Thursday, May 12, 2022

An island vacation to imagine -- May 12, 2022 column


Planning a vacation? Consider this alluring place in Virginia:


“The Unrivalled Health and Summer Resort of the Atlantic Coast



And this: “It is almost unnecessary to speak of the many and great advantages of Cobb’s Island as a Seaside Resort and Watering Place, unrivalled for its surf-bathing and magnificent view of the ocean.”

Or this, also about Cobb’s Island Hotel, from a Richmond newspaper: “There is a peculiar, indefinable charm about this spot which every one who lingers here twenty-four hours is sure to experience.”

But, don’t reach for your phone to book a room.  

The flyer and the newspaper report are from the 1890s. Cobb’s Island Hotel, once one of the most famous hunting, fishing and swimming resorts on the East Coast, is no more. Nor are the other hunt clubs and hotels that dotted the Virginia barrier islands from the late 1800s until 1933.

The Barrier Islands Center in Machipongo tells the fascinating story of a lost way of life and culture through professionally produced documentaries and beautifully curated rooms with more than 7,000 artifacts.

In the 1990s, “Eastern Shore people saw their artifacts become very collectable and they were getting bought up and leaving the shore, and once something leaves the area, it’s gone,” said Sally Dickinson, director of the center. “So the founders said, `Wouldn’t it be great to have a museum.”

Islanders and their descendants loaned or donated the photos, objects of everyday life, decoys, fishing rods, china and even an ornate silver set from Cobb’s Island Hotel. The center will celebrate its 20th anniversary May 28 with an Art and Music on the Farm Festival.

Nathan F. Cobb came to the Eastern Shore from Cape Cod in 1838, seeking a better climate for his wife and daughters who suffered from consumption. The next year, he bought what became known as Cobb’s Island for $100 or $150, depending on the account, built a hotel and began a lucrative business salvaging contents from ships that ran aground.

He and his three sons reportedly never charged a penny for saving crewmembers’ lives but made out well from the goods the ships carried. His hotel would include a chapel, bowling alley, dining room and ballroom.

The coming of the railroad down the Eastern Shore peninsula in the 1880s ushered a golden age for the island resorts. Instead of taking a steamer and several boats, a wealthy passenger could board a train in New York or Philadelphia in the morning, catch a short boat ride, and arrive in time for dinner.

These were thriving villages with general stores, post offices, schools and churches. Generations of residents grew, caught or hunted their own food, raised sheep and spun wool.

In the late 1800s, Atlantic Ocean storms swept over the fragile, sandy islands and claimed for the seabed many of the communities where 19th century entrepreneurs had staked their claims to hospitality. The Great Hurricane of August 1933 wreaked havoc on the islands, ending the era, but there was a bright spot.

The hurricane cut an inlet between Ocean City and Assateague Island. The Army Corps of Engineers made the inlet permanent, creating a tourist boom for Ocean City while leaving Assateague Island separate. It now is a pristine national seashore and wildlife refuge, while Ocean City attracts more than 300,000 visitors on summer weekends.

In the 1960s, Virginia’s 14 undeveloped barrier islands seemed headed the way of Ocean City as developers eyed building bridges and erecting hotels. The Nature Conservancy bought the islands and is preserving them in their natural state – an almost unbelievable stroke of luck for us and later generations. People can go by boat and visit for the day except for certain times of the year.

You can’t stay on Cobb’s Island, but you can step up to the hotel’s wooden reception desk, look at the handwritten names in the guest register and see the original room keys -- at the Barrier Islands Center.

And you can visit the barrier islands, designated an International Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations, a vital refuge for shorebirds and seabirds on the Atlantic Flyway, in their natural state.

©2022 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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