Chincoteague’s first hotel preceded era of tourism

COURTESY PHOTO The Atlantic Hotel viewed from South Main Street on Chincoteague Island.

BY KIRK MARINER, Shore First columnist

Chincoteague’s tourism is not a 20th-century invention. The island’s first hotel arose well over a hundred years ago and did a thriving business long before the word “tourism” entered the vocabulary of the Eastern Shore.

Joseph J. English built the Atlantic Hotel in 1876, the very year that the railroad reached down to Chincoteague Bay. Though it was located on Main Street on the site of today’s Island Roxy Theatre, the large, 3-story frame building stood in an extensive lawn surrounded by shade trees, at the end of a tree-lined lane that led up to the front porch from its own wharf on Chincoteague Bay.

One of the earliest guests at the Atlantic was Howard Pyle (1853-1911), an artist and illustrator who visited Chincoteague for the pony penning in 1876. Pyle described his visit in Scribner’s Monthly, a popular magazine of that day, and soon readers across the country were learning about English’s hotel, the dining room, even the music hummed by the black cooks Rose and Hannah in the kitchen. Pyle’s article included a drawing of “The Pony Pen,” an old barn behind the hotel where local riders corralled and “broke” the ponies during pony penning that year.

English went bankrupt building his hotel, and in 1878 it was purchased at public auction by John S. Doughty of Philadelphia. By 1882 it was owned by William J. Matthews (1853-1933), who advertised its “large airy rooms,” “home comforts,” its “table provided with wild fowl, terrapin, fish, oysters, crabs, and all the luxuries of the season,” its “first-class bar,” and connections by steamboat to the railroad at Franklin City. By 1884 Capt. “Jim Ed” Matthews was operating the hotel, a man whom the papers called “genial and accommodating,” his “attentive politeness and generosity” equaled only by “the clean, neat, airy and fine hotel” itself.

Though the Atlantic was enlarged by a 3-story addition in 1890, the following summer found its 52 rooms unable to accommodate the unprecedented number of visitors who crowded the island for pony penning. “For the first time in history of the Atlantic hotel all guests could not be accommodated,” reported the local papers, “and enough were turned away to fill the other hotel and boarding houses too.” The “other hotel” was perhaps the small one operated briefly by Major T. Jones in the late 1880s, or the Island Hotel which Daniel J. Whealton constructed nearby to compete with the Atlantic. Both rivals were short-lived, overshadowed by the older, larger, and more renowned Atlantic.

By 1894 the Atlantic was “daily growing more popular and becoming better known.” In March its guests included visitors from New York City and Canada. In September its rooms were full, and cots had to be set up in attic and parlor to accommodate an overflow of guests. Once “considered much too large for Chincoteague,” the hotel had proven itself to be “entirely too small.”

By the early years of the 1900s a regular feature of the Chincoteague column in the local paper was a list of the places from which the guests of Atlantic Hotel came. A representative sampling from July and August 1906 shows visitors from New York, Jersey City, Philadelphia, Wilmington, Baltimore, Washington, Richmond, Norfolk, Newport News, Clarksburg (West Virginia), Milford (Delaware), Ocean City and Berlin (Maryland), and not quite so distant – Accomac and Townsend on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. In the fall of that year Matthews renovated and expanded the hotel yet again, installing gas, steam heat, and a sun parlor “for the accommodation of Northern tourists, permanent and transient boarders.” Managing the hotel at that time was O. Dix Doughty, brought in from Wachapreague, where he had previously managed the old Wachapreague Hotel. A few years later Matthews added another feature: a “hotel bus” to shuttle guests to any and all parts of the island.

On Sunday, September 5, 1920 – the hotel was at that time still owned by Matthews but managed by Charles W. Purnell, an eye doctor who had an office in the building – a fire broke out up the street in the ice cream parlor of L. N. Doughty.

Fanned by a stiff wind from the northeast, it quickly spread to other buildings and soon the entire block (the east side of Main Street from today’s theatre north to Church Street) was ablaze. The fire spread southward, and the Atlantic was the last building to be attacked by the flames: Lillian Mears Rew, for many years a teacher at Chincoteague High, remembered seeing the first sparks land on the roof. Within a short time an entire city block, the Atlantic Hotel included, was reduced to ashes. Though Matthews carried $3,000 on the building and its contents, the local papers confidently asserted that “this hotel could not be put back at today’s prices for $25,000.”

When the smoke cleared, Purnell announced that he was opening a temporary hotel in a nearby drugstore, and would be “prepared to take care of the travelling people in the best style.” By November his “temporary hotel” was in operation, and the papers were again listing the guests of the Atlantic.

Meanwhile, the authorities had arrested J. N. Doughty, owner of the building where the fire began. Etman Cherricks, a 15-year-old also under arrest, had confessed that Doughty offered him $10 to start the fire. Both were indicted by a grand jury on October 6, one month and a day after the fire. On December 8, Doughty was acquitted of the “willful burning of a stock of goods with intent to recover the insurance,” and on April 7, 1921, of a second charge of burning a building. The rumor that lingered locally for years was that he appeared to be guilty, but there was not enough evidence to convict him.

The great fire of 1920 left two important imprints on modern Chincoteague. First, it rearranged downtown as new buildings were erected upon the ruins of the old. Second, it spurred the islanders to secure better fire-fighting equipment, and out of their efforts came the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company still in existence today.

The Atlantic Hotel that perished in the fire also left its imprint upon Chincoteague. For as the new downtown Chincoteague took shape, it contained not one but two new hotels, the Channel Bass and the Hotel Russell, each of them created in the early 1920s by renovating and expanding an older house. The Atlantic had long since proven that Chincoteague has enough tourism potential to support a hotel, and never in the years since has the island been without one.

The Rev. Kirk Mariner was an Eastern Shore author, historian, and United Methodist minister whose book, “Off 13: The Eastern Shore of Virginia Guidebook,” is an indispensible volume for natives and visitors alike. Mariner died in 2017. His work appears in Eastern Shore First courtesy of Miona Publications.


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