September 22, 2018

Earl Swift’s book discusses the choices facing not just Tangier, but every community in the Chesapeake basin.

A trip by boat from where I live in St. Michaels, Maryland, to Tangier Island, Virginia, illustrates the difficult, and often controversial, decisions being made regarding the Chesapeake Bay’s islands and the people living on them.

Leaving St. Michaels and traveling down the Miles River, a hairpin turn is made at Tilghman Point to traverse the remainder of the Eastern Bay. Veering to the southwest near its mouth, you enter Poplar Island Narrows and cruise past the island to starboard.  

Islands like Poplar have been washing away for at least two millennia since the Chesapeake evolved into its current iteration. As many as 500 may have disappeared during that time, over 40 of them once inhabited.

Poplar Island may have been one of the larger ones in the Bay, but by the mid-1800’s erosion had split it into three separate bodies—Coaches, Jefferson and Poplar. Even in its reduced form, Poplar still had more than 1,000 acres during the 19th century supporting a community of 100 residents farming and working the water. Its main town was Valliant, a familiar surname on the Eastern Shore, that had a schoolhouse and general store. It also had a sawmill which may have hastened its undoing, because dropping the island’s trees could not have helped Poplar’s resistance to erosion. By the 1920’s, its last permanent resident had left, leading to Poplar’s use being changed to a hunting preserve enjoyed by both Presidents Roosevelt and Truman. That ended in 1946 when its clubhouse burned.

Fifty years later, the island was down to no more than five acres and headed for obliteration when it was given a reprieve.

US Army Corps of Engineers photograph circa early 1990's

Three powerful constituencies each had a problem in the 1990s. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was concerned about the accelerating loss of remote island habitats as development boomed throughout the Mid-Atlantic. The Army Corps of Engineers and Maryland Port Administration needed a dumping site for 38 million cubic yards of material that would be dredged over several decades from the channels approaching Baltimore Harbor. The State of Maryland and counties on the Eastern Shore needed jobs as the Bay’s seafood industry declined. These organizations came together to propose that Poplar not only be rebuilt along its 1847 footprint, but made even bigger, increasing its elevation in certain areas to 25 feet, a height seldom seen on Chesapeake Islands. After months of working through all the various approval processes, the Paul S. Sarbanes Ecosystem Restoration Project at Poplar Island was born.  

Today, Poplar is an active construction site of massive proportions. Outsized construction equipment lumbers through its landscape as utility craft scamper along its shores.  Barges filled with heavy rock, boulders and dredge material are nudged into place along its shore by tug boats.

Heavy construction at Poplar Island

Huge cranes lift the rock into place to form seawalls and dikes, creating cells into which slurry from the dredge barges is pumped, building up layer upon layer of dried mud.

Photograph by Dave Harp

Already, the island’s area has grown from five acres to over 1,000 and is on its way to 1,800, half of which will be wetlands and the other half uplands treed with pine forests. There are 175 different species of birds passing through it now, and Poplar has become a major hatching ground for diamondback terrapins. When finished, the island will have tidal flats, coves and breakwaters to provide fishery habitats as well as open water ponds. Its restoration is not inexpensive. The total cost will be at least $1.4 billion when it is completed sometime in the 2040’s.

Photograph by Dave Harp

Leaving Poplar Island Narrows and continuing south, only open water can be seen crossing the mouth of the Choptank River.

Sharps Island was once located here, but all that remains is a lighthouse leaning 15 degrees off vertical. Like Poplar, Sharps once had a farming community on its 700 acres during the late 1600’s and through much of the 1700’s. Its bounty was large enough that during the War of 1812, Admiral Warren anchored his British fleet and came ashore, imprisoning its owner and provisioning his ships with what he found. According to the story, the Admiral was so taken with his colorful prisoner that he paid him $225 in gold for the cattle, sheep and hogs he took from his farm, not an insubstantial sum at the time.

By 1848 a survey showed that Sharps Island had shrunk to 438 acres, but there was still enough land during the 19th century to support summer homes, a three-story Victorian resort with a boardwalk, and a pier at which steamboats coming from Baltimore would dock. However, by 1914, the island had nearly eroded away.

U.S. Geological Survey Chart published in 1904 showing Sharps Island at the mouth of the Choptank River.

