As island declined, so did way of life


January 16, 1993|By TOM HORTON

We used to call it the mystery island, and we'd take school kids out in the Chesapeake Bay and turn them loose on the island for a day to explore, to probe its secrets and learn its harsh lesson.

Before long, someone would push through the thick brush to discover the old cemetery, encircled by an ornate fence of thick wrought iron; or even find a tombstone protruding from the marshy shoreline.

Other children would return bearing fragments of pottery, sometimes the entire handle of an elegant teapot, or pieces of glass-stoppered medicine bottles from Colonial apothecaries.

Notice the quality of the china, we would tell the kids. This was a prosperous community. And a long-lived one, judging from dates in the cemetery going back to the 1700s. But something erased the community abruptly. Scarcely a gravestone appears from after the turn of the 20th century. Only a single weatherbeaten house, now used by duck hunters, remains.

The "mystery" island, known as Holland's Island, is in southern Dorchester County north of Smith Island. What caused its abrupt abandonment is an all-too-common fact of life to those familiar with life on the bay's margins.

Holland's Island a century ago was not a place most of its residents would have considered leaving. Its captains and its watermen were among the bay's best, harvesting an abundance of oysters in winter, shad in the spring, and blue crabs during the summer.

Covering almost 6 square miles, the island boasted rich soils, and Holland's islanders grew wheat, corn, asparagus and both white and sweet potatoes. Six large orchards grew there, and an old islander recalled several years ago that his most vivid memory was the smell of the place, the fragrance of blossoms that greeted returning sailors.

The big cove on the Tangier Sound side of the island once held nearly a hundred skipjacks, schooners and bugeyes. An old photo of what was called the Bayshore Ridge, facing west toward St. Mary's County, shows a classic small-town main street.

There were seven stores, including a confectionery; a church; sixty-odd homes; a community hall, and two ballfields. The Holland's Island Eagles routinely mopped up the diamond with teams from Hoopers, Smith, Deal and other watermen's communities; at least that is the recollection of Holland's Islanders.

A favorite Holland's story, told to illustrate the self-sufficiency of the snug community, has the captain of a state icebreaker approaching the island during the nine-week freeze-up of 1917. He has soup aboard for those in need, the captain tells island youth who skate out to meet him. Soup, they cry disdainfully; why, they have plenty of wild goose to eat.

But by then both island and islanders were inexorably on their way into the mists of history. Long Island, which formed a sort of buffer against the waves to the bay side of Holland's, had begun to "wash," as they say. In 1911, as the bay gnawed at Holland's, the owner of the main grocery store and of several homes pulled out. He had the houses disassembled, board by board, and erected in Cambridge. By 1918 the island had lost its post office. By the 1920's it had largely been abandoned, though several people kept homes there as summer places.

Few people living today recall that exodus, but the forces that caused it, if anything, have accelerated. Sea level around the Chesapeake apparently began in the mid-1800s to rise faster than it had for centuries, and the rate of increase picked up again in the 1930s.

Scientists who compared aerial photographs of marsh at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge from the 1930s and 1980s have documented losses to rising water of more than 5,000 acres. The same thing is happening to tens of thousands of acres of other marshes baywide, the scientists believe.

In researching a book, I recently had sea-level rise through the year 2100 charted on several low-lying areas of the bay, including Smith Island and St. Michaels. Use the most conservative estimates of sea level rise -- about 3 feet a century -- I told the mappers.

The future? Smith Island is virtually gone, just shallow water. And St. Michaels will either have some kind of sea wall or face constant flooding.

By the time my kids, now 11 and 14, are elderly, the Chesapeake will not have most of the marsh islands and watermen's communities that uniquely flavor its landscape and culture.

Maybe it was partly in an attempt to recapture some of the essence of Holland's Island before it vanishes that I and some friends talked I. T. Todd, a Crisfield seafood packer, into traveling to the island with us.

He was, as far as he knows, the last child born there -- in November 1917. His parents moved off the following January, but he returned often as a boy to stay at his grandmother's house in the summers.

As we approached the old boat harbor on a foggy day just before Christmas, we raised about 300 wintering swans, ghostly in the fog and halloooing like lost souls.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.