the tunnel along with two lanes of traffic!
The Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel (or to use its official name, the Lucius J. Kellam Jr. Bridge-Tunnel) was built without using a cent of public money. There is a toll charged of $12 a trip - the most expensive toll in the county - although if you return within 24 hours it only costs $5 for the return journey.
Other Methods of Transport
Without a car, you will suffer trying to get around the Eastern Shore, although as long as you stay off US Route-13, the flat terrain makes it ideal for cycling. Many local bikes have fixed wheels and no brakes.
There is a train line running from Pocomoke City to Cape Charles, but this does not necessarily mean you will be able to catch a train anywhere. The 150km (96 mile) -long line, which is almost dead straight, used to be part of the Norfolk and Southern railway but then became the Eastern Shore Railroad and finally, in 2006, the Bay Coast Railroad. There are no passenger trains, though the occasional train takes freight from the Norfolk and Southern railway in Pocomoke to Cape Charles. There it is loaded straight onto a barge and towed across the mouth of the bay to Little Creek, from where it can be shunted back onto the Norfolk and Southern again. The two barges have a capacity of 15 and 25 cars respectively. They have been operating since 1885 and are the last remaining 'car floats' in the country.
Carolina Trailways run a coach service as part of the Greyhound network. It runs from North Carolina, through Norfolk and up the US Route 13 through the Eastern Shore, and then on to New York via Salisbury, Dover and Wilmington.
There is one tiny regional airport near Accomac, but it has no scheduled flights. Slightly further out, Salisbury-Ocean City Airport4 has some internal flights. Norfolk International Airport is a fair bit larger. Major international airports nearby5 are Philadelphia and the two International Washington Airports.
Things to See
While there are few things that would draw a regular package holiday family to the region, there is much to see for those who want a holiday at a more laid back pace.
With lots of hotels and motels, Chincoteague is probably the major tourist centre of Virginia's Eastern Shore. It is situated off the Atlantic Coast, at the Northern end of the Shore, and is reached along Virginia Highway 175 which joins US Route 13 at the famous (or so they claim) T's Corner6. The road crosses a four-mile causeway across marshes, creeks, and water channels before entering the island over a swing bridge.
Chincoteague is a major fishing centre and also has the Oyster and Maritime Museum and the Refuge Waterfowl Museum. The bridge gives the boats access to many of the fishing grounds that are sheltered by the barrier islands, though visitors should note that the bridge opens on the hour and the process of opening and closing can take about ten minutes. It is not unheard of for the bridge to stick open and strand people on the island.
A lot of Chincoteague's tourist trade is based around Assateague Island. Assateague is a long barrier island that stretches well into Maryland. It is home to the Chincoteague7 National Wildlife Reserve. The area is home to bald eagles, deer, elk, various seabirds, reptiles and sea creatures. It is also home to the rare Delmarva Peninsula Fox Squirrel.
The most famous residents of the island, however, are the Chincoteague ponies. Legend says that they swam ashore from a wrecked Spanish galleon, but they may have just belonged to local farmers who wanted to let them graze where the farmers didn't have to pay tax. The ponies were made famous in the book Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry. Every summer, the local firemen swim the herd from Assateague to Chincoteague and auction off some of the stock. This allows them to maintain the herd and raise funds for the fire service. It is also is the biggest tourist event of the year.
A visit to Assateague should include a trip to the lighthouse. Due to the nature of the island (which is basically sand that gets shifted by the tides), what was once a lighthouse on the coast is now over a mile from the ocean. On certain days of the week, some trails are closed to allow hunting trips. Assateague also has its own visitors' centre.
Goddard's Flight Centre and Wallops Island
Just before the causeway to Chincoteague is one of the oldest of NASA's bases. This is the control centre for NASA's sounding rocket8 programs, with some of the rockets being launched from nearby Wallops Island. Weather research is also carried out here. The visitor centre is open most days and the base also holds the occasional open day, allowing visitors to explore the base and hear talks on the science behind the operation.
Being relatively rural and isolated, the Eastern Shore has plenty of variety in its fauna. Deer still run wild through most of the area. The most visible bird is the turkey vulture, which soars across the sky looking for roadkill. It gets its name because its head looks like that of a turkey. Given that the turkey is possibly the only bird that would lose a beauty contest to the average vulture, the turkey vulture must be one of the least attractive winged creatures in the country. It is not uncommon to see dozens of these big beasts circling or scanning the landscape.
The Eastern Shore has a number of wildlife reserves. The biggest one is Assateague, but there are others, including one at Cape Charles.
Other Places to Visit
Many of the small fishing communities of the Eastern Shore are very picturesque and well worth a visit.
The Bay Islands, namely Tangier Island and Smith Island, are part of the Eastern Shore of Virginia and can be reached by boat from Onancock and Crisfield in Maryland.
Museums and Historical Buildings
Museums and historical buildings of interest include:
- Eastern Shore Railway Museum in Parksley
- Barrier Island Center near Eastville
- The oldest continuous county court records in the United States in Eastville
- Cape Charles Museum
- Ker Place in Onancock
- Eyre Hall Gardens near Eastville
Other Interesting Information
Native American Names
Many places on the Eastern Shore still retain their original Native American names. These are a few of them, with their meanings:
- Accomack - Across the Water Place
- Assateague - Swiftly Moving Water
- Assawoman - Rock Cave
- Chincoteague - Beautiful Land Across Water
- Onancock - Foggy Place
- Pungoteague - Sand Fly River
- Wachapreague - Little City by the Sea
While the Commonwealth of Virginia has a long list of illustrious sons and daughters, the Eastern Shore isn't quite as blessed. Here are some of the biggest names from the Shore:
- Arthur 'Big Boy' Crudup
- Francis Makemie
The numerous inlets and channels on the Eastern Shore, especially on the Atlantic Coast, meant that many smugglers and privateers used the area. Edward Teach, the pirate known as 'Blackbeard', was a visitor to Chesapeake Bay. He used a cove on Smith Island - still known as Blackbeard Cove - to make repairs to his boat.
Arthur Crudup was a Mississippi delta resident who started to play the blues in his thirties. He arrived in Chicago in 1939 and eventually got onto the roster of RCA via publisher, Lester Melrose. His hits included 'My Baby Left Me' and 'Rock Me Mama'. 1946 saw him release 'That's All Right Mama'. As was typical of bluesmen of that time, Crudup saw almost none of the royalties from his records and retired to Nassawadox in the Eastern Shore to start farming again.
In 1947 Marguerite Henry wrote a children's book called Misty of Chincoteague about a Chincoteague family and their Assateague-born pony, Misty. Featuring real Chincoteague characters (human and equine), this book and its sequels brought the ponies to national attention. Due to the limited breeding stock on Assateague, many of the current ponies are descended from Misty.
Francis Makemie was an Irish clergyman who founded the Presbyterian Church in the United States, after being sent to America as a missionary in 1683. He spent the last years of his life in Virginia's Eastern Shore. He died in 1708, and there is a memorial to him near Sanford in the North West of Accomack.