Tales of the Coast
Coastal Histories


Dynamic Sustainability: Maryland's Atlantic Coast

Ocean City and Assateague Island

Dynamic Sustainability: Shoreline Management on Maryland's Atlantic Coast

1876-1933, Beginning of Divergence

Ocean City

A railroad bridge was built over Sinepuxent Bay in 1876 and it ended directly at the Atlantic Hotel's door. The town was also named Ocean City in 1876.

By the last decade of the 19th century, a number of hotels were run by entrepreneurial women known as the "Petticoat Regime." As the women ran the hotels, the men worked at "pound fishing." This entailed catching an entire school of fish at one time in a huge net, dragging that net onto a boat, and hauling it back to shore. This was very lucrative for a time but it wasn't a sustainable form of fishing, and by the 1930s the area was overfished.

In 1916 the first automobile bridge opened, which increased the number of tourists. Throughout this time, however, the barrier environment was as dynamic as it had always been. In 1920 a storm opened an inlet a few miles south of Ocean City, and it was closed in 1928 by the natural process of sediment transport clogging the inlet. But the storm that opened the inlet caused significant damage to Ocean City and led to the town's first engineering attempts to maintain the beach. Groins were built along the beach to prevent sand from moving downdrift.

A hurricane struck Ocean City in late August of 1933. After days of intense rainfall the winds shifted offshore and that force, along with the outgoing tide, caused the bay water to smash through the island and open Ocean City Inlet.

Town officials had previously petitioned the government to open an inlet artificially at this narrow point on Fenwick Island. By the 1920s the town residents wanted the ability to use larger fishing vessels, which needed a true harbor rather than launching directly into the ocean surf. As a result the representatives of the Worcester County area proposed to Congress that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers open an inlet to create that harbor. The storm resolved the issue by opening the inlet naturally.


Assateague Island

Two more Life-Saving Stations opened on Assateague Island in the late 1800s, and shipwrecks remained a common occurrence, including a presidential yacht that sunk off the coast of the Virginia portion of the island in 1891. By the early 20th century, the village reached its peak population of about 200; there were schools, churches, a general store, and the residents worked for the Life-Saving Service or the fish oil companies that had opened on the island, or they raised sheep and fished.

During World War I there was German U-boat activity in the waters off Assateague Island. Ships were sunk and crews were taken captive for a few days, but luckily there were no casualties.

After the war, fortunes changed for Assateague Village. In 1922 a new landowner purchased most of southern Assateague Island. His overseer refused to allow the villagers to cross the property to reach the fishing grounds at Tom's Cove Hook, which is at the extreme southern end of the island. The villagers began moving away once their access to the fishing grounds was blocked. They put their houses on skids and moved them across the bay to Chincoteague Island to the south.



Groins are arm-like structures built perpendicular to the shore that trap sand on their updrift side. They can cause erosion downdrift by depriving those areas of sand, but these early groins in Ocean City didn't have any lasting impact.

Sport Fishing

Just days after the storm a couple hired a boat to take them sport fishing in the Atlantic, and it was this form of fishing that complemented the town's vacation atmosphere. Sport fishing would become the most important economic benefit of the new waterway.


By the time the hurricane struck in 1933 and separated Assateague from Fenwick Island, all the residents of the village had moved away. Thus the physical separation punctuated what had been happening socially on the island, and it was left uninhabited and mostly in a state of wilderness.