The idea of a fishing town seems almost like something out of a storybook, with coastal landscapes and picture-perfect piers. And yet, these towns have faced the ups and downs of a fishing-based economy, flourishing some years and struggling in others. Even so, Virginia’s fishing towns have remained an important part of the state’s identity. Today, they make for fascinating stops as you travel along the scenic Eastern Shore. Here are towns with a history tied to the coast, whether that means fishing, crabbing, or an overall way of life:
Lovingly known as the "Ham Capital of the World," Smithfield can be found in Isle of Wright County. This town of a little over 9,000 is known for its famous production of Smithfield Ham, but its ties are also coastal. The town was colonized in 1634 along the Pagan River, close to Jamestown. While its identity in the coast was mostly based in trade, Smithfield still feels like a fishing town.
Onancock is located in Accomack County. In the mid-1800s, this quiet town was an important part of the stagecoach route that travelled from Wilmington, Delaware to Eastville, Virginia. With a population of just 1,300, Onancock retains its identity as a quaint town with plenty of coastal charm.
Chincoteague Island is a breathtaking portion of the Eastern Shore, known most famously from the wild ponies that reside on the beaches of the nearby Assateague Island. Settlement on the island began as early as 1650, and the economy thrived on the abundance of life in the Chesapeake Bay. Today, tourists and residents alike enjoy the coastal charm of the island, with its local shops and restaurants.
The beautiful brick courthouse that resides in Accomac was constructed in 1756, nearly 100 years after the town was first established. The town was settled as one of the eight original shires in Virginia, and today has an estimated population of 500. Today, visitors can get to know the rich history of this town through a walking tour that includes the Courthouse, Old Mercantile Building, and Debtor's Prison (photographed above).
Wachapreague is fondly referred to as the "Little City by the Sea," an accurate depiction of this historical community. For centuries, both fishing and seafood have drawn people to this Eastern Shore community. In addition to its commercial fishing, the town is also known for its marine railroad as well as the Hotel Wachapreague, one of the largest and finest in the area.
Located in Northampton County, Eastville has served as county seat since 1680. It's a town steeped in history, most of which has been beautifully preserved and stands the test of time. In August of 1776, the Declaration of Independence was read from the courthouse steps. With a population of 200, this town continues to welcome visitors to its charming, colonial-era streets.
7. Cape Charles
Cape Charles is a true Chesapeake gem. While its identity is largely coastal, Cape Charles is equally known for its railway heritage. The town is one of the largest in Northampton County, boasting a beautiful historic downtown area with impressive Victorian and neoclassical architecture. In addition to fishing, visitors can also enjoy the state parks, beaches and wildlife refuges.
Just east of Heathsville, Reedville is a small community established along the western shores of the Chesapeake Bay. Reedville, for a time, was perhaps the wealthiest town in America all because of the abundance of nearby menhaden. This small Atlantic fish funded Millionaire's Row, a block of Victorian mansions still existing today. Reedville is a fascinating
spot to stroll and learn firsthand about the fishing industry.
9. Tangier Island
Tangier Island is another Accomack County treasure with an especially unique history. The island's founders hailed from South West England and, with little influence from mainland America, some residents of Tangier speak in an English Restoration-era accent. Throughout its history, Tangier has relied more heavily on crabbing than fishing. Oysters have also been a major part of the industry.
Whether you have an afternoon to spare or an entire weekend, you won’t soon forget your time spent along the Eastern Shore. Do you happen to live in one of Virginia’s charming fishing towns? Please feel free to share your experience with us!