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

1934-1962, Ocean City Urbanizes While Assateague Island Reverts to Wilderness

Ocean City

By 1934 white marlin had been found offshore of Ocean City and sport fishing quickly became a key component of the town's tourism-based economy. Activity slowed down during World War II, and U-boat activity by the Germans had deadly consequences off the coast of Ocean City. To protect commercial ships in the area, a "dim-out" of all lights was ordered in the town.

After the war, Ocean City experienced a boom period. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge opened in 1952, making the town easily accessible for East Coast residents. Concurrently, an increasingly affluent population had time to vacation These combined factors led to increasing numbers of tourists visiting Ocean City.

Beach erosion became an important issue at this time, precisely because more tourists meant the integrity of the beach was increasingly necessary. The groin building that had begun in the 1920s picked up in the mid 1950s, and dune building was started to protect the town's highway.

In March 1962, a severe northeaster struck the town. It lasted for a period of five high tides, resulting in its name, the Five-High Storm, and the large storm surge damaged many buildings and opened a temporary inlet in the north section of town. The Corps was called in to implement emergency measures to close the breach and repair the eroded shoreline. Sand from the bays was used to reconstruct the dune, berm, and beach. These actions were successful and the resort was open for the summer season in 1962.


Ocean City Inlet

The Corps was asked to stabilize Ocean City Inlet once it opened. They responded by building jetties to hold open the inlet's entrance. Jetties block wave energy and prevent sediment from clogging the inlet. They also focus the tidal currents in the channel, thereby making them faster.

The north jetty was built in 1934 at the very southern tip of Ocean City. This started impounding sediment immediately since the dominant direction of longshore sediment transport is from north to south. The south jetty was built in 1935 at the very northern tip of Assateague Island. Dredging of the inlet and a channel in Sinepuxent Bay took place in 1935, and it resulted in the creation of Ocean City Harbor at the southwest end of Fenwick Island.

The Corps raised the north jetty in 1937 because it had blocked so much sediment that the excess was spilling over the structure and into the inlet. Sediment that passed around the jetties was moved by the currents going through the inlet, which led to the creation of ebb-tidal and flood-tidal shoals. The ebb-tidal shoal on the ocean side grew particularly large, and by the 1960s it was almost a mile wide.

The changes in sediment transport that took place at the inlet caused significant shoreline alterations for northern Assateague Island. It was being deprived of sand because the jetties physically blocked sediment from the longshore currents, and what did make it around the jetties was often deposited in the ebb-tidal and flood-tidal shoals, rather than reaching the northern end of the island.

Northern Assateague began to erode very quickly, reaching a rate of over 20 feet eroded per year. By the mid-1950s, this erosion caused the south jetty to become disconnected from the land, so large amounts of stone were added to reconnect it with the shoreline in 1956. The north jetty was also raised again that same year to keep sediment out of the inlet.

But these actions didn't address the root cause of the shoaling problem or the growing erosion at northern Assateague, which was the disruption of sediment transport. The rate of shoreline retreat along the northern end had reached 30 feet a year by the 1960s. When the Five-High Storm struck in 1962, the eroded north end breached in two places, and the Corps had to place an emergency beach fill to repair them.


Assateague Island

In 1934, Assateague Island was first surveyed as a possible location for a national seashore by the National Park Service (NPS). Legislative attempts to designate the island as a national seashore were made, but no formal action was taken. In 1943, Samuel Fields' descendents sold the family's land to the Bureau of Sports Fisheries and Wildlife, which would become the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). The land was designated as Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.

On the Maryland side, however, there was an effort to develop a seaside community in the 1950s. A developer named Leon Ackerman bought, platted, and sold land to a few thousand buyers, but only about 30 structures were built during this time. He also donated 540 acres to the state of Maryland for a state park.

The NPS again surveyed potential national seashore sites in the early 1950s, but the report for Assateague Island deemed it to be in the "advanced stages" of development, so it was excluded as a possible site. Although few buildings had been completed, dune stabilization was taking place at this time to protect properties and eventual developments from storm damage.

In 1962 the Five-High Storm wreaked complete destruction on Assateague Island. Dunes were demolished by the storm, as were the few buildings on the ocean side that had been constructed. The platted streets for the subdivision were washed out and buried by sand.

The Five-High Storm thus showed that any developments on Assateague Island were constantly at risk of storm damage. The effects of the storm inspired NPS to once again investigate the possibility of acquiring Assateague Island for a national seashore.


Beach Nourishment

After the Five-High Storm, the Corps turned to emergency beach nourishment to mitigate erosion damages.

Inlet Processes

The Ocean City Inlet jetties modified sediment transport by blocking and altering longshore currents.

When a severe storm struck the area, the ramifications of the engineering at the inlet became apparent.

Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge

Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge was founded to provide habitat for disappearing snow geese. It quickly became an important stop on the Atlantic Flyway for snow geese and many other birds.