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Visitor Guide

Virginia's Eastern Shore: A Brief History

By Curtis Badger

sunset waterThe Eastern Shore of Virginia is defined by two elements: The land and the sea. The land is flat, fertile, and capable of producing great bounty. And the Shore is surrounded by water, the Chesapeake Bay and its many tributaries on the western boundary, and on the east the barrier islands, shallow bays, and inlets that lead to the Atlantic Ocean and the world.

EdenCaptain John Smith explored the waters of the peninsula in 1608, and since that time the fertile land and the water that surrounds us have defined the history and culture of the two counties that make up the Eastern Shore: Accomack and Northampton. For centuries, the land has provided a wealth of vegetables and grains, making the Eastern Shore a great provider of food for Virginia and beyond. The shallow waters and tidal flats that surround us have also supplied Crabbersa bounty of oysters, clams, crabs, and fish. And the bay and the ocean have given us a convenient source of conveyance, a way of getting our vegetables, grains, and seafood to eager markets in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Norfolk, and many other cities.           

We are farmers, and we are seafaring creatures who enjoy the grit of sand between our toes, the sweet aroma of a seaside tidal flat at low water. The process of growing crops and delivering them to market created our waterfront communities, places such as Onancock, Chincoteague, Cape Charles, Willis Wharf, Wachapreague, and Harborton, which in steamboat days was known as Hoffman’s Wharf.

Farm GirlIn 1884, when the New York, Pennsylvania, and Norfolk Railroad came through, it brought about a great change in how we got our food to market, and so it shaped our history just as the sailing ships did, and the steamships that came after them. The railroad created towns, and it hastened the demise of small waterfront communities such as Marsh Market, Sinnickson and Franklin City. The railroad created towns of its own. Parksley was planned and built by the railroad. Onley was a sleepy crossroads until the railroad came. (Indeed, Crossroads was the name of the village prior to 1884.) The railroad gave us Melfa, Keller, Hallwood, Tasley, Painter and Belle Haven Station in Accomack County. In Northampton, Cape Charles, like Parksley, was a child of the railroad, as were Exmore, Cheriton, and Nassawadox.

The railroad brought prosperity, as evidenced by many stately old homes in these communities. Thanks to the railroad, Accomack and Northampton Counties were consistently the top producers of white and sweet potatoes in the state in the 1920s and 1930s, and the two counties were among the most prosperous rural regions in the United States. The railroad shipped thousands of cases of strawberries to market each spring, wagons laden with berries lining the streets of railroad towns awaiting the strawberry auction. The railroad also shipped seafood, oysters, and fish packed in ice in barrels, and delivered diamondback terrapins live to gourmet restaurants in northern cities. The railroad shipped wild ducks to market before the practice of market gunning was made illegal.

In more recent years, we have again changed the way we grow and ship our crops. The boxcar has given way to the 18-wheeler. Our clams are spawned in laboratories and shipped to market in the bellies of jets.  And our fastest growing industry today is tourism, as people from all over the country discover the natural wealth we have in this land between the waters.

To consider our history is to realize that we do not live in a world that is static. Sail gave way to steam, which gave way to rail, which gave way to highway. The things that endure are those that have always sustained us: The land and the sea. As long as we take care of them, we’ll be okay.

Experience the Eastern Shore's intriguing history at our intimate museums and at a variety of historic sites. (Check out the the Eastern Shore Historical Society's Museum Network for more museum resources. )

 Curtis Badger is a well-known naturalist, author and photographer from the Eastern Shore of Virginia who has written more than thirty books on wildlife art and the natural history of the Atlantic coast.
These and other books by the author are available at Eastern Shore book/gift shops or through on-line book sellers.

Clams Naturalists GuideSalt Tide