A high tide of gratitude

Appreciation: Smith Islanders make dinner for 250 to thank those who helped with a $3 million project designed to keep a town from washing away.

October 29, 2001|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

TYLERTON - When Smith Islanders are in the mood for a celebration, they do what they've always done - they go to church.

Then they cook up a big Sunday dinner.

In this case, the 70 or so residents of this tiny watermen's town in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay gave praise to God and dished up a feast for 250 yesterday. It was just their way of saying thanks for the biggest and most important public works project ever in any of Smith Island's three tiny villages.

Tylerton residents are hailing the $3 million project, which includes a 2,700-foot vinyl bulkhead to help protect the village's northern and western shore and a stone barrier on the southern shore. The southern shoreline has been disappearing at a rate of 10 feet a year, and the northern and western shorelines have been losing about a foot a year.

The manufacturer of the bulkhead says the vinyl panels will last 50 years.

Without help from local, state and federal agencies, which began planning the work five years ago, islanders say they'd have no chance of dodging the fate of a dozen or more inhabited bay islands that have washed away over the last 100 years.

"It's a miracle of faith that this ever happened to a little place like this," said Waverly Evans, who at 88 is one of the island's oldest captains and still tends a few crab pots every summer. "Everything is so uncertain in this business. I want to live out my days here without fear."

On a blustery fall day so clear that Smith Island (actually two main islands) was easily visible across the 12-mile expanse of Tangier Sound from the mainland harbor in Crisfield, islanders gathered at Union Methodist Church with dozens of engineers, marine construction workers, administrators from the Army Corps of Engineers and other officials.

Bathed in sunlight colored by a dozen stained-glass windows, beneath an ornate pressed-tin ceiling, islanders singled out construction workers and others by name for the roles they'd played in completing the project.

"We're witnessing an event that our forefathers would have loved to have seen," waterman Charlie Marsh told the assembled guests who helped fill the sanctuary to overflowing.

The 90-minute service, punctuated by familiar hymns such as "Faith of Our Fathers," seemed to touch many of the Army Corps of Engineers staff members who had worked closely with islanders on the project.

"There are just not many projects I've worked on where we'd get a standing ovation after a public meeting," said civil engineer Larry Mathena. "People put us up in their homes, they baked us cakes, it was just something really unusual."

Genieve Davis, an island native, joined others aboard the 65-foot Chelsea Lane Tyler, a vessel that normally ferries 28 Smith Island students to and from Crisfield High School, to travel to Tylerton for yesterday's festivities. She said she wanted to maintain lifelong ties to the island.

"I've lived 34 years on the mainland in Crisfield, longer than I lived on Smith Island, but I'll always be an islander," said Davis, who'll be 62 on New Year's Eve. "I was an only child and my parents are gone, but everybody on Smith Island is like a family."

The erosion control project is just the first phase of what islanders and federal officials hope will total $15 million in improvements for the island's villages of Tylerton, Ewell and Rhodes Point.

If all goes according to plan, and there are doubts whether federal money will be available in the wake of the war on terrorism, Army Corps of Engineers officials say Smith Island will receive improvements on two sewage treatment plants, new jetties and wetlands restoration at Martin National Wildlife Refuge.

Yesterday's fete included clam chowder, steamed crabs, oysters and tables full of renowned Smith Island layer cakes and cold salads made by island women. It was timed not to mark the end of the Tylerton project, which won't be finished for another month, but to make sure that workers and engineers who have played crucial roles would be able to attend. Some of the workers and engineers brought family members.

"The people here are just incredible," said Wayne Foard, whose Virginia-based company did survey work for the project. "At the local store, if no one's there, you just get what you want and leave the money in a basket on the counter. My crew got such a kick out of that, they called me on the cell phone. There aren't many places like this."

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