A History of Bay Island

Sometimes I start one of these blogs thinking “Eh, I know all about this already!  I don’t need to check the librar—Oh.  Oh.  Huh.  I didn’t know that.  Hmm.”

This is one of those times.

Location

Bay Island is a small island in between First Landing State Park and Great Neck.  The island is about two miles long but only about a quarter mile wide.  As you can see in this old postcard, it is very narrow and now surrounded by water on all sides.

It is currently divided into two different neighborhoods: the older Broad Bay Colony in the western half, and Bay Island in the eastern half.  But just about everybody calls it “Bay Island.”

Way, Way Older Than You Think

Bay Island, Great Neck Point, First Landing State Park, the mouth of Lynnhaven Bay… all of these were originally home to thousands of Native Americans. Great Neck Point or nearby Bay Island were probably the site of Chesepioc, a major Chesapeake Indian village.  The earliest accounts of the Jamestown settlers mention their explorations of these areas, and their encounters with the local people.  English nobleman George Percy later wrote

At night, when wee were going aboard, there came the Savages creeping upon all foure, from the Hills like Beares, with their Bowes in their mouthes, charged us very desperately in the faces, hurt Captaine Gabrill Archer in both his hands, and a sayler in two places of the body very dangerous. After they had spent their Arrowes, and felt the sharpnesse of our shot, they retired into the Woods with a great noise, and so left us.

It’s likely the natives had already heard about the English antics in Roanoke.  Hence the attack.

Throughout the Colonial period and the 19th century, Bay Island was mostly marsh land, and still connected to Great Neck Point.  The northern boundary of Bay Island was a narrow channel called Long Creek.  The eastern half was probably tidal and only accessible some of the time.  But otherwise, this 1879 map by the Army Corps of Engineers clearly shows no division between Bay Island and the northern shores of Great Neck.

The western half of the land seems to have been higher and dryer, and a few people built homes here before 1900.

The 20th Century

Large scale development didn’t happen until the mid-20th century.

Broad Bay Colony was developed first, in the 1940s.  A small draw bridge connected the island to the mainland.

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the marsh area along the southern boundary was heavily dredged.  A newer, deeper water channel was dug out of the marsh muck.  It was now truly an island.

Deck of a home in Bay Island, looking south across the canal to homes in Great Neck.

In 1959, a real estate company in Norfolk began selling lots to the eastern half of the island.  According to their civic league, “The first Bay Island house was built on Windward Shore Drive.  A 1962 aerial map shows about 33 houses on Bay Island.  Bay Island had almost as many canals as streets, with most homes having backyard waterway access.”

In 1960, Princess Anne County erected the tall bridge that we still use today to access Bay Island by road.  It’s worth noting the postal addresses people used at this time.  The USPS lumped Bay Island with the small village of London Bridge to the south, so everyone’s address was 1234 Road Name, Route 1, London Bridge, Virginia.

A 1991 issue of Real Estate Weekly says: “Across the water from Seashore state Park, and reaching in Broad Bay like the tentacles of a giant squid, is Bay Island, Virginia Beach’s answer to Venice.  Bay Island is canals; serene, secluded canals that invite you to glide into the neighborhood straight up to your own back door.”

The whole area is now so water friendly that you can hop in your boat on Bay Island and zip across to one of the many waterfront restaurants along Shore Drive and Lynnhaven Bay.

Today

Time is taking a toll.  The homes of the 1950s and ’60s are giving way to massive redevelopment.  Virginia Beach citizens, looking for cheap deep waterfront access to the Chesapeake Bay, have begun demolishing the old homes to build newer, bigger palaces.  Take a long look at Bay Island the next time you drive that way – it will probably look very different in 10 years!


George Percy, “Observations gathered out of a Discourse of the Plantation of the Southerne Colonie in Virginia,” in Hakluytus Posthumus, or Purchas His Pilgrimes, compiled by Samuel Purchas (London: H. Fetherston, 1625) 4:1686-1689.

Wolfe, Brendan. “Indians in Virginia.” Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 23 Nov. 2015. Web. 3 Mar. 2018.


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