Today there is nothing left of Sharps but its name. Unlike Poplar Island, Sharps had no constituency interested in preserving or protecting it.  

Cruising over the remains of Sharps Island, your course takes you into the main bay and then due south, going past remnants of other islands that are either disappearing or have disappeared—James, Barren, Adam, Holland, each of which at some point had families and farms. Some of these islands are being discussed as candidates for the same kind of treatment Poplar Island is receiving, but thus far none have been so fortunate.

Coming into the Lower Bay, two islands can be seen which were first settled by Europeans in the 1600’s.  Fiercely independent, these God-fearing folk from southern England first farmed these lands and then shifted to working the rich waters around them.  To the north in Maryland is Smith Island while immediately below it in Virginia is Tangier, the last offshore fishing community in the Commonwealth. From a boat, both islands are pencil strokes on the horizon, marshy clumps of land struggling to remain a few feet above sea level under the weight of Tangier Sound's enormous sky.

Smith Island, Maryland

The definitive work on the people of Smith Island is Tom Horton’s An Island Out of Time: A Memoir of Smith Island in the Chesapeake.  A former Baltimore Sun columnist and iconic authority on the Chesapeake region, Tom grew up on the Eastern Shore “liking to muck in the marsh” as he says. In the early 1990s, he lived for two years in Tylerton, the smallest of Smith’s three towns, where he worked for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. There he learned what was necessary for survival in a place where school, medical care, and shopping beyond the town’s small general store requires a ten-mile crossing of what can become very dangerous water. “You become attuned, almost subliminally, to the winds and moon phases, to the ebb and flood of water and the lengthening and shortening of the days.”

Now comes the companion piece describing Smith Island’s neighbor to the south, Chesapeake Requiem: A Year with the Waterman of Vanishing Tangier Island, by Earl Swift. A long-time reporter for the Virginian-Pilot, Swift spent a good part of two years living on and researching Tangier, writing an account of the land and the people who may be a generation or two away from having to abandon it if protective steps are not taken.

“It’s there, dead center at the Chesapeake’s broadest point, at the mercy of nature’s wildest whims, that you’ll find Tangier,” he says.  The island is no more than four feet above sea level at its highest point and routinely gets clobbered by heavy weather, including hurricanes. Isabel in 2003 “churned twenty-foot seas and pushed a wall of water up the creek and into the harbor, shredding much of the island’s industrial infrastructure,” according to Swift.  And that wasn’t the last time storm surges rolled through the island’s town. There was Ernesto in 2006 and Sandy in 2012.

There are more forces at work on Tangier than hurricanes, of course. There is the constant nibbling of erosion that has been going on for centuries. There is global warming which has accelerated in recent years, causing ice fields and glaciers to melt and the water in the oceans to expand. There is post-glacial or isostatic rebounding which is the see-saw effect on the earth’s crust when a mile thick ice cap further north crushed the soil underneath and then melted away during the recent Ice Age. Swift describes the earth’s mantle as being “viscoelastic, meaning its goopy, and when squeezed it acts as a gel is prone to do, flowing away from the point of compression.”  The compression created a bulge that was particularly pronounced in the Mid-Atlantic, and as the ice receded the bulge underneath the Chesapeake region began dissipating, a trend that will continue for centuries. That slow dissipation allows water to creep over islands and vast amounts of the lower Eastern Shore.  There is also the meteor that thirty-five million years ago slammed into what has become the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. It created a 50-mile wide crater that not only altered the region’s geology and aquifers, the earth’s mantle around the crater has been settling into it ever since. All these factors and more are causing the lower Chesapeake Bay to sink as water levels rise, something that will be described in more detail in a subsequent blog.

Source: U.S. Geological Survey

It’s not just Tangier that is sinking as seas rise, but so too the Chesapeake’s cities of Norfolk, Hampton Roads, Newport News and Virginia Beach. They surround one of the largest natural harbors in the world which is home to several key military installations including Naval Station Norfolk, the world’s biggest naval base.  Choices will need to be made throughout the region, and Chesapeake Requiem is about one society in the estuary confronting its future, a microcosm of the coming debate that will affect Washington, DC as well as Annapolis, Norfolk and Baltimore.  Swift’s point is, “How we choose to respond to [Tangier’s] plight will speak to what we hold important and how we tackle the more complex rescues and retreats to come.”

