Hidden History on the Shore

Barrier Islands Center in Machipongo offers visitors a chance to experience the unique history of Virginia’s Barrier Islands—and the remarkable resilience of those who once inhabited them

by Leona Baker | May 1, 2023

Photo by At Altitude Gallery

About midway between Cape Charles and Exmore, prominently visible along Route 13 on the Eastern Shore, sits a cluster of painted white buildings on an inviting, open expanse of green grass. These well-preserved structures, located in Machipongo, once comprised the Almshouse Farm, which served as a “poorhouse” shelter in Northampton County from 1804 to 1952—in the years before the existence of welfare programs.

Visitors to the main Almshouse Building today are treated to an immersive journey through a truly unique aspect of the Shore’s rich history and heritage—one that often leads to a mixture of surprise and fascination for guests. That’s because the location is now home to the Barrier Islands Center, which showcases a collection of artfully displayed artifacts dedicated to Virginia’s Barrier Islands—and to the remarkable resilience of the those who inhabited them.

WINDOW TO THE PAST The Barrier Islands Center, once a farm and shelter for the poor, now tells the remarkable story of Virginia's Barrier Islands.

The Barrier Islands Center, once a farm and shelter for the poor, now tells the remarkable story of Virginia’s Barrier Islands.

“People are extremely surprised to learn that on Cobb Island there was once a bustling resort capable of hosting 200 people,” says Megan Ames, director for planning and development at the Barrier Islands Center, which was selected by Coastal Virginia Magazine readers as a Gold winner in several categories, including Best Historical Attraction, on the Eastern Shore for 2023. “We often get comments from people from outside the area that they had no idea that Virginia even had barrier islands.”

Striking aerial images, taken in recent years by Eastern Shore-based photographer Gordon Campbell, offer gorgeous, sweeping views of those islands today, which form a continuous long, narrow chain of sand and tidal shrub separated from one another and the mainland of the Shore by a shallow inlet and marshy bays along the entire coast of the Virginia end of the Delmarva Peninsula.

Among them are the two northern-most including Assateague, home to the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and its famed horses, and Wallops, base of NASA’s Wallops Flight Center and rocket launch site, along with a string of islands running southward, now uninhabited and under the protection of The Nature Conservancy’s Virginia Coast Reserve.

Before a series of devastating hurricanes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries irrevocably altered them, Virginia’s Barrier Islands were home to vibrant fishing and farming communities as well as lavish hotels and exclusive hunt clubs that became popular destinations for the well-to-do, who often arrived by train from cities to the north.

Save the occasional chimney and remnants of a lodge on Mockhorn Island once owned by the family of the New York Cushman bakery empire, little remains of human presence on these islands. Much less of the grand Cobb’s Island Hotel, which boasted a chapel, bowling alley, dining room and ballroom in its heyday and was once among the most famous hunting, fishing and swimming resorts on the East Coast.

The Barrier Islands Center’s creative exhibits bring these lost microcosms to charming life, fashioning tableaus out of artifacts and imagery designed to transport visitors to bygone times and landscapes past. You’ll feel as if you’re standing in the Cobb’s Island Hotel’s guest reception area, reading the pages of the hotel’s ledger, listening the dulcet tones of a harp used to entertain guests in the ballroom, or sipping tea from the silver tea set arranged as it may have been in the hotel parlor.

Eastern SHore

The center’s displays, which also highlight the island’s people, agriculture, wildlife, aquaculture, decoy heritage, Coast Guard history and more, were created in part with the imaginative touch of local designer Miriam Riggs and former Executive Director Laura Vaughn, notes current Executive Director Sally Dickinson. “We didn’t want it to feel stuffy, like a museum where everything is behind glass,” Dickinson explains. “We wanted it to be more immersive and more about storytelling.”

Open since 2002, the Barrier Islands Center hosts a variety of classes, camps and special events throughout the year. May 27 will mark the return of one of its most popular community gatherings—Art & Music on the Farm—which kicks off the summer season with fine art, live music, children’s activities and more.

From Memorial Day through Labor Day, look for the enormous American flag draped on the side of the Center’s main building, a tradition that began during COVID as a message of hope and togetherness in a time of crisis and one that resonated deeply with the community as much as it did with those simply traveling by.

General admission to the Barrier Islands Center is free. While you’re there, don’t miss the museum’s third-floor attic, where you can marvel at the Almshouse’s highly unusual Twisted Chimney—reminiscent of a DNA helix made of brick—along with some interactive exhibit kids will love.

Learn more at BarrierIslandCenter.org.

More History on the Shore

Assateague Lighthouse 
Located on the Virginia side of Assateague Island in the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, built in 1867 and still a working navigational guide accessible by bike or walking trail from Chincoteague or viewable from the water on a kayak tour. Piping-Plover.org

Cape Charles Museum
Housed in a power facility built by the Eastern Shore Public Service Company in 1947, home to the Cape Charles Historic Society, and honoring Cape Charles’ rich history as a planned community with strong ties to the historic passenger railroad system. CapeCharlesMuseum.org

Eastern Shore Maritime Museum
Housed in the historic Onancock School building and open Saturdays or by appointment, featuring photographic archives, crab and oyster boat replicas, as well as tools and other artifacts traditionally used by watermen in the Chesapeake Bay. Facebook.com/ESVAWatermensMuseum

Ker Place
A magnificent Federal-period Georgian-style house in Onancock, built from 1799 to 1803 for prosperous merchant farmer John Shepherd Ker and his family, now the headquarters of the Eastern Shore of Virginia Historical Society and a public museum offering guided tours and exhibits. ShoreHistory.org

Museum of Chincoteague Island
Featuring the 1st Order Fresnel Lens that served the Assateague Lighthouse for nearly a century, iconic ponies Misty and Stormy, models of historic vessels, nautical artifacts, a decoy carver’s workshop and more, all telling the story of Chincoteague Island. ChincoteagueMuseum.com

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