Assateague Island Marking 50 Years As National Park; Island Almost Developed Several Times In Past

Assateague Island Marking 50 Years As National Park; Island Almost Developed Several Times In Past
Assateague Island was separated from Ocean City in the storm of 1933. Previously, the wild horses could be seen roaming downtown Ocean City looking for free meals. File Photo

ASSATEAGUE — Assateague Island this year is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its designation as a National Seashore and the preservation of its relatively untouched beauty, but there were several times in history when it was close to being developed commercially.

The Assateague Island National Seashore officially turns 50 this year and National Park officials and their allied private sector support groups including the Assateague Island Alliance and the Assateague Coastal Trust, for example, are in the process of planning a year-long celebration of the anniversary. The anniversary provides an opportunity to recall the island’s rich and colorful history, from plans in the early part of the last century to preserve Assateague as a national park to intense pressure to develop it commercially in the 1950s. The island was nearly developed in the mid- to late-1950s and there were roads constructed and plats sold for a fledgling community called Ocean Beach, which was to become the counterpart to the growing Ocean City just to the north.

The epic storm of 1962 erased any vestiges of that early development and caused federal officials to reconsider plans to pave over the island with residential and commercial development. In 1965, preservation advocates won the see-saw battle over Assateague and the barrier island was set aside as the National Seashore as part of the National Parks system, but still pressure to develop it continued.

Thanks in large part to the grassroots efforts of the then Committee to Preserve Assateague, led by the ferocious Judy Johnson and her colleagues including Illia Fehrer and Robert Dwight, to name a couple, the development of the island even after it had been designated the National Seashore was halted. It was a battle that continued for decades long after the original Committee to Preserve Assateague became the current Assateague Coastal Trust.

Early Years

For nearly a century, there was pressure to develop Assateague as a seaside resort complete with hotels, rooming houses, restaurants and other attractions, similar to the growing Ocean City just to the north. The northern portion of the island was first subdivided in 1890 by the Synepuxent Beach Company, and a second subdivision under the name South Ocean City occurred around 1920, but neither ever came to fruition and existed only on paper.

Long a favorite locale for fishing, hunting and bathing among regional residents, Assateague first came to attention as a potential national park in 1934. In that year, the National Park Service undertook a survey of the seaside lands along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts to identify those with potential to be acquired by the federal government.

A bill was submitted in 1940 calling for the creation of a Rehoboth-Assateague National Seashore in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia encompassing the undeveloped barrier islands in the area from Cape Henlopen to the south end of Assateague. Already developed areas, including the towns of Rehoboth, Bethany Beach and Ocean City, would be excluded from the plan.

That bill never came to fruition due largely to insufficient political support for the vast 75,000-acre Rehoboth-Assateague proposal. Instead, the federal government lowered its sights in 1947 with new proposed legislation that recommended the acquisition of 12,700 acres in Delaware and 7,300 acres in Maryland, the latter of which comprised the north end of Assateague.

The champion of both of those bills, Congressman Schulyer Bland of Virginia, died in 1949 and with his passing also died any real interest, for the time being, of preserving a portion of Assateague as a National Park.

 

Major Development

Planned In 1950s

Bland’s passing also coincided with a renewed interest in private development of Assateague. In 1950, a group of Baltimore and Washington investors, led by Leon Ackerman, acquired 15 miles of the ocean side of Assateague north of the Virginia line and commissioned an engineer to survey, subdivide and plat the area for future development.

Ackerman went so far as to pave a road called “Baltimore Boulevard” down the center of the island and erected numbered street signs for the unbuilt lateral streets. Ackerman and his group of investors then began a major sales campaign with full-page ads in metropolitan newspapers pitching his new resort community called Ocean Beach. The promoters ferried prospective buyers across to the barrier island from South Point and enticed them to buy residential and commercial lots at prices from $1,250 to $8,500.

The opening of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in 1955, which eased access to the Eastern Shore from the metropolitan areas, only fueled the venture and the promise of a seasonal vacation retreat. A total of 3,200 individual buyers acquired 5,580 lots at Ocean Beach by the early 1960s although just around 30 dwellings were ever actually constructed.

Meanwhile, around the same time, another private developer, Atlantic Ocean Estates, acquired much of the northern end of Assateague and subdivided it into 1,740 lots. However, no roads were ever constructed, nor were any utilities installed as that section of the barrier island frequently became overwashed and inundated with sea water during even modest storms and that development never came to fruition.

Creation of Assateague State Park

While the federal interest in preserving Assateague as a National Seashore continued its back-and-forth course, the state of Maryland was becoming increasingly interested in preserving a portion as a state park. State planners proposed an Assateague State Park first in 1940 and again in 1952, each time to no avail.

