NOTE: This is a rough draft for a chapter in an upcoming book that is (very) tentatively titled Strange and Wondrous Tales from the Delmarva Peninsula. You can see the other books in my Secrets of the Eastern Shore series here.
Oh, the hours of preparation and work that must have gone into the celebration planned for Chincoteague, Va. on Nov. 15, 1922! Local newspapers promised it would mark “the beginning of a new era in the history” of a place that was already renowned for its wild ponies and delectable seafood. Even big-city papers on the western shore got into the act, billing it as the “biggest day in the island’s history.”
The pressure was on. The island’s 3,500 residents were expecting up to 3,000 visitors. How many of those locals served on the various committees that planned parades and ceremonies and publicity and sporting events? How many families spruced up spare rooms to accommodate overnight guests? How many islanders prepared dishes for the big al fresco meal that would be served to all comers?
Good lord, the governor was coming!
The Washington (D.C.) Times, Oct. 19, 1922: “There has been no enterprise in the history of the Eastern Shore of Virginia that has created as much interest as the building of the system of roads and bridges [stretching] from Chincoteague Island to the mainland.”
Who could have predicted that everything would turn to muck and rain and wind, that the governor would go missing, that all those hard-working islanders would fear he had died? On a day that was supposed to be a grand showcase for their beloved home?
The Man with the Plan
From Native American days, the only way to get to Chincoteague Island was by water. The man who decided to change that state of affairs was John B. Whealton.
Born into a storied Chincoteague family in 1860, Whealton didn’t stay on the island once he came of age. He went off to sea and visited the four corners of the world. He became captain of his own schooner. He once spent two days drifting in the Gulf of Mexico atop a wrecked vessel. He worked on a lighthouse. He ran a shipwreck salvage company. He became an engineer and learned about construction.
A North Carolina town hired him to manage its roads. He built on that expertise after moving to Florida and taking an ownership stake in the Tampa Sand and Shell Company, which dealt in the ingredients used to make roads that were as close as things got back then to “paved.”
Most of us know folks who have taken on big “retirement” projects late in life, trying to contribute something to the world before their time runs out. Whealton was nearing his 60th birthday when he decided to put his expertise to use on behalf of his childhood home. He would build a four-mile-long road linking Chincoteague to the mainland.
His concept for a toll road that would pay for itself and earn a profit won support quickly. The Virginia legislature approved the plan in 1919. When Whealton sought investors, it took him just one short month to sell 70 percent of the stock available in his new company. That company submitted a low bid of $144,000.
Whealton moved back home, taking up residence in the building on Main Street that many visitors to Chincoteague in our more modern times will remember as the longtime home of Muller’s Ice Cream Parlor. Work began on March 1, 1920.
Waylaid by Fire and Storms
Everyone saw that Whealton’s road would bring big, profitable changes to Chincoteague. The place would be more accessible to visitors eager to see those wild ponies and sample those famous seafood dishes. The island’s fish and oyster processors would have new big-city markets to exploit by way of easy truck access to a mainland railroad line.
The Washington (D.C.) Times, Oct. 19, 1922: “The new road will be the greatest boon for Chincoteague of any project that has ever been undertaken in its history.”
The road was quite an engineering feat. A canal was dug out alongside the proposed route so that crews and supplies could access the construction area. Humongous “mud-digger” machines scooped up muck from here and there, then dropped that muck inside of pilings sunk into the marsh. Multiple layers of oyster shells went atop that mud. Heavy rollers packed those shells down. More mud went atop the shell layers. Six separate bridges would be built to carry the roadway over the various creeks, sounds, and narrows between Chincoteague and the mainland. One of those bridges would have a newfangled drawbridge to let boats through.
The Accomac, Va. Peninsula Enterprise, Nov. 11, 1922: “This roadway is about 50 feet wide and is several feet higher than the mark of the highest tides. … When [the top layer of mud] dries out, [it] will leave a smooth, hard road.”
