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The opening of the New York, Philadelphia and Norfolk
Railroad (NYP&N) on Virginia’s Eastern Shore was the catalyst for the
development of many of the towns in the region. Onley is a prime example,
for prior to the railroad’s opening in 1884, Onley was little more than an
intersection connecting Wachapreague to the east, Onancock to the west, and
the county seat — Accomac — to the north.
While Wachapreague was a bustling seaside resort,
Onancock an important Chesapeake Bayside port and Accomac the center of
local government, the area then known simply as “Crossroads” had little to
But when the rail line opened a ticket office and
warehouse for freight at the location, a new era — and new name — sprung
forth for the tiny village.
No longer was it just a “Crossroads,” but rather a
destination in its own right, and the town was soon dubbed “Onley,” a name
possibly derived from “Only,” the nearby estate of former Virginia Governor
Henry A. Wise.
Then folks came to Onley for a variety of reasons, none
more important than the produce markets where, season by season, farmers
came to the auctions to sell their bounty to the produce dealers.
Strawberries, still dewy from the fields, came by horse cart to be looked
over, bid on and loaded aboard the freight cars. Mighty steam engines then
hauled their loads to the big cities up north. Other Eastern Shore produce
was handled the same way, as was the much-sought-after bounty from local
The historic Produce
Exchange building now houses a church.
While the steam trains have long left the tracks and the
historical Produce Exchange building now serves as a church, Onley has
nonetheless remained one of the primary centers of commerce on the Eastern
Shore. Now boasting more than 60 retail businesses, the town recently
welcomed the Shore’s only Walmart, and more construction is on the drawing
boards. According to Mayor Billye D. Custis, two new strip malls will soon
join the two large plazas in town and the Eastern Shore Public Library plans
to build a new main location on property recently donated by Shore Bank.
Also well along in the planning stages is a new Municipal Building to serve
as the town office and police station.
Onley is also home to many other establishments that
serve the entire Shore. The Eastern Shore Family YMCA and Eastern Shore SPCA
are located just south of the town limits, as are Nandua High School and
Nandua Middle School.
One of the oldest established organizations in the town
is the Accomack County Woman’s Club, founded in 1925 and still going strong.
One of the newest buildings is the new Onley Community
Health Center, operated by Eastern Shore Rural Health System, Inc. (ESRH).
ESRH was founded in 1976 to bring a doctor to the then-underserved town. A
federal grant for $100,000 got things rolling. Today, the Onley Community
Health Center is but one of five centers operated by the organization that
provides primary care to over half the Eastern Shore’s population. The
budget today is over $11 million, with only some 30 percent coming from
And it seems more medical facilities may be in the town’s
Riverside Health System recently announced plans to build
a new hospital to replace the aging Shore Memorial Hospital in Northampton
County. Currently it appears the Onley area is the front-runner for the new
While all of this activity bodes well for the future of
Onley, the town has faced progression without the loss of its small-town
Only an estimated 500 people reside within the corporate
limits, where small-town amenities abound.
Onley Recreation Association operates a pool and tennis
complex and sports an awarding-winning swim team.
Onley United Methodist
Church is one of several houses of worship
Churches play a large role in the town as well. Onley
United Methodist, Onley Baptist, St. Peter the Apostle’s Catholic Church,
Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, Rock Church of the Eastern
Shore and several independent congregations all meet in the area.
A Neighborhood Watch group not only provides extra eyes
for the town’s police force, but meets socially as well, even spearheading
the town’s Christmas caroling activities.
Onley Volunteer Fire and Rescue Company, founded in 1971
after a devastating fire destroyed a large section of the town’s business
district, now has some 50 volunteer members providing emergency medical
response as well as fire protection. With the assistance of paid staff
provided by Accomack County, the company is able to provide fire and
advanced life-support services to the town and surrounding area 24 hours
each day. The fire station does double duty as a gathering place for the
community, especially on important occasions such as Veterans Day.
Veterans Day Celebration
In 2000, looking to celebrate Onley’s 50th birthday as an
incorporated town, observance organizers chose Veterans Day as the date. It
was natural to make recognition of the town’s veterans a part of that event.
The celebration was such a huge success that it was decided Onley would put
on a party for vets each year thereafter, and so they have.
A local Coast Guard
unit presents the colors at the town's
annual Veterans Day Parade.
Now, the annual event begins with a lively parade
followed by a dignified observance. Next, the crowd gathers at the fire
station for free hot dogs, chili and home-baked goods. Then town officials
and volunteers present a program before entertainment takes the stage.
Veterans Day in Onley is indeed small-town America at its finest.
Celebrations such as the Veterans Day fete might soon
have a new venue in Onley. The town has secured a lease on property owned by
Eastern Shore Railroad, the present-day embodiment of the old NYP&N. Already
the Society for Preservation of Onley’s Train Station (SPOTS) is working on
plans to preserve the station that is such a rich part of the town’s
history. Those plans also include using the station and surrounding property
as a stage area for local festivals and concerts.
A visit to Onley is in itself a pleasure. But like the
true “Crossroads” it was — and is — Onley is also ideally suited as the hub
for a visit to other attractions on the Shore. Assateague Island National
Seashore is but a 45-minute drive to the north, a drive that takes travelers
by NASA’s Wallops Visitors Center at Wallops Flight Facility, as well as
through the charming seaside resort town of Chincoteague.
Neighbors of Interest
Just five minutes to the west is the port town of
Onancock, a favorite of yachtsmen and local watermen alike. There more
restaurants and galleries await the discerning visitor and kayaks are
available for rental. To the east, a mere 15-minute drive away, is the
Flounder Fishing Capital of the World, Wachapreague. There boaters can
launch their own craft, rent a small boat or book a charter aboard one of
the many party boats in the harbor.
Lodging in Onley includes a Comfort Inn and nearby
bed-and-breakfast establishments, while several area restaurants offer
diners choices from fast food to full-course meals. Most local restaurants
feature local produce in season and the freshest seafood to be found.
Indeed, the days of the Produce
Exchange and the strawberry auctions are gone, but the Shore’s freshest
produce can still be found in Onley, both in the three modern grocery stores
in town and —
in season — from farm stands that dot the
street corners and parking lots.
Truly, there’s nothing more inviting than purchasing your
just-picked tomatoes, fresh-from-the-field sweet corn and succulent
watermelons from these down-home vendors. But if you’ve just got to have
that big-store experience while on the Eastern Shore, well … you’ll find it
only in Onley.