by Connie Bond
The beach extended in front of us, seemingly endless. As the four of us walked south, we could barely hear each other's voices above the pounding surf. Thousands of skimmers nesting among the dunes to our right watched us warily, and to our left was only the shimmering sea. Out ahead of us, the shells and pebbles lay in perfect gradation, the larger ones closer to the surf, the smaller ones at the upper end, nearer to the birds. Nature had sifted them on this wild beach. There were no footprints other than the ones we were leaving, and by the next day they would be gone.
We were walking along Metompkin Island, one of the 60-mile-long string of 18 barrier islands that lies in the Atlantic off the Eastern Shore of Virginia. To get here you have to, as they say, go the extra mile, because with the exception of the well known trio of islands at the north end "Chincoteague, Assateague and Wallops" there are no bridges or causeways. In this case, local resident Dave Crane brought me and two friends here in his skiff on an afternoon that was supposed to be stormy but instead bright, if somewhat windy. "Out here, the weathermen just guess," Crane shouted above the sound of the outboard, as we followed the channel that snakes from the dock behind his house through the extensive salt marsh. The trip took no more than 15 minutes, and as we approached the back of the island, we could see the line of white surf rolling through Gargathy Inlet to the north.
On the way out to the island, we passed a few widely spaced shacks on pilings and the occasional channel marker; and on the back side of the island, not far from where Crane eased the skiff up onto the sand, was a sign warning us not to disturb the nesting birds. (The sign had been posted by the Nature Conservancy, which purchased 14 of the islands after one of them was threatened by development in the 1960s, and which now administers them as the Virginia Coast Reserve.) Those were the only evidence of human activity we saw in this incredible expanse of lush green marshland, sand, sea and sky.
The following day, I visited the Barrier Islands Center, which isn't out on one of the barrier islands but rather just off Virginia Route 13, which runs like a backbone down the length of the Eastern Shore of Virginia, a long, narrow peninsula, before morphing at the bottom end into the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. From the highway, I could see the Center, a handsome, white, two-story farmhouse-style building, only bigger, with a couple of outbuildings, that rises above the surrounding soybean fields (this part of the Eastern Shore is still quite rural, though probably not for long). It took all of about two minutes to turn off the highway, park and walk up to its welcoming front porch, and many tourists do just that on the spur of the moment. If, after the visit, they're interested enough to see the islands, they can do that, too; they just have to go that extra mile [see sidebar, page 55].
Inside the Center, I was standing below a breeches buoy in the airy, central hallway when the members of the small staff came out from offices at the far corner to greet me like family "director Laura Vaughan, a recent arrival from North Carolina, whose constant companion is her three-year-old lab, C.C. (for Constant Companion, of course); retired history teacher Jerry Doughty, who serves as the Center's historian; and general manager Diane Partin. After introductions, Doughty gave me an hour-long tour of the exhibits that fill the bright, high-ceilinged rooms. I learned how people tried to tame these islands, especially for the better part of a century beginning in the mid-1800s "and how, for the most part, nature prevailed as effortlessly as it arranges the shells and pebbles on the beach of Metompkin Island.
This part of the East Coast was way off the beaten track in the early years of European settlement, although Captain John Smith made it to the barrier islands (Smith Island at the southern end "not to be confused with the Chesapeake Bay's Smith Island "is named after him), and Robert E. Lee traveled to the islands in 1832 to scout out the possibilities of sheep grazing for his father-in-law, George Washington Parke Custis. During the Civil War, Union soldiers who were briefly assigned to the islands were all ready to hunt, fish and swim, but in the end they couldn't wait to leave "the mosquitoes were eating them alive. And there was a long history of shipwrecks and smuggling. But it was after the Civil War that all hell broke loose, first with demand in the rapidly growing cities for the incredibly abundant fish and game, which kept the local watermen and hunters busy; and then, in 1884, with the opening up of the peninsula by the New York, Philadelphia and Norfolk Railroad. In one fell swoop, DelMarVa's thin southern tail joined the rest of the East Coast.
Packed in barrels, oysters, crabmeat, clams, fish and birds now went by rail to the cities, and wealthy tourists and sportsmen came the other way. Carriages met them at the train stations and took them to Willis Wharf, Oyster and other fishing villages along the marsh-filled back bays, where they boarded steam launches bound for island hunt clubs and resorts. The first resort, which transplanted New Englander Nathan Cobb had opened on Cobb Island several decades before the railroad came, was now joined by others on Wallops, Hog, Cedar and other islands. Local islanders served as guides, carving decoys that are now coveted by collectors. There were inevitable tensions. When huge portions of oyster-rich marshland were leased to private owners "often wealthy investors from far away "local watermen harvested anywhere they wanted in the dead of night. Watch houses on pilings (precursors of the ones I passed on the way to Metompkin Island) sprang up throughout the back bays, where gun-toting guards kept poachers away from their patch of marsh.
