Holland Island home's demise marks 'end of era'

Holland one of bay's eroding, formerly inhabited islands

October 22, 2010|By Timothy B. Wheeler, The Baltimore Sun

WENONA — — For 15 years, Stephen White battled the elements. But time and tide have claimed another remnant of the Chesapeake Bay's fading maritime culture.

White, a Methodist minister and former waterman, poured his sweat, savings and even a little blood into trying to preserve the last house on Holland Island, an eroding stretch of sand and marsh in the middle of the bay, about six miles offshore from here.

The two-story frame structure, which he figures was built 112 years ago, was the last vestige of what was once a thriving fishing community of more than 300 residents, with 60-some homes, a church, school, stores and a social hall. A fleet of skipjacks, bugeyes and schooners docked there. The community had its own baseball team and a band, histories recall.

Inspired by memories of visiting the already abandoned island in his youth — and by the plaintive appeal from the grave of a child buried on the island — White tried to halt the bay's inexorable encroachment. He armored the shoreline with timber, sandbags, even a sunken barge. When water began lapping at the home's foundation, he jacked it up.

Earlier this year, White decided he couldn't go on. At 80, he was battling cancer, and his energy was flagging. So he sold the island, which he figures has shrunk by 20 acres since he bought it. Last weekend, as gusty winds battered the house — already damaged by another storm a month ago — the bay finally claimed it. It collapsed into the water that washed beneath it.

"That's a bitter pill for me to swallow," he said this week from his home on Deal Island. "It's like I lost a loved one, but at the same time, I'm angry about it."

White said he spent perhaps $150,000, almost all of it his own money, on efforts to halt the erosion and shore up the house north of Crisfield. But he faults the state and federal government for not helping him more.

"They will not and are still not going to realize what erosion is doing to the Chesapeake Bay," he said.

Shoreline erosion is a fact of life on the bay. Maryland officials have estimated that this state alone loses about 260 acres of waterfront a year, depositing roughly 11 million cubic yards of sediment in the water. Sediment clouds the water, blocking out the sunlight that underwater grasses need to grow and smothering shellfish beds. Eroding shoreline also brings with it plants and other organic matter that helps feed the massive algae blooms that foul the water and rob the watery depths of fish-sustaining oxygen.

State and federal officials say they do take erosion seriously, but it's costly to control, money is limited, and the vast majority of it is coming from privately owned land.

"Unfortunately, without a major reconstruction of the island, it's a losing battle," said Dan Bierly, a planning section chief with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Baltimore District office, which handles shore erosion control projects in the Maryland portion of the bay.

Holland has plenty of company. Barren, Bloodsworth, James, Poplar and Sharpe's are the names of some once-inhabited islands, their settlement dating back to the 17th century in some cases. Some islands like Hooper and Deal are still populated, but they're connected to the mainland by bridges. Only Maryland's Smith Island and Virginia's Tangier Island are standalone communities out in the bay.

"Of all the now-abandoned islands, Holland's Island may have been the most consequential in terms of the size and vibrancy of its community," said Pete Lesher, curator at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum at St. Michaels. The museum has an exhibit on the bay's disappearing islands and their culture produced by Tom Horton and David Harp.

As is the case with most of the bay's islands, Holland was named for an early owner, a 17th-century colonist named Daniel Holland, according to "The Disappearing Islands of the Chesapeake," by William B. Cronin. Only about a half-dozen families lived there into the 19th century, but by the 1880s, it became home to more than 360 people, with most of the men oystering, crabbing and fishing, though some also farmed.

Ira T. Todd was born there in November 1917. He figures he was one of the last to claim it as a birthplace, as families had begun moving away by then. His family relocated to Crisfield, where he now lives.

"They were washing away even then," he recalled of the island. "I remember my parents telling me [water] came up in the backyard when storms would come."

While Holland is not the first to lose its population, the demise of its last house is nonetheless jarring to those who've seen it standing lonely sentinel on the bay. Many boaters used it as a navigational aid.

Don Baugh, vice president for education for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said he was saddened by the collapse, even though he figured it was on borrowed time. He called it "the end of an era."

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