Port dredging helps reclaim vanishing island

Poplar, nearly lost to history, reborn as wildlife haven

  • Wildlife is plentiful on Poplar Island.
Wildlife is plentiful on Poplar Island. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore…)
January 16, 2011|By Timothy B. Wheeler, The Baltimore Sun

POPLAR ISLAND — — While most of the Chesapeake Bay's islands are slowly vanishing beneath the waves, one not far from Baltimore is staging a remarkable renaissance.

Poplar Island, former hunting retreat, hangout for politicos and black cat farm, had nearly washed away by the late 1990s. But it's since been restored to the size it was when it was still a thriving 19th-century farming and fishing community, using muck dredged from the shipping channels leading to Baltimore just 34 miles to the northwest.

Pairing economic necessity with environmental restoration, state and federal government agencies have teamed up to barge 18 million cubic yards of silt to this island just off Talbot County on the Eastern Shore. The stuff has been scraped from the bay bottom so cargo-laden ships won't run aground. Once deposited and dried out behind dikes protecting the island from the bay, the reclaimed material is being shaped by heavy equipment and volunteers' hands into a combination of salt marsh and wooded uplands.

Begun 12 years ago, the effort has rebuilt the island from a few desolate patches of eroding sand to 1,140 acres, roughly what surveyors measured in 1847.

The massive undertaking is costing $667 million, with the federal government picking up 75 percent of the tab and the Maryland Port Administration the remainder. And it's less than halfway done, with plans to add another 575 acres of land.

But it's already teeming with life again, though of the winged and four-footed variety.

"If you build it, they will come," quips Jan Reece, an environmental consultant for the state, as he peers through binoculars to tally the thousands of gulls, herons and shorebirds feeding and sunning themselves. A bald eagle perches on a stand that gives it a panoramic view of the low-slung landform.

"I was here when it was a natural island, and I saw it disappear," says Reece, who grew up on nearby Tilghman Island and who in his youth studied birds on the dwindling Poplar in the 1960s. "And here it is, bigger than it ever was."

Settled early

It's a rare second act for an island with a rich history. English colonists settled here in the early 1630s, rebuilt after an Indian massacre and raised livestock and tobacco, among other crops.

British warships camped here during the War of 1812, and in the 1840s, a grandson of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Maryland's signer of the Declaration of Independence, started a fur farm on the island, importing 1,000 black cats and hiring a waterman to supply them with fish. But the bay froze over that winter, according to a history of the bay's disappearing islands by William B. Cronin. The waterman couldn't get fish to the animals, Cronin recounts, so they apparently escaped across the ice to the mainland in search of food.

By the late 1800s, the island had split into three pieces, but the main portion harbored a community named Valiant with about 100 residents, a post office, a school, a general store and a sawmill.

That sawmill might have been what accelerated the erosion of the island, suggests Laura Baker, an educator with the Maryland Environmental Service, which is managing the restoration project for the port administration. "They cut all the trees down," she said, and destroyed the roots that were helping to hold the sandy land together.

Whatever the cause, by 1920, the last permanent resident had left. The island's next incarnation was as a hunting retreat and political hangout. A group of Democrats bought Poplar and one of its spinoff islands in the 1930s and built a clubhouse on the adjunct, which was subsequently called Jefferson Island. It was a favorite getaway for President Franklin D. Roosevelt; his successor, Harry S. Truman, also apparently visited.

The clubhouse burned down in 1946. Two years later, the two islands were bought by a former caretaker and his wife, who built a hunting and fishing lodge on the ruins of the old clubhouse.

"At that time, Poplar was still about 200 acres," recalls Peter K. Bailey, 69, of Bozman, who was a young boy when his family owned the island. There were still some trees and herons and crows, he said, and deer.

"We had duck blinds over there," he says of Poplar, "and I used to row over there in a boat and explore."

After only a few years, though, Bailey's father died and the family sold the islands. They were the last to live there full-time. Poplar's adjunct islands, Jefferson and Coaches, remain privately owned.

Let's muck it up

State and federal officials hit upon reclaiming Poplar Island in the 1990s as they cast about to find acceptable places to dispose of the muck dredged from Baltimore's shipping channels.

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