Exploring the Atlantic Wild Horse Trail with Bonnie Gruenberg
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Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge,
Assateague Island, VA
Chincoteague, a small island community on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, historically made its living from the sea. It has long been world-
Although there are festivals and activities in Chincoteague year-
Annually, on the third Wednesday and Thursday of July, Saltwater Cowboys gather more than 200 free-
Chincoteague was a small fishing village accessible only by boat, with schools, a post office, and many homes, mostly made of wood. The streets were narrow, and the houses were built close together. When a building was destroyed by fire early in the 1900's, people realized that they needed to purchase fire fighting equipment and train a team how to use it. They bought a hand pump engine, and later a gasoline engine. But when a serious fire struck fifteen years later, the neglected equipment malfunctioned. Twelve homes and businesses were lost. Four years later, another fire took most of the buildings on the west side. Chincoteague residents vowed that this preventable tragedy would never recur. In May, 1924, the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company was born. To raise money for fire equipment, the annual Firemen’s carnival was organized, which included the round up and auction of the Assateague ponies. Revenue from annual carnivals and auctions allowed the fire company to keep pace with the requirements of a growing population.
The development of wetlands and the black market for waterfowl and their feathers was pushing many native species to the brink of extinction. The Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1943 as a breeding and wintering area for migratory and resident waterfowl on the Virginia part of Assateague. The refuge protected about 9,000 acres (3,642 ha) of coastal wetlands and wildlife. The land in question, however had been free-
Rachel Carson, world-
Later, the Fish and Wildlife Service removed the cattle and opposed the ponies as a nuisance that trampled vegetation and competed with the birds for forage. They erected fences to restrict their range to only 5 percent of the refuge. Almost all of this land was salt marsh, which provided abundant food, but no way to escape the torment of insects, and no high ground to climb in storms. When the Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962 flooded the Assateague lowlands, 22 ponies in the refuge drowned (as well as about 100 on Chincoteague). In 1965, the fences were reconfigured to give the ponies access to high ground and to let them range more freely.
In 1947, Marguerite Henry published the best-
Misty was a real pony, born on the Beebe ranch and not on Assateague, like the Misty in the book. Marguerite Henry fell in love with the week-
Legends tell of Spanish shipwrecks that brought the ponies to Assateague Island. Scientists and historians, however, tend to believe that they descend from livestock that grazed Assateague as early as the late 1600s.
Over the years, the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company has increased the genetic diversity of the herd by purchasing ponies that were true to the original bloodlines from local owners and by introducing outside horses. Historic accounts indicate that until the early 20th century, Assateague ponies were mostly chestnut, bay, brown, or black and showed conformation very similar to the North Carolina barrier island herds. Rugged Shetland ponies were introduced to the herd in the 1920s to give the ponies flashy pinto coloring. Bob Evans, an Ohio restaurateur, donated two buckskin Spanish Barb stallions. In 1939, the fire company brought in twenty mustangs from the West, and in 1978 added forty more. The addition of the forty mustangs in 1978 was in response to an outbreak of Equine Infectious Anemia that reduced the herd substantially. In 1975, half the herd tested positive, and affected individuals were destroyed three years later to halt the spread of the disease. Mustangs were brought in from the West to revitalize the gene pool and rebuild the population. But as hardy as these mustangs were, many could not adapt to barrier island life and died within the first year.
The Fire Company gatherers the ponies three times a year for vaccinations, worming, veterinary inspection, and farrier attention. The animals breed at will, but foals are sold at auction each July, the proceeds benefitting the fire department.
Assateague Island is fortunate to have escaped the clutches of civilization, although man has left his mark in many places. The Wildlife Refuge is easily accessible to visitors. Many come to see wild ponies, but birdwatching is also popular, especially during spring and fall migrations. Massive flocks of snow geese make their dramatic entrance in November., The lighthouse is open for climbing, and there are excellent hiking and biking trails. -
While Chincoteague watermen still ply their trades in the nearby sea and sounds, this seven mile long barrier island is clustered with tourist-
Historical sites, museums, attractions, parks, recreation areas-
Visiting Chincoteague &
Assateague Island, VA
Campground, hotel, motel, or B&B -
Bistros, delis, restaurants, snack bars, buffets-
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