If you’ve ever been to visit Assateague, Chincoteague, and other barrier islands in Virginia, you’ve spent some time on U.S. Highway 13.
By Tom & Patti Burkett
We were here in the early spring to see the waterfowl migration, and it was spectacular. Headed south toward Norfolk, we passed through Wachapreague and Nassawadox, and pulled in for lunch at the Great Machipongo Crab Shack.
Although I don’t think I’ll ever again eat a soft-shell crab, the hush puppies were outstanding, and we were advised to make a stop at the nearby Barrier Islands Cultural Center before leaving the area.
Barrier Islands Center's maritime history
Barrier Islands stretch all along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts and provide not only a buffer from the worst of the ocean’s storm fury but also some of the most expensive and picturesque real estate imaginable. Human settlement on these islands has been continuous for thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of years. Fort George Island in Florida sports a shell ring that dates to the time of the construction of the pyramids in 3600 B.C. The focus of life on this edge of the sea has always been the harvesting of its bounty.
It’s no surprise, then, that the Cultural Center’s displays and exhibits focus on maritime history. From the seasonal settlements of Native Americans to the commercial shrimping and oystering industry, the museum chronicles the daily life of working people in this rich but harsh environment. If you spend any time exploring the barrier islands, you’ll find out that the size and shape of them is constantly shifting. Hurricanes may completely reconfigure the coastline, and even the regular action of waves and tides open and closes channels, moving sand from one island to another.
Travel back in time
One of the things we enjoyed most was a documentary film called “Our Island Home” (check it out below), first person stories from the town of Broadwater on Hog Island. Broadwater was a victim of the shifting landscape. In the 1930s it was a center of oyster and clam harvesting, with a school and post office, churches, businesses, and a long commercial wharf. Ten years later it was nothing more than a few houses, mostly collapsing, and several blocks of sidewalks fading into the dunes. Many of the houses were floated across the water to the mainland and set up on blocks in small neighborhoods among the bays. We took time to visit one of these.
The Barrier Islands were known, a century ago, for their fine hotels and hunt clubs. At the museum you will learn about the sisters who argued over who would sit next to President Cleveland when he visited, the intrepid mariners who staffed the lifesaving stations, what life was like for lighthouse keepers on remote islands, and the descendants of slaves who became legendary oyster shuckers and watermen. Also interesting, if you climb to the attic, is the brick chimney that was rotated 90 degrees to make it fit between the rafters of the building.
There are hands-on activities for kids and adults, a small gift shop with unique items, and lovely grounds for picnicking and enjoying the sun. The whole complex is dog-friendly, including the museum. Grab some lunch at the crab shack and spend some time exploring and relaxing at this free and intriguing museum. Then you can mosey on south and see the breakwater made from derelict ships at Kiptopeke.
There’s always something more to see, out here off the beaten path.
CLICK HERE to read more of Tom & Patti Burkett's off-the-beaten-path reports. And listen every Wednesday on the RV Podcast to hear their dispatches from the road. Subscribe from your device's app store.
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