Things changed in 1956 when Ackerman’s group developing the Ocean Beach community donated its interest in 540 acres along the north end of the island to Maryland for the creation of a state park. The Ackerman group’s seemingly generous donation was somewhat self-serving, however. The investors wanted and needed a bridge to link the island to the mainland and after failed private attempts agreed to donate the 540 acres that eventually became Assateague State Park to the state with the understanding the donation would result in a publicly funded bridge to the island.

According to an Administrative History of Assateague authored by Robert MacIntosh, the Maryland Board of Public Works accepted the donation and the Maryland General Assembly then authorized the establishment of the Assateague State Park and appropriated $750,000 for additional land. Ackerman and his investors were ultimately repaid for their “generous donation” when the General Assembly authorized the construction of the bridge that connects South Point and the mainland to Assateague today and appropriated $1.5 million for the bridge the following year.

 

Development Continues

The Ackerman group now had its bridge from the mainland to Assateague, which only fueled the interest in the commercial and residential development of the barrier island and any hopes of preserving it in its pristine condition continued to wane.

A 1955 federal survey of the barrier island described the Maryland portion of Assateague as “the site of one of the largest seashore developments on the Atlantic coast.” The survey concluded “the advanced stages of real estate development appear to preclude the possibility of this area being set aside for public recreational use.”

 

Storm of 1962

Mother Nature had other plans for the barrier island, however. The epic March 1962 storm, which ravaged neighboring Ocean City, essentially obliterated what early development had already occurred on Assateague. The protective dunes were washed away and the main road that would have served the fledging Ocean Beach community was destroyed.

Only about 16 cottage, hunting lodges and a few other buildings in the Maryland portion of the island survived the storm and most of them were on the sheltered bayside outside of the growing Ocean Beach community. When the storm had passed and the damage had been assessed, the suitability of Assateague for private development was cast in doubt and efforts began anew for the preservation of the barrier island.

 

National Designation

In the wake of the 1962 storm, public and private sentiment for the preservation of the barrier island in perpetuity increased. In 1963, a Department of the Interior report recommended the establishment of an Assateague Island National Seashore under the guise of the National Park Service. The report recommended the proposed National Seashore encompass the entire island, but under the plan, the fairly new Assateague State Park in Maryland and the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia would retain their individual identities under separate administrations.

The recommendation resulted in a protracted legal battle in Maryland and in Washington, where there was still some political will for the commercial and residential development of Assateague. Ironically, Worcester County, aware of the potential economic boon from the island’s private development, was one of the fiercest opponents of the National Seashore concept at the time.

“Most Worcester County officials and Assateague property owners were averse to the proposed federal takeover,” MacIntosh wrote in his history of the island. “The county, envisioning a more residential but comparatively lucrative version of Ocean City on Assateague, was unconvinced by the federal report and vigorously opposed the perceived threat to its tax base.”

Finally, in 1965, the U.S. Congress passed legislation creating the Assateague Island National Seashore and any plans for a vast residential and commercial development of the island were squashed. However, the loosely written legislation did provide for some development of the island and the battle for preservation continued for the next decade and beyond.

 

Committee To Preserve

Assateague Plays Role

The legislation that created the National Seashore stopped short of halting all commercial and residential development on the island and in the months following plans emerged for extensive development on the north end including a boardwalk similar to that in Ocean City along with hotels and restaurants and other amenities for the vacationing public.

It was around that time that Baltimore resident Judy Johnson emerged as a fierce opponent of any development on Assateague. Johnson often visited Assateague with her young son Reid, and when they learned of the potential development even after the National Seashore designation, she launched her Committee to Preserve Assateague which ultimately became today’s Assateague Coastal Trust.

Reid Johnson, now a biology professor at UCLA, recalled those early days when he and his mother first learned of the plans to develop the north end of Assateague. Johnson, who was just 11 years at the time, is often given credit for urging his mother to fight to protect the barrier island from development.

“My understanding is that the ’62 storm was the catalyst for a National Seashore designation managed by the NPS, but written into the legislation were plans for extensive development that the Park Service was to manage,” he said. “This included a highway, multiple parking lots, motels, concessions, etc. In the summer of 1968 trip, my mother and I were told of the pending development and obtained a copy of the blueprints. We both thought this would be very bad and at some level the story is true. I did encourage my mother to try to stop it.”

Reid Johnson said his mother Judy began an extensive letter-writing campaign and organized the original Committee to Preserve Assateague along with other early pioneers including the late Illia Fehrer and Robert Dwight among others.

“She started writing letters and started organizing the Committee to Preserve Assateague, which eventually grew to 1,300 members,” he said. “It’s now called the Assateague Coastal Trust.”

Despite the efforts of the committee, which met initially in the basement of the Johnson’s Baltimore row house, the pressure to develop the north end of Assateague with hotels, restaurants and other shops continued unabated. The legislation that created the Assateague Island National Seashore allowed it and there was little political will to stop it, save for the efforts of the committee. ACT’s Matt Heim, who is the organization’s de facto historian for all things related to Assateague, said the proposed development of the north end was modeled after a similar seashore development near New York.

