For example, the famous "Chincoteague Ponies" are a present-day reminder of Assateague Island's past. Although no one is certain when or how the ponies first arrived on the island, a popular legend tells of ponies that escaped from a shipwrecked Spanish galleon and swam ashore. However, most historians believe that settlers used the island for grazing livestock (including ponies and other farm animals) in the 17th Century to avoid fencing regulations and taxation. Regardless of their origin, the descendants of these ponies are still living here today. During the 1800s, a community of people lived on Assateague Island. In addition to homes, the community included a school and a dry goods store.
Shipwrecks along the unpredictable offshore shoals were frequent as coastal trade developed, and "wrecking", or stripping stranded ships of their cargo, became a common practice of some island dwellers. Laws prohibiting this behavior were nearly impossible to enforce. Today, storms occasionally expose shipwreck sites.
Perhaps the most famous shipwreck was the Dispatch, President Benjamin Harrison's official yacht. On October 10th, 1891 the ship ran aground 2.5 miles east, north of what is now the Woodland Trail, and 75 yards from the shore. The 730 ton schooner-rigged steamship was bound for Washington D.C. from New York City when she ran ashore just after 3 a.m. No deaths occurred, but what had once been the official yacht of Presidents Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland, and Harrison was a total loss.
In 1833, the first Assateague Lighthouse was constructed to warn ocean travelers of the dangerous shoals offshore. Construction on a taller, more powerfully illuminated brick lighthouse began in 1860 but was delayed by the Civil War. After the war, work resumed and the lighthouse was completed in 1867. The light was also upgraded that year, to a first order Fresnel lens. In 1891, a separate oil storage building was built, and a new assistant keeper's house was constructed in 1910. In 1929, the keeper staff was reduced. In 1933, the lighthouse’s oil lamps were replaced by an electric lamp, and the original keeper's house was removed.
Today the 1910 assistant keeper's house is used as seasonal staff residence. The oil storage building is used as an art gallery during summer months. In 2004, the U.S. Coast Guard transferred ownership of the lighthouse to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. While the U.S. Coast Guard maintains the light as an active navigational aid, Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge is responsible for preserving the lighthouse. The Assateague Island lighthouse is listed on the Virginia Historic Register. In 2008, restoration of the lighthouse began to preserve this historic treasure. Extensive work was done including repairs to the gallery deck so that visitors can safely enjoy the view from the top of the lighthouse and a new paint job that can be enjoyed while admiring the building from the ground.
With construction of the lighthouse, development of oyster and other commercial fisheries, and the continuation of livestock grazing, Assateague Village became established northeast of the lighthouse. The population grew to 225 by the turn of the century and supported a school, store, and churches.
By 1915, there were 25 to 30 families in Assateague Village, not including the lighthouse keepers and their households. The village's decline began about 1922, after Dr. Samuel B. Fields of Baltimore acquired most of the land on the Virginia portion of Assateague Island. Fields had his land east of the village fenced and posted. His overseer, Oliphant, who lived in a bungalow across the road from the old Life-Saving Station, refused to permit the villagers to cross Field's property to get to Toms Cove. With their access to the cove cut off, the villagers began to move off the island. Their houses were jacked up, placed on skids, and taken to the waterfront. There they were placed on barges and floated across Assateague Channel to be relocated on Chincoteague Island.
The last person to leave the village was Bill Scott, who had operated the village's one general store. Today the village site is marked only by some building foundations and a cemetery.
In 1943, the S.B. Fields family, the principal land owners on Assateague Island, sold their property to the U.S. Government for use as a national wildlife refuge.
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Over the past 200-300 years, these modern-day descendants of domestic horses have adapted to the hardships of living near the ocean. Prior to the refuge's establishment in 1943, the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company purchased the ponies and continues ownership to this day. The Firemen are allowed to graze up to 150 ponies on refuge land through a Special Use Permit from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.