Hundreds of islands have disappeared into the Chesapeake Bay, taking histories and habitats with them. The Maryland Environmental Service now seeks to restore one of them.
In 1607, Captain John Smith conducted the earliest cataloged explorations of the Chesapeake Bay. He and his men documented the existence of hundreds of islands in the bay. Throughout the following centuries, many of these small islands became homes to fishing villages, farms, and eventually mills; although today many islands have fallen victim to erosion. They have disappeared beneath the salty bay waters, their histories submerged along with them.
[caption id="attachment_1343" align="aligncenter" width="501"]
Captain John Smith; he looks much different here than the he did in the Disney film Pocahontas.[/caption]
William B. Cronin, who passed away in 2015, spent 30 years exploring and researching the Chesapeake bay and its tributaries. Cronin was born in Aberdeen, Maryland in 1915 and spent much of his life on the shores of the bay. He studied its habitats and tributaries, and in 1947 helped found the Johns Hopkins Chesapeake Bay Institute, a hydrographic research center funded by the U.S. Navy, and the Maryland Department of Research and Education.
In 2005, Cronin published a book titled “The Disappearing Islands of the Chesapeake” that chronicles the histories of some of these islands. When he was not working with at Hopkins, Cronin would sail across the bay on his 25-foot sail-boat, Ginger. He would explore the marshlands, beaches, and islands inaccessible by land. He interviewed the inhabitants that remained and spent hours researching their histories at regional museums, historical societies, and archives. Cronin knew the fate that awaited these islands, and it became his passion and duty to document them before it was too late.
What is happening to the islands?
Of the many islands that once existed in the bay, nearly 500 have entirely disappeared. While sinking islands is a partially natural process, due to the process of erosion, human behavior can play a role in accelerating the process. Many of the islands in the bay were farmed and logged; both of these processes can destroy the system of roots and soil that hold an island in place.
Even with the erosion process occuring naturally, William Cronin points out that the bay waters are indeed, rising. According to Cronin, until 1900 the bay rose at a rate of about three feet every 1,000 years, which translated to about 31.5 inches per century. But since 1900, the water has risen over a foot, and Cronin wrote that over 10 years ago. In 2013, a panel of experts projected that by 2050 waters levels could rise as much as 2.1 feet, and an estimated 3.7 feet by the end of the century.
While all of these dates seem far off, islands that once houses lively communities have already disappeared into the bay, one even as recently as 2010.
The Disappearance of Hollands Island
Less than one hundred years ago, Holland Island was a community of over 350 residents; Cronin wrote in The Disappearing Islands of the Chesapeake, "In 1900 the island had its own post office and post-mistress, a church and resident preacher, a doctor, and a midwife who brought many a new islander into the world. More than a hundred children attended the Holland island school.”
[caption id="attachment_1346" align="alignnone" width="1001"]
Hollands Island, early 1900s[/caption]
By the 1920s, the Island was abandoned because of the threat of erosion. One man who still owned property on the island worked tirelessly to save the island; yet, in 2010, the final trace of the island, a 125-year-old farm house, collapsed and disappeared into the water.
[caption id="attachment_1348" align="alignnone" width="1024"]
Hollands Island, 2003[/caption]
[caption id="attachment_1345" align="alignnone" width="1173"]
An aerial photograph of the island, 2010[/caption]
[caption id="attachment_1344" align="alignnone" width="1075"]
Hollands Island today[/caption]
Poplar Island faces a similar fate
One such island is Poplar Island, located in Talbot County in the mid--Chesapeake Bay. The island was discovered and settled in 1626. During the British invasion of the Chesapeake Bay 1813-14, the British occupied Poplar Island. By the mid-1800s, the island was already eroded into three separate islands named Poplar, Jefferson and Coaches Islands. In the 1880s, the three islands of the Poplar Islands group had a population of 70 to 100 people. There was a sawmill, a general store, a post office, and a combination schoolhouse/church.
In 1931, the island became home to the Jefferson Islands Club, a presidential hunting retreat and club that was invitation-only. There were many distinguished members, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt, President Harry S. Truman, several Governors, Senators, Congressmen, and prestigious businessmen like the chairman of General Electric. The most famous gathering was held on September 22 and 23, 1945, just after VJ Day. Six months later on March 5, 1946, the Jefferson Islands Club burned to the ground.
[caption id="attachment_1349" align="aligncenter" width="500"]
Rep. Sam Rayburn, House Majority Leader, Secretary of War Woodring, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Speaker of the House Bankhead, and Secretary of Agriculture Wallace leaving Annapolis for the Jefferson Islands Club on June 25, 1937. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress collections.[/caption]
In 1948, the father of one Peter K. Bailey purchased the island and their family vacationed there on weekends and during the summer. Bailey’s family sold the island in 1953, and by the 1990s the island had almost disappeared beneath the waters completely; Poplar Island was reduced in size from approximately 1,100 acres, as recorded in 1847, to just five acres in 1993.
Along with their homes, cemeteries, and histories, when these islands sink they take important wildlife habitats along with them. These islands have historically offered relatively predator free homes to many of the Bay’s diverse wildlife and bird species, harbors for the Bay’s fish and shellfish resources, as well as wetlands where plant life does the important job of cleansing the bay water.
In the late 1990s, the State of Maryland chose Poplar Island for a 20-year, $427 million dredging project. The Poplar Island Restoration Project calls for approximately 38 million cubic yards of sediment to be used to build a 1,100 acre complex of uplands and marshes. The dredged material will come from the constant-dredging of the shipping channels that enable large ships to travel through the bay to the Port of Baltimore and beyond.
[caption id="attachment_1350" align="aligncenter" width="475"]
A 2013 Aerial Photograph of Poplar Island[/caption]
The Port of Baltimore is essential for the local economy and the islands are essential for the local wildlife, so it is both an ambitious and important project. The project is quite costly, but there has already been some success with a similar project on Hart Miller Island, now a State park accessible only by private watercraft. Although it is an uphill battle as the bay water erodes the already dredged material, and the machine-heavy process releases more nitrogen into the sensitive ecosystem.
This process of erosion, coupled with human interference, means that we will continue to see the bay’s islands and coastal wetlands disappearing. Conservation of these important habitats and histories will continue, but, as William Cronin said in 2005, “the sea always wins.”
What are your thoughts? Share them with us in the comments!