The first white settler landed on Tangier in 1778, buying 450 acres of what was then a much larger island to farm and graze livestock.  After that, according to Swift, it became “less a community than a scattering of small farms, its few dozen inhabitants separated by wide expanses of roadless marshes.” While larger in the past before some its villages were washed away, Tangier’s population today is less than 500.  Its economy is a smattering of tourism but mostly the processing of the blue crabs and oysters harvested from the Bay in an area often described as the soft-shell crab capital of the world.  

For the past few decades, there has been a major debate over whether and to what extent seawalls, jetties and breakwaters should be built in and around Tangier to protect the island and its surrounding sea grass beds. Swift writes that its residents are deeply aggrieved by the activity on Poplar, a sentiment I’ve heard from Smith Islanders: “This lavish, decades-long effort and heroic outlay will create a habitat for birds by the thousands and a wide range of other wildlife besides. But the human population will be zero.” Swift asks, how much does Tangier and its inhabitants matter to us?  

Unfortunately, the debate over the appropriate course of action follows a typical pattern found in discussions of the Chesapeake’s changing condition.  Those whose families have lived along the Bay’s shore for as many as twelve generations see erosion as being the primary cause of disappearing acreage.  Those arriving more recently see the cause as accelerating climate change and global warming, but they don’t stop there.  In a curious twist, they go on to trash locals who don’t embrace their point of view as evidence of not only their lack of intelligence but also culpability for the sea’s rising.

Swift describes how in 2017, a CNN crew appeared on Tangier to interview the residents about the challenges facing them. The Eastern Shore is Trump country, and the locals used the opportunity to appeal to the President for help.  Breakwaters and jetties had been studied extensively for years, and the islanders wanted action, not more reports. When the segment ran, Swift writes that CNN’s Twitter account blew up with vicious comments from viewers trashing the islanders and wishing them drowned. Samples of reasoned discussion in the second decade of the 21st century include “Dear Tangier Island, Va: Be swallowed by the sea.” Another, “You’re all #Trump supporters and deserve what Nature gives you: submersion.”

Despite this vitriol, it was announced shortly after Swift’s book was published that Tangier would be getting its jetty and that work on it will be concluded in 2019.  Still under study, however, are proposals to build a series of breakwaters offshore to provide a more comprehensive approach, protections that would come with a much higher price tag. Swift is pleased with this first step, saying “as one who’s been allowed, for however brief a time, to pretend he’s a Tangierman, it would pain me deeply to see the place disappear.”

        Earl Swift

My brother and I had the pleasure of meeting Earl and his fiancée, Amy Walton, at the Lewes History Book Festival in September of 2018. Earl was presenting there, and Kevin and I were responsible for hosting him. From our conversations with him as we walked around the town, we came away impressed with the thoroughness of his research and the objective way he tried to approach his controversial subject.  

Beyond this Chesapeake Requiem had a more immediate impact on me, one that might push back my own requiem.

Earl Swift is a newspaper reporter by trade, and towards the end of the book he provides a detailed account of an unusually windy day in April of 2017 when Ed Charnock and his son Jason took their wooden workboat Henrietta C. out in the main bay to tend the hundreds of crab pots they had deployed.  Anyone who has boated in that area knows it can be daunting when the wind is driving the water in one direction and the tide another. There are a series of major rivers in the lower Eastern Shore, one running to Seaford, Delaware, another to Salisbury, Maryland and a third almost all the way to the Atlantic coast. When all that water gushes into the Bay at the same time as shrieking winds shove it in the opposite direction, the waves are like bombs going off around a boat.

The Henrietta C. ran into trouble that day, but no one was sure where the two of them were. One survived, one didn’t. I cruise this area by myself regularly, and immediately after I finished reading this chapter, I went on line and bought an EPIRB unit, a device that can send a distress signal alerting first responders of my exact location.  It’s something I now have with me whenever I’m on the water. And over the winter, I installed an AIS system on our boat so that she can always be seen and identified by any other vessel with a similar system, something virtually all larger craft carry.

On the Bay, it can never happen to you—until it does. 

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