A 'gem' offers beauty, solitude Peninsula: Millers Island, a community separated from the rest of Baltimore County by North Point State Park, has its own quiet way of life.

January 04, 1998|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,SUN STAFF

Sun diamonds sparkled on the waves lapping lightly against the pier. Seagulls squawked overhead. A few canvasback and mallard ducks -- and an anchored blue sailboat -- rode easily on the Back River swells. God was in his heaven, and all was right with the small Baltimore County community that residents call simply "the island."

Separated from the rest of the county by North Point State Park, the isolated peninsula named Millers Island has always had a life of its own. Today, longtime residents and a handful of working watermen mix with professionals and young families drawn to the seclusion and spectacular views.

"I like it because we have quiet time now. The water is blue, the sun is bright. It's like a picture postcard," Randy Travalena said of the community that lies between the mouth of Back River and the Chesapeake Bay in southeastern Baltimore County.

Travalena, 41, who has been around the island since childhood, inherited a Millers Island tradition, Augie's Crabs, six years ago from his father-in-law, Augie Zadera. Customers come from as far as Towson and Glyndon, just as they did when Zadera, a lifelong island fixture, was alive.

When duck-hunting season ends in January, Travalena said, he will continue another Zadera tradition, tossing buckets of corn .. onto the water every day for the wild ducks. "I don't want to do it now," he said. "If the corn drifts down too close to the duck blinds, it might get people in trouble for shooting over bait."

Across the peninsula, on the bay side, Dr. Theodore Patterson enjoyed another day of the breathtaking view from his deck on Chesapeake Avenue, across to Rock Hall and Tolchester on the Eastern Shore and down the bay more than 20 miles to the Bay Bridge.

"For the simple pleasures of life, it doesn't get much better," said Patterson, 65, a semiretired physician from Dundalk. "Watching the water, the ducks and gulls, the blue heron and the passing boats, it's almost like a moving screen before you."

This is life in Millers Island.

Pat Durkin, 54, a waterman, lifetime resident and president of the community association, said, "Once you get Millers Island mud on your shoes, you don't want to get it off."

The community began in the 1920s. The Canton Railroad owned the riverside property, and Bethlehem Steel Corp. owned most of the bayside land, limiting development until the companies began to sell property, said Robert P. Ward, former community ** association president.

Many of the original residents were from East Baltimore -- Poles, Germans and Bohemians looking for a place to relax in the summer. The Workmen's Circle, a picnic ground for Jewish community groups, long ago gave way to to housing.

Flooding problems

One problem the community faces is extreme high tides and storms that often flood its low-lying streets.

Flooding has forced people to evacuate their homes at times, and a tag on a sculpture in Patterson's front yard marks high water during one flood. "We had six inches of water in the front door," he said.

Despite such hazards, Millers Island, which has about 200 houses, has experienced what amounts to a construction boom since municipal water and sewer service began in the early 1980s.

In the past seven years, about 20 houses have been built or renovated, many of them summer "shore shacks" converted to year-round living. Generally, new houses are large and of modern design. Older houses -- mostly on interior streets -- are small and plain.

Land for building is expensive, particularly on the waterfront. Carly Broglie, a longtime real estate agent in the area, said houses have sold for $125,000 to $360,000, with waterfront property most in demand.

When she started in the business 13 years ago, said Broglie, a Sue Island resident, "people didn't want to move to Millers Island, but now they can't move fast enough."

Community opposition has blocked two more ambitious projects, proposal for a high-density community and a plan to expand a boatyard into a 75-boat marina with a 500-foot pier on Swan Cove.

Construction and a changing of the generational guard have led to a gradual transition, said retired engineer Jay Thorpe, 71, but Millers Island remains "a nice, quiet protected community, with virtually no crime. It's an undiscovered gem."

The growth has not upset the community's balance, said Robert Lynde, 52, a lawyer for Bell Atlantic who moved into his house five years ago and has a short commute to downtown Baltimore.

'When I come down Millers Island Road, I feel like I'm on the Eastern Shore. It is a pretty, quiet community with beautiful waterfront, which is a precious resource," Lynde said.

It takes time for newcomers to become part of the community, but relations between old and new residents generally are good, Durkin said.

"We have a lot of young families and professional people, a lot of doctors," said Durkin. "It is difficult to buy a home here because so many are generational, with children or relatives buying the family home to keep it in the family."

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