Chesapeake's Poplar Island may rise again Heritage: In the spring, state officials hope to begin a 20-year project that will not only salvage what remains of Poplar Island, but will also rebuild it to its sickle-shaped 1847 outline.

November 30, 1997|By Steven Kreytak | Steven Kreytak,CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE

POPLAR ISLAND - Presidents and their Cabinet members once played on Poplar Island. Bootleggers made moonshine there, and a man who raised black cats for their pelts was wiped out when the Chesapeake Bay froze over and thousands of cats scurried to freedom.

Those days are long gone. But then, so is most of Poplar Island.

There is almost nothing left today of the Talbot County island that covered 1,100 acres in 1847. Erosion has eaten the island away ever since and has broken it into several pieces, only one of which is bigger than an acre.

It is in this desolate spot that federal and state government officials have decided to make a new 1,100-acre Poplar Island rise out of these gray, brackish bay waters.

Poplar Island today is a desolate and lonely place - a few miles into the bay, about halfway between Kent and Tilghman islands.

It might as well be the middle of nowhere. It takes about 15 minutes to get to the islands by boat from Tilghman Island, and once you're there, the most remarkable parts of Poplar Island today are the remnants of the trees that once covered it. A few still stand, but most are falling or have fallen into the bay. They march out from the remaining slip of land, marking the old boundaries of Poplar Island that have since fallen away.

Rich Ortt has watched Poplar wither to the northwest winds over the last few years during his work for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

On a recent trip, he shook his head at the state of the island and predicted that soon there would be nothing left. But Ortt doesn't need to say what he's thinking. There is an eerie sense that what's left of this island is ready to give up, to yield to the elements and get lost in the water forever.

The state tried to stem the erosion once before, creating a barrier of old barges along the western edge of the island five years ago. It didn't work.

"Holy may, there's nothing left of her," said David Bibo of the Maryland Port Administration as he stood on the hulk of a barge this month and surveyed the island.

By this spring, officials hope to begin work on a project not just to salvage Poplar Island but to rebuild it.

The planned restoration is a 20-year project that will dump millions of tons of sand and silt dredged from the bay's shipping channels to create a new island.

The federal government will pick up 75 percent of the $427 million cost - one of the largest such projects ever undertaken in Maryland - and the state will pay the rest.

When it is finished, the state will have found a home for 20 years of dredge spoils and created a new wildlife refuge in the process.

John Gill of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a driving force behind the project, said he anticipates the creation of a thriving island habitat to replace one that flourished there for centuries.

"We are trying to maintain or create an ecosystem component in the Chesapeake Bay," said Gill. "Having islands to live on is very important to some of these species." He envisions a restored Poplar Island where herons and egrets wade and eagles perch in the new trees, where deer graze and diamondback terrapins swim.

Building a new island within the sickle-shaped, 1847 outline of the island will create a harbor where Gill said aquatic plants can grow, luring soft-shell crabs and serving as a spawning area for fish.

A rock wall will rise 20 feet above the bay, forming a containment dike on the west side of the island. Dredged sand will be deposited there to create an upland habitat.

The eastern wall will be just above bay level and will be breached in spots to allow tidal flooding of the lowland. Silt from the bottom of the bay will be used to create the wetlands necessary for environmental health.

Gill said attempts will be made to make the island's interior as natural-looking as possible, "kind of like a mosaic pattern of marsh, tidal creeks and tidal ponds."

As parts of the island are filled, they will be planted with grasses, shrubs and trees, turning it into a bay island that rises higher above the water than others.

None of the 38 million tons of dredge spoil that will make up the new island will come from the polluted bottom of Baltimore harbor, which calmed fears of residents.

That, combined with the benefits of the wildlife refuge that the new island will become, helped deter the usual opposition of environmentalists to dredging projects.

The Poplar Island chain, which includes Jefferson and Coaches islands as well as the remains of Poplar, was once a single, crescent-shaped land mass that roughly paralleled the Eastern Shore.

Looking north from Coaches Island toward what's left of Poplar Island - which has no sign of life besides some tall grass and sea gulls - it's hard to imagine that anything memorable ever took place there.

But its rich habitat and strategic location have put it in the middle of significant historic events.

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