Mockhorn Island and the Ruins of a Concrete Effort

I wasn’t sure what I’d find on Mockhorn Island. I knew there was a chance there would be odd artifacts since Mockhorn had once been the secluded retreat of the Cushman family, heirs to a New York bakery fortune, and later Yale University football coaching legend-turned-businessman T.A.D. Jones. Nevertheless, what greeted me when I first stepped on the island’s sandy shores took me by surprise: a tomato plant.

It was a fecund little plant with six healthy fruits a couple weeks shy of ripeness. There was a fat, green hornworm gorging itself on the plant’s leaves. The scene was not in and of itself that unusual, probably repeated in thousands and thousands of gardens the world over at that very moment. But here on Mockhorn Island the tomato plant was out of place, unplanned, incongruous, and it dawned on me that this wild vine was a good example of why all the time, effort and money that rich and well-connected residents put into taming Mockhorn Island–including miles of concrete–are now a jumble of ruins melting into the scenery.

Mockhorn Island

Wild tomato plant

Mockhorn is one of Virginia’s long-deserted barrier islands. It has been uninhabited for more than five decades. I tagged along recently as Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries biologists Ruth Boettcher and Jeremy Tarwater made a trip over choppy water to the island, now managed by the commonwealth as Mockhorn Island Wildlife Management Area.

For centuries, Mockhorn had permanent residents. There had been saltworks on the island in colonial times. Pirates (including Blackbeard) and Confederate soldiers hid from authorities there. Mockhorn was a favorite retreat of hunters, too, for all the migratory and shorebird habitat. But the island had never seen major development; much of the terrain is vast flats of cordgrass and the thin upland hummocks suitable for building were patches scattered along the western edge and vulnerable to overwash from high seas.

In the early 1900s, Larimer Cushman and his wife Caroline bought the island and in the late 1920s retired there. They invested a lot of money not just to make the island livable, but to make it a self-sustaining homestead, too. They upgraded a hunting lodge built by the landowner before them, replete with all the trimmings of the well-to-do: a gazebo and portico, three fireplaces, curved paneling, electricty.

Mockhorn Island 1      Mockhorn Island 15

The ruins of a once-splendid home

Their solution to Mockhorn’s barely-above-sea-level elevation was concrete. Lots and lots of concrete. They built miles of seawalls. They buffered their home and cordoned off pastures with roughly-four-foot-high barriers. Their many outbuildings were made of concrete. Feed troughs, walkways, the shingles on roofs and sidings, all concrete.

Cedar ran a close second as a favored building material on Mockhorn thanks to the species’ remarkable resistance to rot. Cedar trunks supported the main home. They held up the seawalls, the concrete poured into a mold around them. Those pilings are still standing decades after workmen sunk them.

Mockhorn Island 13      Mockhorn Island 2

Left: Cedar post with concrete poured around

The Cushmans’ drive and heavy-duty landscaping allowed for a fully functioning farm where scrubby island habitat had been before. They tended pastures of alfalfa grass and kept a herd of Angus cattle. All their effort, however, was little use against storm surges that spilled over the lip of their seawalls and poisoned their green pastures. When Mr. Cushman died in the late 1940s his widow sold Mockhorn to T.A.D. Jones.

No telling if Jones hoped to resurrect the Cushmans’ agricultural pursuits when he bought the island in 1948. He did, however, build a well-framed, over-sized barn certainly capable of housing a herd of livestock or hosting spectacular parties. The latter seemed more Jones’s style. While coach of Yale’s football team in the 1920s, Jones embarked on a career as an industrialist shipping fossil fuels. He gave up the gridiron to pursue business full-time in 1927, and did well for himself. He founded New Haven Terminal in 1940. After Jones bought Mockhorn, he would ferry the elite of D.C. business and military circles out to Mockhorn for a little R&R, some duck hunting and, no doubt, a sales pitch or two.

