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Assateague Island National Seashore: Land of constant change, remarkable history, and wild horses

Jul 07, 2017 10:55AM ● By Cate Reynolds
By Ellen Moyer

“They that go down to the sea in ships…see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep. For he…raiseth the stormy wind, which lifteth up the waves…They mount up to the heavens, they go down to the depths…he maketh the storm a calm…”

— Excerpts from Psalm 107

On September 21st, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the creation of a new National Park, Assateague Island National Seashore; an island built on wind and wave along Maryland and Virginia’s East Coast. “We live in a century of change, we must leave (for future generations) the world as God really made it…What the Good Lord gave in abundance have now become rare possessions…Clear water, warm sandy beaches are a nation’s real treasure,” he said.

Indeed, journey down to the seashore and experience personal change. Just gazing across the immense span of water promotes a comfortable solitude that slows us down from the frantic life of urban living. The waves sing music to our ears…sometimes thundering, sometimes gentle. Crystals of sand, a collage of pebbles and shells, sandpipers racing the incoming water, and views to the horizon touch our soul and connect us to a world that has always been and will be forever more. Yet as sea levels rise and storms intensify, a different landscape than we see today may emerge. It has in the past.

Barrier islands are narrow sand spits formed by wind and waves and, therefore, ever changing. There are 2,200 barrier islands along ocean fronts around the globe and the most, 405, are in the United States extending along the East Coast from Maine to the Gulf of Mexico. Assateague, at 37 miles, is one of the longest undeveloped shorelines on the East Coast. It is recognized by the United Nations as an International Biosphere Reserve.

A barrier island designation has three requirements: a long shallow sloping shore to the continental shelf, a stable sea level, and plenty of sand. Of that, the East Coast has abundance. Four hundred eighty million years ago, colliding land masses pushed up the Appalachian Mountains, some say, as high as the Himalayas. Wind and water eroded these giants of sedimentary stone to the 3,000-feet foothills you see today. Sand we have aplenty for the ocean waves to scour and push about and drop when its energy wears out. A beach forms and the wind piles up sand dunes, behind which is a meadow and a salt marsh facing a shallow bay that laps up on the mainland beyond. Barrier islands are nature’s gift to the mainland. They protect it from the harsh storms rolling off the ocean. The salt marsh provides homes and birthplaces for birds and fish that might otherwise be extinct.

Assateague Island is a barrier island formed after the last ice age. It has been moving westward and changing its landscape and flora for thousands of years, a dynamic that will continue as sea level rises in the 21st century. It has risen 1.8 feet in the last 100 years and is now on a faster pace to double that in the next 25.
In response to my query about the expected future effect of sea level rise on this National Seashore, National Park Science Staff Kelly Taylor remarked, “This is a land of change in small ways and big ways. We could be slammed in a big way by the next storm. In fact, that is the circumstance that gave birth to this National Park.” Taylor grew up in Crisfield, Maryland. She knows the territory and the dynamic nature of land near the immense ocean.

This National Park Service is among the first to analyze expected sea level changes. What is already known is that improving the ecological health of natural areas improves resiliency to habitat change. With a program called “Adapt, Restore, and Protect:” parking areas are now made of crushed clam shells that reduce storm water runoff; new park structures are being designed to be moved; camping areas are moved back from the moving dunes; phragmites are being removed to reduce Bay-side erosion; and off-limit areas are marked to protect federally threatened species. The final report detailing the next steps to be taken is due this year.

In 1935, the National Park Service recommended a National Seashore Park. Congress ignored the request and so in the 1950s investors led by Leon Ackerman of Baltimore acquired 15 miles of Assateague ocean front to build a new paradise of low-rise family homes called Ocean Beach. A connecting ocean-front road was built and 6,000 building sites were established and sold. Ocean Beach was on its way to rival Ocean City.

And then, in 1962, came a slammer, “The Ash Wednesday Hurricane.” For five days, the storm stalled over the Atlantic Coast sending 25- to 40-foot waves crashing over the island. Wildlife, fox, deer, and ponies retreated to the two-mile widest and highest part of the island, crowned by ponderosa pine. Along the ocean front, however, houses slipped into the sea like sand castles and the connecting roads were gone. Ocean Beach existed on paper but nowhere else. Investors deemed the island too fragile to pursue development. Four hundred eighty acres were given to the State of Maryland for a State Park with a guarantee of a bridge to connect the mainland to the island. In 1965, Congress approved the NPS 30-year request for an Atlantic Coast National Park. The Ash Wednesday calamity gave birth to Assateague Island National Seashore, a preserved natural habitat available within a day’s drive of 20 percent of the nation’s population. President Johnson declared this the beginning of a new age of conservation for the nation’s scenic and natural resources.

Few barrier islands are undeveloped. Ocean City and Atlantic City are urban enclaves built on barrier islands. Maintaining their life is about maintaining their shore line. Park Ranger Nick Clemons remembers when 1,000 tires washed up on the shore after a big storm in 2009. They were part of an artificial reef created off Ocean City in the 1970s to capture sand.