It's hard today to believe how much went on out on these wild barrier islands "the resorts and hunt clubs, the small communities of local watermen and guides for the resorts (by 1890 there were post offices on Chincoteague, Cobb and Hog islands), as well as three lighthouses and nine Life-Saving Service stations (which later became Coast Guard stations). Yet, except on Chincoteague, nearly all traces of these activities are gone now, because of devastating storms and because, storms or not, the islands are constantly moving, their shapes constantly changing. Humans, too, also contributed to the devastation by over-hunting and over-fishing.
The history of human activities on the islands now exists mostly in old photographs, newspaper clippings and journals; in objects that people brought to the mainland when they left; and in the memories of the few remaining people who were born there. All these parts of barrier islands history are being pulled together by the Barrier Islands Center. There are decoys made by the Cobb family and other now famous barrier island carvers. There are accounts of rescues by the Life-Saving Service and actual equipment they used, such as the cannon-like Lyle gun. In 1892, the Hog Island surfmen used a Lyle gun to shoot a line to the Spanish ship San Albano as it lay broadside in heavy surf, 500 yards from the beach, ultimately enabling 19 crewmen to slide to safety. There are descriptions and photographs of the many storms. The great northeaster of 1895 totally flooded Cobb Island, ushering out its resort days and sending the Cobb family to Oyster. In the Great Hurricane of 1933, three men miraculously survived after the watch house they were in was swept off its pilings and carried for three miles; but another man "Nathan Cobb's grandson George, who lived alone on Cobb Island "wasn't so lucky ("I drank my first drop of water on Cobb's," he reportedly told a boat captain when he refused to leave, "and here I'll drink my last").
Jerry Doughty led me from exhibit to exhibit "a beautiful old wooden table from the lighthouse keeper's house on Smith Island; a homemade punt gun, about nine feet long ("they would stuff the gun with nuts, bolts, glass, then black powder," he said); photographs of women in hoop skirts playing seaside croquet at island resorts and sportsmen posing with dozens of dead birds in front of them. "And when President Grover Cleveland was staying at the exclusive Broadwater Club on Hog Island," Doughty said, "he offered my great-great uncle, John William Doughty, the job as gameskeeper. But he turned the job down because he said he'd have to arrest people for doing what he was doing "poaching "and he didn't want to arrest family members and friends." This is how I learned that my guide's great-great uncle lived in Broadwater, a small community at the south end of Hog Island, as did many of his other ancestors. At its height in the early 20th century, Broadwater had several hundred people, a post office, a grammar school, a church and a community center "a big red building the residents called the Red Onion. The town outlived the swanky Broadwater Club, but by the early 1940s, after a series of punishing storms, the remaining townsfolk had had enough. They loaded the last of the houses worth saving onto barges and floated them over to the mainland. Sixteen of them, including the town's former post office and general store, are now private homes in Willis Wharf, and the church is now the back half of the Methodist church in Oyster. Those wooden island refugees may look ordinary, but they've witnessed a lot of history.
The building that houses the Barrier Islands Center is historic in its own right, too. From the late 1800s, when it was built, until 1952, it housed the poor folk of Northampton County. The superintendent and his family lived downstairs, the white poor lived upstairs and the black poor lived in a separate building next to the cookhouse out back. In 1952, when the almshouse ceased operation, Franklin and Dorothy Gibb bought it, with the idea that it was worth preserving and that perhaps someday it could somehow contribute to the cultural life of the region. Almost a half-century later, by which time Franklin Gibb had died, Dorothy was still holding on to it. Then, in the mid-1990s, local artist Thelma Peterson came knocking.
Peterson, whose mother had grown up on Chincoteague, had gone out to the islands in the 1980s and early '90s for a series of watercolors she was painting of the old Life-Saving stations and lighthouses. In the process, she learned that anything attached to the islands "life-saving equipment, quilts, lanterns, guns from the old hunt clubs, photographs, journals "had become collectible. And many of these items were being snapped up by collectors who lived off the Eastern Shore.
Peterson began calling people, asking, "Are you as interested as I am in keeping our barrier islands heritage here?" They were, and within only a few years, with Peterson as president, a non-profit group formed. When Dorothy Gibb got wind of the project, she said, "Tell Thelma to come see me." The group raised funds to buy the property and renovate the main building, and two years ago the Barrier Islands Center opened. Finally, there is a place where people can bring their barrier island treasures and their stories, and they are doing so.
In the bright kitchen on the Center's first floor, three women and a man sat around the table, chatting nonstop as they helped themselves to homemade blueberry bread that one of them brought. The three women "Iris Clemente, Betty Richardson and Yvonne Widgeon "who are affectionately called the Broadwater Babes, and the man, Norris Bowen, were planning an upcoming Hog Island reunion at the Center (when it was held on September 19, eighteen Hog Islanders and their direct descendants attended, a total of 160 people). In between, the four native-born Hog Islanders reminisced about their early childhood in Broadwater.
"Fried marsh hens and sweet potatoes "my mother grew sweet potatoes "now that was a feast."
". . . they're very small, you have the two legs and the two breast halves, and that's it, so it takes a whole lot of 'em to make a meal, but what a meal."
"I'll tell you a staple "and everybody out there used it "canned corned beef, you'd have it in a hash or a soup, dried beans, too . . . they were winter staples."
As they talked, a picture emerged of life on the island, of how the sheep would get under the house in the middle of the night and bump their heads on the underside of the floor ("My mother would throw open the window and yell, 'get out from under there!' "), of square dances at the Red Onion with the grown-ups playing guitars and banjos, of roasting oysters on the beach. And of the storms. "My mother never forgot the hurricane of '33," said Widgeon. "She was about fifteen. My grandfather had a place on Cobb Island, and they were all over there clamming. That night they were all sleeping on the summer porch, and Grandfather said, 'Oh, my God, high tide isn't supposed to be until this afternoon!' The storm raged and the whole island flooded over. The house started to wash . . . my momma stood on the kitchen table watching the water go over a nail in the wall." When the nail finally reappeared, said Widgeon, her mother knew they would be okay.
By 1941, all four of these Hog Islanders were living in Willis Wharf ("the big city," said one). And Broadwater "their childhood home "is now totally under water, mixed in with the sands east of the restless island.
"Back in the sixties, when I wanted to get into the Air Force's Office of Special Investigations," said Bowen, "they said, you can't join because we can't verify that you were born in Broadwater, Virginia "because we can't find a Broadwater, Virginia." He waited six months while they sorted it out.
A while later, in a gallery filled with maps that illustrate the changing shapes of the islands, a woman with her husband and grown son was pointing to one of the barrier islands. "There's the island Daddy owned," she told her son. "Wreck Island." I did a double-take. Had I heard her right? Yes, indeed, she told me. The woman, Ann Webb Boole, who lives in Chesapeake, Va., grew up on the Eastern Shore. "When I was a little girl," she said, "we'd go on a houseboat down to Wreck Island for a week or so at a time. I loved it. My mom would cook, and we'd walk the beach. We were the only people there besides the men who worked for Daddy. They lived in a cabin up on stilts. They gathered oysters and put them on a monitor "a big flat barge. Daddy also shed crabs and sold them "big jumbo soft crabs "for two dollars a dozen. Later on, he sold the island to the Nature Conservancy."
She reflected for a moment. "You know," she said, "I never dreamt I'd be able to show all of this to my son. That there would be a place like this that would explain to him how wonderful it was."
The Barrier Islands Center in Machipongo, Va., is open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; admission is $4 for adults, $2 for students. In addition to exhibits, the Center offers workshops on decoy-carving, woodworking and other skills related to the islands. For more information, call 757-678-5550 or visit the Center's website (www.barrierislandscenter.com). To learn more about the Nature Conservancy's Virginia Coast Reserve, which includes all or part of 14 of Virginia's barrier islands, visit http://nature.org/wherewework/northamerica/states/virginia/preserves/art1244.html. All are welcome to visit the islands, but are asked to contact the office beforehand (11332 Brownsville Rd., Nassawadox, VA 23413; 757-442-3049). The Reserve operates a live webcam, mounted on a tower on Hog Island, that allows the visitor to aim at one of 20 different views, including the beach, the marsh and a falcon perch; go to www.vcrlter.virginia.edu/wwwcam/broadwater/index.php.
Two outstanding sources on the variety of human activities on the barrier islands are Seashore Chronicles: Three Centuries of Virginia Barrier Islands, edited by Brooks Miles Barnes and Barry R. Truitt (University Press of Virginia, 1997); and The Barrier Islands: A Photographic History of Life on Hog, Cobb, Smith, Cedar, Parramore, Metompkin, & Assateague by Curtis J. Badger and Rick Kellam (Stackpole Books, 1989).
For a first-hand account of exploring behind Virginia's barrier islands by sailboat, see "Take a Cruise on the Wild Side" by Paul Clancy, which appeared in these pages in May 2003. Skiffs and sea kayaks are ideally suited for the back bays, with their many narrow channels. There are launch ramps in Oyster, Red Bank and Willis Wharf (navigation is easiest from the Oyster ramp, as the channels are more clearly marked). GMCO publishes a chart of the Virginia Inside Passage route, which is available at most chart stores for $4.95.
For those without a boat, two-hour salt marsh and birding tours ($30/person), and half-day trips to the barrier islands ($40/person) are offered by Captain Ken Marshall in Willis Wharf (757-442-4246; www.saltmarshtours.com). Captain Paul Rogers offers full-day and half-day tours ($250/full-day, $150/half-day) for groups up to 8, leaving from Oyster or Red Bank (757-331-3012). Captain Jimmy Kelly takes small groups from Red Bank to Hog Island in his Carolina skiff by special arrangement (757-442-4239).