Mockhorn Island 12      Mockhorn Island 11

The barn and “duck” or amphibious vehicle T.A.D. Jones used to ferry guests around Mockhorn

When Jones died in 1957, however, all those hunting trips, the concrete walls, the efforts to tame a wild and remote island became history. And that brings us back to the tomato plant. It’s a good example of how, bit by bit, imperceptibly almost, nature worked to take back what Jones, the Cushmans and others before them had worked so hard to domesticate.

The tomato plant undoubtedly started as a seed that passed through a bird pecking through the tomato fields of the Eastern Shore. The bird did his business and it landed in a fertile patch of dead marsh grass. The plant grew, a timeless process that happened with a hundred other species thousands of times all over Mockhorn Island, covering the traces of history left there without regard for all the effort expended there. Nature is not sentimental.

Without the Cushmans there to tame vegetation the plants became feral. The cedars the Cushmans admired for their beauty, endurance and sturdiness have completely choked their splendid island house. The English ivy and wisteria that once adorned the Cushmans’ home grew inch by inch, year by year into places they were never intended to grow.

Mockhorn Island 4      Mockhorn Island 3

Inside the old home

The concrete shingles fell from the roof, letting in water, rotting floorboards. Cracks appeared in the endless lines of concrete. Rain and seawater fell into the fissures and froze, cleaving them slowly apart until whole chunks fell from the walls.

The ceaseless waves of Magothy Bay took a few more grains of sand from beneath the seawall each time they struck. Eventually that buffer between home and sea surrendered and toppled into the very water it was meant to keep out. Now overwash leaves its traces well inland and eats away a little more of the shallow bank each time it rises.

The elements have already claimed the optimism that brought the Cushmans and Jones to this tenuous island to begin with and will soon enough take all the evidence that they were once here.

(Here is a link to Mockhorn’s ruins on Google Maps)

Mockhorn Island 10      Mockhorn Island 9 Mockhorn Island 8      Mockhorn Island 7 Mockhorn Island 5      Mockhorn Island 14

Scenes from abandoned Mockhorn Island

About Ben Swenson

Ben lives in Williamsburg, Virginia. He is writing a book on places of historic value that have been forgotten and are being reclaimed by nature. Abandoned Country is a companion blog to that project. You can contact him at benswenson@cox.net
This entry was posted in Bay Islands, Ghost towns, Industry, Military. Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Mockhorn Island and the Ruins of a Concrete Effort

  1. Jean Steffens says:

    When I was a little girl my dad, Herman “Hardtimes” Hunt used to set his fish nets off Mockhorn Island. I was always with him as my mom died and he raised me. I may be wrong but I understood that it was used as a bombing practice range after the war. Is that correct?

    • Ben Swenson says:

      Thanks, Jean, for reading and for sharing your story. I have read “While the Islands are Still There” which your father wrote and which was part of the collection in Seashore Chronicles: Three Centuries of the Virginia Barrier Islands.

      I’m not an expert on the barrier islands’ history–Barry Truitt or Miles Barnes would certainly know more–but I seem to recall anecdotes about the islands being used for military training. I know for a fact that Fisherman Island was home to a garrison because I’ve seen the infrastructure there. At the northern end of Mockhorn are a few of those military observation towers that were long ago abandoned and are now rusting away. What role they had in military training I’m not sure.

      Thanks again for reading.

      Ben

  2. Marsha says:

    Hi Ben,

    I poured over this article and photographs. Thank you for sharing it.

    I’m a stay at home mom of two teen girls (!!) but once taught history at the middle and high school level. At this point in my life, I’m itching to do “something.” I’m enamoured with all things historical and love to write.

    How can I do what you do? Where and how do I start? Many have suggested that I start a blog but, just like my parents in the 1980’s when they purchased their first microwave, I’m hesitant to approach this new writing vehicle.

    Might you have any thoughts, advice or suggestions to share with me as to how to begin writing?

    Many thanks,

    Marsha

    • Ben Swenson says:

      Marsha,

      Thanks for reading and for the comment.