Getting to that point took longer than expected. In September 1920, fire tore through downtown Chincoteague, destroying much of the Main Street area where the roadway was supposed to enter the island. Work on the road stopped. It was all hands on deck with the tasks of clearing rubble and rebuilding. (A good number of the buildings that stand today on the island side of the causeway date to that frantic rebuilding.)
Work on the roadway resumed the following spring. But then winter of 1921-22 brought a run of horrible weather, including one storm that swept away the bridge that was going to carry the roadway over Queen Sound.
Finally, work on the road drew to a close in the fall of 1922. Opening day festivities were set for Nov. 15. According to the historian Kirk Mariner in his excellent Once Upon an Island: The History of Chincoteague, the first man to across without a boat was an unauthorized pedestrian, W.W. Wood. A store clerk from the mainland town of Wattsville, he struck out on his own authority across the causeway on Sunday, Oct. 8. More from Mariner’s book:
“Upon his arrival, islanders Daniel Jeffries and John Taylor, not to be outdone by a mainlander, started immediately in the opposite direction [on foot] to make the first recorded passage from the island to the mainland. Before the month was out Mrs. Edgar Twyford had proven that a woman, also, could” walk the route.
The first vehicle across a Buick was driven by John B. Whealton himself. The final cost of $160,000 was only $16,000 more than Whealton’s original estimate—not bad, considering the delays and complications that arose along the way.
Across the Great Divide
The big day dawned at last. Cars streamed across the new causeway and bridges. By 10am, the streets of Chincoteague were already “alive with visitors.” When Governor E. Lee Trinkle and State Sen. George Walter Mapp arrived on mainland side of the causeway, they were met by a welcoming committee of VIP citizens on horseback, who escorted them to the island.
The parade was spectacular. The Worcester Democrat and Ledger Enterprise newspaper reported that it began with marching veterans of World War I, who were followed by horseback riders in “gala attire,” including a good number of “very attractive maidens riding the celebrated Chincoteague ponies.” A marching band from Onancock performed. Floats with elaborate historical tableaux paid tribute to three founding families of islanders—the Whealtons (who dated their history to 1775), the Jesters (1780), and the Watsons (1790). Another float took the form of a duck blind. Uncle Sam rode the streets on a charger. Happy groups of schoolchildren “emitted all of the 95 percent of noise, of which, scientists say, a child is composed.” They were followed by the firefighters who had done their level best the previous year to contain that horrible conflagration in downtown Chincoteague.
Once the parade ran its course, everyone walked over to a nearby field where the local high school football team faced off against their rivals from Onancock. The plan called for celebratory speechifying after that, followed in turn by that massive al fresco meal (served for a “reasonable” fee) and then a run of evening music, parties, and other entertaining diversions.
Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall
Perhaps if weather forecasting had been better in those days, the events of Nov. 15, 1922 would have been canceled and rescheduled. The rain started falling in mid-afternoon, just as Gov. Trinkle started talking. When that drizzle turned quickly into a downpour, the governor and his fellow speakers were moved inside a new school building.
Some smart visitors sensed what was coming. Even in the dry weather of that morning, the parade of cars crossing the causeway for the first time had cut noticeable ruts into the still-soft mud atop roadway. What was supposed to be a two-lane road had shrunk to one even before the festivities began. Folks who made an early departure succeeded in getting across, but those who stayed had to endure quite an ordeal.
The Worcester Democrat and Ledger Enterprise, Nov. 18, 1922: “And thus we have to chronicle a rather distressing finale to an otherwise successful day. Parts of the highway from the mainland to the Island are constructed of marsh mud thrown up between barriers driven to hold it. This material had not sufficiently dried out to stand the amount of traffic to which is was subjected.”
The Snow Hill Democratic Messenger, Nov. 18, 1922: “The road, which earlier in the day had been an inviting expanse of shells, had been converted by the downpour of rain into a quagmire of mud.”
The first few cars got stuck starting at about 3:30pm. Their number grew into dozens of cars, which then turned into nearly a hundred vehicles. The blockade stretched “almost from the Mainland to the Island.” With their vehicles mired “up to their axles,” drivers “could neither advance nor return.”
Then as now, islanders tend to be a resourceful bunch. They ventured out into the mess, trying to help, but neither “man power” nor “mule power” succeeded in easing the logjam. Next, they sent fishing boats along the construction canal to rescue women and children.
The Baltimore Sun, Nov. 16: “The men, however, were preparing to spend the rest of the night in their cars, … rain-soaked and cold.”
Torrential rain kept falling. The wind picked up. The temperature dropped. Many cars built in those days were not exactly water tight. More rescue boats arrived alongside the roadway, bringing as many blankets as the locals were able to round up.
The Worcester Democrat and Ledger Enterprise, Nov. 18: “The morning found many cars still on the road; their occupants wearied, sick, and sore.”
A Governor Gone Missing
The governor’s car was among those that got stuck. He was soon shepherded with his entourage onto a fishing boat.
The Baltimore Sun, Nov. 16: “Gov. E. Lee Trinkle was reported missing on one of the Virginia fishery boats earlier in the evening, [causing] quite a stir here.”
Under ordinary circumstances, that boat would have arrived on the mainland in less than an hour. But that hour passed, followed by another and then a third. There was no word via telephone or telegraph that that governor had landed.
The Baltimore Sun, Nov. 16: “In the three-hour interim after the Governor’s departure people on this island and the mainland were frantically telephoning to points up and down the mainland, in an effort to get some word of the boat. Nobody had seen anything of her, and as it was dark and stormy, considerable apprehension was felt.”
Finally, a smidgeon of good news surfaced during the miserable night: After hours of bucking headwinds and waves, the boat carrying the governor “staggered” into the harbor at “Wishard Point, near Locato.”
The Day After, and Beyond
Some media reports in the aftermath of the disaster went way over the top. The Washington (DC) Herald claimed that 500 cars were stranded. A more diligent source, the historian Kirk Mariner, puts the actual number at 96. When the rain finally stopped, islanders got back to rescuing their guests. They brought farm tractors, mules, and horses to bear on the problems. Every car was cleared from the causeway before the next day was done. There were no fatalities. I did not even come across reports of serious illness or injuries.
The Worcester Democrat and Ledger Enterprise, Nov. 18, 1922: “It is regretted that the day ended as it did, but Chincoteague is to be congratulated upon the enterprise of its public-spirited citizen, J.B. Whealton; and everyone hopes and believes that the stupendous engineering feat initiated mainly by him will be brought to a successful issue.”
That’s the way things worked out. Two short weeks later, daily traffic atop that causeway was numbering between 150 and 200 cars and trucks. Toll revenues were coming in at a rate of about $100 a day.
The causeway cleared its construction debt and started turning a profit in 1928. The man behind the project, John B. Whealton, died that same year—he had moved back to Florida once the causeway was clear of trouble.
The road’s profitable stretch was brief. After islanders started complaining loudly about paying tolls all the time, the state agreed to take over the road. Tolls were eliminated in 1930. There would still some rough weather ahead. The state had to rebuild some bridges after a big storm in 1936.
A lot more work has happened in recent decades, including the replacement of every bridge along the causeway. As of this writing, all six bridges are less than 30 years old. Somewhere along the way, the causeway was given a formal name that honors its builder. Visitors to Chincoteague nowadays arrive along the John B. Whealton Memorial Causeway.
–written and posted by Jim Duffy for Secrets of the Eastern Shore/Whimbrel Creations LLC on April 26, 2021. All rights reserved.
NOTE #1: This story originally contained an error I carelessly picked up from another source with checking carefully. That error said the rebuilt modern causeway now has fewer bridges than the original six. Big thanks to Chris in the comments below for clarifying in really interesting and knowledgeable detail the history and controversies around the rebuilding of the bridges along the causeway in recent decades–the correct number of bridges is still six!
NOTE #2: The history of Chincoteague that I mentioned by Kirk Mariner should be available in good bookstores on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. You can find more info about it here.