Before the protected National Seashore Park, the narrow sand spit peninsula shared its space with a variety of people. Since the early 1800s, Assateague was recognized as a vacation resort. On the Bay side, the popular Scott’s Ocean House drew people from as far away as Pittsburgh to enjoy nightly music and dining on oysters, clams, and fresh fish. Fishing camps abounded and young people searched for newly laid eggs of sea birds, described as delicate and savory morsels. Concern for the diminishing waterfowl along this portion of the Atlantic Flyway led to the National Wildlife sanctuary in Chincoteague, the Virginia side of the Island, in 1943.

The few families that lived on isolated Assateague, provided services to those at the resort and those who came for sport, or for the life saving stations that rescued passengers from ships wrecked on the shoals during a storm. Spanish ships wrecked in the 1750s were ravaged by “wreckers,” prompting a letter from Maryland’s Governor Sam Ogle to the Sheriff of Worcester County “to take into custody” anyone pillaging the ship for their personal gain. One hundred fifty years later, the life saving services along the islands would become the U.S. Coast Guard.

For some time, it was assumed that the famous horses of the Island, popularized by the children’s book Misty of Chincoteague, were survivors of these Spanish wrecks. DNA testing of the horses, however, suggests a variety of backgrounds of English descent. In the late 1600s, Dr. Daniel Jennifer acquired 1,500 acres on the barrier island peninsula to raise livestock. The horses that survived in this challenging habitat are likely descendants of these and other farmers who shifted livestock to the island to avoid paying taxes, and maybe some shipwrecked English horses as well. Today, the National Park Service maintains a herd of approximately 100. An experimental program, the first of its kind, prevents a mare from foaling, which maintains the herd size. Aside from this intervention, the Park Service maintains a hands-off policy: no feeding, no vet care. After all, generations of these sturdy horses have survived on the moving island’s harsh environment for more than 300 years. This is their home.

Before the horses and the European settlers, Native Americans visited Assateague to harvest the oysters. They were smart enough not to live on the island and avoided it during summer season when the mosquitos ravaged body and soul. Even the sturdy horses have devised ways to protect themselves. They stand in the ocean to be washed by salt water, fan each other with their tails, or roll in the fine Appalachian remnant sand.
Blackbeard, the hellish looking pirate of the early 1700s who undoubtedly relished in the torture of the bugs, came to this island not to bury treasure, though myth says he did, but to plunder. Sinepuxent Bay, now four to seven feet deep was an ocean going byway in 1714. No doubt his ship Queen Anne’s Revenge cruised up the Bay to the Atlantic and further north to see what he could see, just as other explorers before him. In 1524, Giovanni Verrazano was the first explorer to write about this land. “Fertility and beauty…abounding in forests…In the whole country for 200 leagues we saw no stone of any sort.” He met some natives and took an eight-year-old boy with him to France. The bridge across Sinepuxent is named the Verrazano.

By 1750, colonial plantations and estates were appearing on the nearby mainland. Captain Rackliffe built a brick mansion finely outfitted with furniture from England. He had a salt works and sold shingles to the merchant ships that visited his estate. And in 1818, one of those storms that change everything silted in access to the Sinepuxent near Cape Charles and the Bay was forever closed to navigation. Rackliffe fell into disrepair. The same storm wiped out the small but thriving town of Sinepuxent. (Stephen Decatur, Jr., America’s Naval Hero, was born in this Bay-side town in 1779, his family having fled here from Philadelphia, which was, then, occupied by the British.) Rackliffe, abandoned for years, has recently been restored by the State of Maryland. There is no other like it along the East Coast.

The awesome power of moving water and the ever-changing landscape is demonstrated by the creation of the Ocean City Inlet. One of the most damaging storms, the “Hurricane of 1933,” produced storm surges that split apart the peninsula, providing access from the Bay to the Ocean near the resort of Ocean City. Considered a great commercial benefit for ocean fishing, the Army Corp of Engineers shored up the inlet to keep it permanent.

Assateague was forever severed from the rest of the barrier peninsula. Over time, the movement of sand blocked by the great stone jetties added deposits to the Ocean City area. To the south, sand moved past Assateague, extending the island southward and setting Assateague on a westward trek. Today, it has moved one half mile westward, narrowing Sinepuxent Bay.

The more things change, and barrier islands formed by wind and waves are always changing, the more things stay the same. Visitors to Assateague Island National Seashore, now in its 52nd year, can engage in activities others have experienced for as long as people could venture to the sand spit off the mainland. The visitors center, just before the Verrazano Bridge, is a good first stop. There, park rangers, such as Travis Turnbaugh, a third-generation local, can direct you to places for surf fishing, clam and oyster gathering, historic sites such as Rackliffe Plantation House Museum and life-saving stations, trails through the pine barrens, or kayaking through shallow waters to view the horses and sea birds that hang out in the salt marsh. Horse riding (bring your own) on the beach is allowed too, though not in mosquito season. Lounging in the sun, swimming in the surf, trekking along the sand shore, or tent camping for more than a day’s time is available. Gone are the hotels with music and dancing and fine dining, but in the after hours, “America’s Coolest Small Town” Berlin is nearby with the Historic Atlantic Hotel and other B&Bs for those who prefer to sleep in featherbeds.