A tale of two islands

ON THE BAY

Comparison: Smith Island and Tangier Island are similar in many ways. But a closer look shows they're worlds apart.

April 23, 2004|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

TYLERTON - "JUST 58 of us now."

It was the talk of those sitting around the store last week in this Smith Island village. An elderly lady, resident for more than 90 years, had departed for a mainland nursing home, or "gone off" as they say on the island.

Across Maryland and most of the world, it is growing numbers of people we worry about, but here on Smith, one of the Chesapeake's only two inhabited offshore islands, it's a grim countdown in the opposite direction.

Look at the numbers for Tylerton, one of three towns on this marshy bastion of bay watermen eight miles off Crisfield.

1980: 153 year-round residents

1987: 124

1994: 90

2004: 58

You don't have to be a visionary to see where that trend's headed. It's the same for Smith Island as a whole - the population has gone from about 800 in the 1950s to about 260 today.

I've had a residence on Smith Island, mostly part time, since the 1980s, so none of this is news. It was news of little Tangier Island, just south of here, that sparked this column.

The Sun's Chris Guy reported how Smith Island's Virginia counterpart was coping with Hurricane Isabel, which devastated crabbers' shanties - workplaces built on stilts over the water that are not eligible for disaster assistance.

Isabel's economic impact on the bay's only other offshore community is estimated at about $2 million - no joke in a place where the median income is $26,000.

But it was clear, also, that Tangier is going to struggle back, is going to make it all right. I'm not sure Smith could take a blow like that and survive anymore.

And you wonder what the difference is between these two rarest of human communities in the bay region. Only six miles apart, both were settled a few centuries ago by folk originally from the southwest of England.

Both depend on harvesting the bay. Both are fiercely independent, hardworking, highly religious Protestant communities. Both have maintained and even flourished through centuries of storms, and through persecution during the American Revolution and War of 1812.

But skiff down from Smith to Tangier, and it's a different world, bustling and vibrant to a degree that is more than one would expect from Tangier's population - a little more than double Smith's.

Geography explains some, and maybe a lot of it. Ground high enough for settlement is scarce on both islands, but on Tangier, it's all in one place.

About 600 people in one place support considerably higher levels of everything from groceries and restaurants to tourist amenities - even an airport - than a population scattered in three separate villages such as Smith's.

This oneness, enforced by where nature put the high ground, may even explain why Tangier long ago incorporated and adopted mainland-style government - police and a mayor and council, and now a full-time town manager.

It may be a reason Tangier has long had its own school, kindergarten through grade 12, which has not had a dropout in 15 years and sends an average of 60 percent of its graduates to college.

Many people find Smith more charming, with its three towns of Tylerton, Rhodes Point and Ewell - all in sight of one another across vistas of salt marsh and creeks - yet as apart and different in some ways as different countries.

Where else would the Methodist preacher travel by boat every Sunday, giving the same sermon to all three towns?

The last time Smith took a vote on whether to have a government, about 1990, government lost 260-3. Police, there are none, and none needed, most here say.

But Smith's arrangement doesn't favor cooperation. The place has never had its own high school. Kids of junior high school age go off daily on a school boat to Crisfield (no snow days delay this "bus," but kids instead enjoy "high wind" days off).

On Tangier, "our school is definitely the biggest thing that keeps us intact," says Denny Crockett, the principal and an island native. He and others observe that it seems Smith Islanders leave their island more easily for residence in Crisfield than do Tangierines, even though both use the mainland town as their mainland port.

Indeed, about 30 Smith Islanders have moved to Crisfield in recent years to trade the crabbing life for jobs as guards at the state prison up the road near Princess Anne.

Although both islands are popular tourist destinations, Tangier embraced tourism earlier and more aggressively. Summerlong, as many as 600 daytrippers arrive there, seven days a week. Weekends, the airport gets up to 90 fly-in tourists. The crowds are a mixed blessing, but probably a fifth of the island derives some tourism-related income.

The collapse of oysters in the bay has also hit Smith hard in the past couple decades. Many watermen now have little or no winter income. Tangiermen have a winter crab fishery in the lower bay, where catches have held up better than oysters.

Tangier may or may not have the secret to survival in the 21st century. "Sometimes I think Smith's just 10 years ahead of us," says Beth Thomas, who with her husband, Rudy, runs a tourist, mail and freight boat company on Tangier.

The population of Tangier once was more than a thousand people, and has dropped from 725 to about 600 in the past 15 years.

However, while it's hard to define a critical mass - below which a community ceases to be functional - it's clear that Tangier still has critical mass.

Smith these days seems fearfully close to losing it, which would be a loss of something special for all Marylanders. I, for one, am happy Isabel didn't severely test the island's will to survive.

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