Coastal Ghost Towns: Barrier Islands of the Eastern Shore

by Bill & Mary Burnham

Barrier islands off Virginia's Eastern Shore

Along the seaside of Virginia's Eastern Shore are a chain of uninhabited barrier islands, stretching from Assateague Island at the Maryland border, to Fisherman's Island at the foot of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel.

These 23 shifting islands of sand, as well as a swath of marshland and lagoons constitute one of the longest undeveloped stretch of shoreline on the East Coast.

While most are protected today by the Nature Conservancy's Virginia Coast Reserve, untouched they are not.

Since the mid-1800s, people have attempted beach resorts, hunting and fishing clubs, and even entire communities on these islands exposed to the ravages of sea and storm.

abandoned farm buildings

Today, Chincoteague Island alone is inhabited. Of the others, only curious place names on nautical charts hint of days gone by when the islands made ideal fishing communities with pastures for grazing livestock.

On Mockhorn Island are the deteriorating remains of a turn-of-the-century hunting retreat, farm buildings and even rusting farm equipment. You can still see where the pastures and waterfowl enclosures were. This is one of the few islands you can explore on foot, and even set up your tent for the night.

The 250 residents of Hog Island gave up island life after the hurricane of 1933, moving 17 houses (and even loved ones from cemeteries!) by barge to the mainland town of Willis Wharf. The relocated community is now known as 'Little Hog Island.'

Assateague Lighthouse

Cobb Island was a magnet for the rich and famous, with a large resort hotel built by the Cobbs with their earnings from salvaging shipwrecks. Decoys carved by Nathan Cobb Jr. are exhibited in museums and worth thousands of dollars.

Assateague Island, stradding the Virginia/Maryland border, is best known for its Chincoteague ponies. At one time the island had about 50 houses, a school and a store until a storm in 1962 wiped them out. Now a National Seashore, the island is accessible by car and has a great beach you can on for miles.

Kayak guides Bill & Mary Burnham

The last of the barrier island communities ended in the middle of the 20th century. With the exception of Chincoteague, all are abandoned today.

Their remains constitute Virginia's true coastal ghost towns.

To learn more: Visit the Barrier Islands Center in Machipongo. Located in a historic almshouse, the museum is dedicated to the history and culture of settlements on Virginia's barrier islands.

Getting there: Book a kayak tour with SouthEast Expeditions.