“There was a plan for a state park in a coastal area somewhere near New York that included a publicly-owned Boardwalk, an amphitheater with dolphin shows, hotels and restaurants and other developments,” he said. “The plan for Assateague even after the National Park designation was to mimic that.”

The legislation allowed for the development and Johnson’s committee dug in its heels and fought it. Reid Johnson said his mother received a letter from Congressman Rogers Morton suggesting the only way to stop the proposed development was to get the law changed.

“I reiterate that the only way to truly change direction in the future of Assateague Island is through amendments to the existing legislation,” Morton’s letter to Johnson from November 1970 reads. “I believe the hearings recently held in Annapolis clearly show the difference between the mission of the state park system and that of the federal system. I believe the federal plan will preserve the island better. However, I don’t believe it is possible for the Park Service to continue to delay the development called for in the legislation. Law is law and the only way to change it is through amendment. Good luck to you and your group.”

Rogers’ “famous” letter only fueled the resolve of Johnson, Fehrer and the committee to get the law changed and prevent the development of Assateague, according to Reid Johnson.

“She was told in a famous letter from Congressman Rogers Morton, who was later Secretary of the Interior and was instrumental in creating the National Seashore, that the law had to be changed,” he said. “This became her goal and it finally happened in 1976. There were many other development and preservation issues through the 1970s and into the 1990s regarding the island and surrounding area that mother and her committee fought over, mostly successfully.”

Johnson and the committee were ultimately successful in getting the legislation that created the National Seashore in 1965 to preclude any further development and degradation of the island. It took over a decade, but the Committee to Preserve Assateague, now ACT, was successful in halting the development.

“Thus it was that 11 years and one month after Assateague Island National Seashore was legally inaugurated, its planning and development mandates were so fundamentally transformed as to render it born again,” MacIntosh wrote in his report. “The change in direction long accepted in practice had become a matter of law, and the law now required the charting of a new course for the seashore.”

 

ACT Continues

Committee’s Legacy

While there were many moving parts to first getting Assateague designated as a National Seashore and later preventing it from future development, it was the committee that was ultimately instrumental in getting it done. Heim, who is in the process of compiling several volumes of Dwight’s history of the battle into digital form, said ACT’s predecessors laid much of the groundwork for Assateague as it remains today.

“They saw themselves as the protectors of the island and wanted to make sure it remained natural and pristine,” he said. “Those early committee members took it upon themselves to make sure that happened. In my many conversations with Mr. Dwight before he passed, the word that came up over and over was pristine. There were 30 miles of pristine beach and barrier island and they were intent on ensuring it remained that way.”

Heim said Johnson, Fehrer, Dwight and those early committee members were merely concerned citizens when they took up the fight and emerged from the battle as staunch environmentalists.

“Looking back at history, their legacy was taking on their government to preserve something special,” he said. “They weren’t environmentalists in the sense that we think of that word now. They were ordinary, everyday citizens that confronted their government about the perceived degradation of Assateague Island and they were able to stop that. That’s their legacy and that’s what planted the seeds for what ACT and other similar organizations do now.”

As for Reid Johnson, he has not returned to Assateague for years following the death of his mother Judy Johnson, but remains glad his mother’s work, and the work of the committee, has persevered.

“The last time I got back to Assateague was a brief trip between my mother’s death and memorial service in the winter of 2007,” he said. “I was happy to see it has remained pretty much the same.”

Meanwhile, Heim continues the tedious process of compiling Dwight’s records of the events leading up the creation of the Assateague Island National Seashore and the later battles to prevent development on the barrier island.

“Mr. Dwight kept a ton of records including studies, reports, letters and news articles and he bound them into volumes,” he said. “There are 14 volumes and some of them are over 700 pages. It’s a slow process because much of the work is raw material.”

ACT, in partnership with the Salisbury University Nabb Research Center for Delmarva History and Culture, is in the process of scanning the countless volumes of letters, reports, legislation and personal accounts, a process that could take a few years. Heim said he and ACT are always looking for volunteers to help with the endeavor, including those who aren’t necessarily historians or archivists, but merely fans of Assateague. For information on how to volunteer, contact Heim at (410) 629-1538.

Anniversary Plans

The Assateague Island National Seashore, its friends group Assateague Island Alliance (AIA) and the Assateague Coastal Trust are planning several events throughout the coming year to celebrate the 50th anniversary. One event is set for next Saturday, February 21, when the AIA presents “The Eighth Wonder of the World- Assateague,” an informative program to celebrate the exceptional significance of the National Seashore.

The program begins at the Assateague Visitor’s Center at 10:30 a.m. with coffee and refreshments. Presentations begin at 11 a.m. with a “State of the Park” address from Superintendent Debbie Darden. The AIA is also welcoming keynote speaker Mark Hendricks, who will illustrate the visual story of the unique importance of Assateague through his inspiring brand of photography.