      The best advice I ever got was an oft-repeated mantra: Writers write. I daresay most folks think there is a story or two lurking in them somewhere, but the difference between writers and the rest of the world is that writers make it happen.

      Blogs would certainly be the easiest place to start. Even if it’s about historical and cultural sites nearby where you live. There are options for maintaining a blog for free; the only expense is the time and effort to create posts.

      Good luck, and share a link when you get it going.

      Thanks again,

      Ben

  3. Diana H.Annunziata says:

    My grandparents Lorraine & Moe Birch were caretakers for T.A.D. Jones. He arranged for a cottage be built for them. I went many times for summer vacations onetime Mr. Jones grandchildren were down for a visit and I got to go fishing with them-it was a paradise. I cried when I saw the pictures you had posted-the club house alone was breathtaking-especially the safe in dinning room holding the liquor-I was child and I love every inch of that island. My brother could tell you some stories but unfortunately he passed last year. Diana

    • Ben Swenson says:

      Diana,

      Thanks for reading and for sharing your recollections. I wish I had gotten to see Mockhorn when Mr. Jones was there. I can only imagine how splendid the structures and grounds must have been. You are certainly lucky for having known Mockhorn in that relatively brief period of human inhabitance.

      Thanks again for your thoughts.

      Ben

    • Wendy Jones Cartwright says:

      Hello Diana, My Grandfather was TAD Jones Sr. I loved your Grandparents, they were wonderful people ,she was an amazing cook and Moe taught us how to fish . I last saw them just before the US Gov turned the island into a Wildlife refuge. Moe came to Townsend and picked my husband and myself up and took us out there for a last time. I will never forget the happy times there and especially your Grandparents who had to put up with all of us children and never lost their patience with us. XXXWendy

  4. Marsha says:

    Thanks for the encouragement Ben.

    I am writing almost every morning – in a notebook, whatever I feel like writing about. I’m just not sure what to do with any of it. I’m a bit hesitant to commit to any one subject area at this point in my fledgling stab at writing.

    Maybe one day when I’m dead and gone, someone will find the notebook, publish it and it will be a posthumous best seller…

    Thanks again.

    Marsha

  5. Daniel says:

    Thank you for the article and all the photos of the place.

    The rusted out “duck” is what is left of an M29C Water Weasel built by Studebaker during WWII.

  6. ST Smaw says:

    Thank you so very much for the photos. My grandmother (Cordelia Smith) worked for the Cushmans many years before I was born. For several years I have been researching information on the island and would very like to visit it myself. Is there a contact person that I could call about a tour. I would very much like to take my mother . Thankx again!

  7. Jim Blanchard says:

    If you want to see the islands in person, I recommend contact David Thorne with LT Bay Charters. I boat the islands most weekends in the summer, David taught me the ropes. Good man.

    http://www.ltbaycharters.com/

  8. Linda says:

    Do you know where the name Mockhorn came from? There is a whisper of legend by some in my family that a McHone ancestor of mine worked for John Custis when he owned the island. However, I have found no shred of hard evidence of that. Please respond to my email as well as posting it publicly (if you desire to so do). In Custis’s will, he mentioned the island and spelled it Moccon Island.

  9. David Czanowski says:

    First of all this is a very informative write up about the island, I enjoyed reading it. My wife and I are thinking of kayaking to and camping on Mockhorn Island but I can’t seem to find a suitable place to leave our vehicle overnight. Do you have any suggestions?

  10. Thank you for a wonderful snapshot of history of Mockhorn. I live up on Saxis Island, the Northern end of the Eastern shore, another very historical area with many untold (and told) stories. I loved reading about Mockhorn and look forward to following you! As a board member of the Saxis Island Museum these stories are so very important to be passed on for the future generations.

  11. Mark Donovan says:

    Ben:
    I have visited Mockhorn many times. Interesting building methods used there for sure.
    Those rusting towers mentioned were for spotting for the big naval guns at
    Fort Custis and Fort Story on the Virginia Beach side of the bay.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *