The Town of Onley was one of several Eastern Shore towns that sprang up along the railroad in the mid-1880’s. The village was originally known as Crossroads. While Wachapreague was a bustling seaside town, Onancock an important Chesapeake Bayside port and Accomac the center of local government, the area then know simply as “Crossroads” had little to draw interest.
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. Once the rail line opened a ticket office and warehouse for freight at the location, a new era and a new name sprung forth for the tiny village. No longer was it just an intersection connecting Wachapreague, Onancock and Accomac but rather a destination in its own right. The town was then called Onley. It is possible that the name Onley is derived from “Only”, the nearby estate of former Virginia Governor Henry A. Wise.
It was then that folks came to Onley for a variety of reasons. Produce farmers came to the market to sell their bounty to produce dealers. Local waterman brought their bounty harvested from local waters to sell as well. The much sought after bounties were then loaded on freight cars and shipped via steam engines to big cities up north.
While the steam engines have long left the tracks and the Produce Exchange building now serves as a church, Onley still remains one of the primary centers of commerce on the Eastern Shore. Now boasting more than 60 retail businesses, the Town recently welcomed the Eastern Shore’s only Walmart. Onley is also home to many other establishments that serve the Eastern Shore including the YMCA, the ESRH Community Health Center and the future home of the Eastern Shore Public Library. One of the oldest established organizations in Town is the Accomack County Woman’s Club, founded in 1925 and still going strong.
While all this activity bodes well for the future of Onley, the Town has faced progression without the loss of its small town qualities. 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 boasts an award winning swim team.
Churches play a large part in the Town as well. Onley United Methodist Church, Onley Baptist, St. Peter the Apostle’s Catholic Church, Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints 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 & Rescue Company founded in 1971 after a devastating fire destroyed a large section of the Town’s business district now has 50+ volunteers, as well as a paid staff with assistance from Accomack County, providing emergency response and fire protection. The fire station offers double duty as a gathering place for the community.
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 that Onley would continue the celebration each year thereafter, and so they have. The annual event begins with a lively parade followed by a dignified observance. Everyone is then invited back to the fire station to enjoy free hot dogs, chili, homemade baked goods and live entertainment. Veterans Day in Onley is small town America at its finest.
Celebrations in Onley may soon have a new venue. The Town has secured a lease on property owned by Eastern Shore Railroad or the old NYP&N. 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 gatherings.
A visit to Onley is in itself a pleasure with restaurants, hotels and plenty of shopping so whether you’re looking for that small town atmosphere or the big store experience, you’ll find it here in Onley.