Chincoteague Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

The waters and winds of Chesapeake Bay never rest, and over the eons they have built up and carved away countless land masses. The Island of Chincoteague, about five miles off Virginia’s Eastern Shore, rose from the Chesapeake’s waters about four thousand years ago and is surrounded by vast areas of marsh. More than twenty miles of the tiny island’s coastline, in fact, consists of marshes, and the vast majority of its land mass is less than 10 feet above sea level.

While its topography may leave Chincoteague vulnerable to erosion from flood and wind, those wetlands, waterways, and beaches have also allowed the Island to develop into one of America’s premier vacation spots, with annual visitors numbering close to one million. Many of them are drawn to Chincoteague’s sister island and protector Assateague, the 37-mile long barrier island just a few hundred yards to Chincoteague’s east. Assateague is home to both the Chincoteague Island National Wildlife Refuge and the Assateague Island National Seashore, and, of course, to the world-famous Chincoteague Island ponies.

Until four hundred years ago, Chincoteague and Assateague were left to themselves except for hunting and fishing parties of Native Americans. They were first settled in the 18th century following the arrival of the English in 1607, and the Chincoteague ponies of today are thought to be distant descendants of the settlers’ horses which once to graze on the islands’ meadows.

Chincoteague’s annual Pony Penning, which brings about 50,000 visitors to the Island each July, is a modern rendition of the pony pennings (complete with feasting and drinking) practiced by those settlers. Today’s Pony Penning and Auction is managed by the Chincoteague Island Volunteer Fire Department, the legal owners of the Chincoteague pony herds which roam the Virginia end of Assateague Island. Proceeds from the sales of the ponies have raised more than $2,000,000 to support the Fire Department since 2000.

There’s much more to Chincoteague, however, than her ponies. When a causeway connected the Island to the Virginia mainland in 1922, the Island’s economy began a transition from its dependency on oyster, clam, and crabbing industries. Although Chincoteague shellfish are still prized as good eating, the Islanders now do whatever it takes to provide their visitors with the vacation of a lifetime.

They try hard to maintain the down-home Southern charm of the Town of Chincoteague, with a Main Street full of family-run B&Bs, restaurants, galleries, and shops. Outdoor activities, including hiking, biking, water sports, boat tours, wildlife viewing, and of course, fishing, crabbing, and clamming abound on Chincoteague and Assateague.

While preserving the character of the past is paramount, the residents of Chincoteague are already planning for the future. With the help of the Virginia department of transportation and the Federal Highway Administration, the Town of Chincoteague has come up with a transportation plan to be fully implemented by 2020. It includes the creation of a trolley or shuttle service to relieve downtown traffic congestion, improved bikeways, and additional public parking facilities. The people of Chincoteague have always found ways to meet flood, fire, or any other challenges come their way, and are preparing for whatever the future may bring!