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Holland Island, Against the Tide

Once upon a time, there was a small marshy island in the Chesapeake. A fragment in a spinal strand of islands stretching from Bloodsworth to Tangier, Holland Island had a thriving community whose vitality reflected the richness of the Bay’s cornucopia. Finfish and crabs, oysters and turtles were harvested in their seasons by the residents of Holland Island, who numbered 360 souls by the beginning of the 20th century. Over the years, they established community hubs around which the wheels of island life turned: a church fringed by bay grasses, a two-room school, stores, a post office. Island afternoons in summer were peppered with the crack of baseball against bat at the island’s own white-limed diamond.

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19th century image of Holland Island houses, located on the island’s highest ridge.

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Holland Island’s church, school, and hall from a late 19th century photograph.

Holland Island’s mainstay was referred to as the “water business”, and a prodigious fleet of flat-white-painted workboats connected the islanders to the ballooning seafood industry in Baltimore, Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia. These were the island’s years of milk and honey. The tidily-prosperous Victorian houses that marched down the island’s backbone were a testament to the Chesapeake’s vast productivity in what would be later recognized as the “Golden Era” of Bay harvests.

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Holland’s Island watermen checking their pound nets in the 19th century.

But Holland Island’s boom years were soon to turn with the tide, quite literally. Because every wave that kissed the islands shoreline also washed it away, at first imperceptibly, but with increasing speed and impact as the years went on. The slender ribbon of land that comprised the island, 1.5 miles in all, began to break up into smaller pieces as the Chesapeake encroached. The little community was now menaced by the same natural forces that had ensured its early prosperity.

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The map above shows the erosion of Holland Island over the course of  140 years. Once it was made up of 3 peninsulas which would become fragmented as the waterline reached further onto the land. Houses once located hundred of yards from the Bay became waterfront properties over the course of 100 years. A tropical storm in 1918 that severely damaged the church was the killing blow for the morale of Holland Island’s families. With few other options, the island’s residents began to relocate, dismantling their fine homes and rebuilding them in Crisfield, a town 8 miles away on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. They left behind foundations, bottles, buttons, and other miscellaneous detritus of everyday life. They also left behind their dead.

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 Photo courtesy of David Harp, http://www.chesapeakephotos.com

This recent image from Holland Island shows the community’s graveyard, whose mossy headstones have become toothy edifices supporting bird’s nests. Names like Todd, Parks, Price, and Somers are immortalized in marble that will eventually last longer than the island itself, which is slowly receding in a great flurry of pelican feathers, salt meadow hay, and water.
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Aerial photo of Holland Island, 2011. Photo courtesy of David Harp, http://www.chesapeakephotos.com

For years, only one house remained on the island, which was eventually purchased by a former watermen and minister, Stephen White, who had visited Holland Island as a child. In interviews, he proclaimed his plans to rebuild the island, stating, “It’s a matter of will and ability. I have those, but I don’t have the funds.” For years, he lead a one-man crusade to stop the erosion of the now-depopulated island, traveling from Crisfield by motorboat each day to continue his efforts and forming a nonprofit tasked with saving Holland Island. He applied fruitlessly for state grants to reinforce the island’s shorelines, but the island was privately owned. So, with sandbags, rocks, and an old backhoe he toiled, one man against the tide.

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Photo courtesy of David Harp, http://www.chesapeakephotos.com

For years, only one house remained, its toehold on the island’s extreme perimeter perilously shrinking with each rainy season. Well known to sailors, the Holland Island house became a visual touchstone for travelers passing through the island chain to the main stem  of the Bay. Seabirds of all description were often lined up on the roof peak, a clamorous audience to the island’s final act. In mid-October 2010, the old Victorian house, peeling and hogged as a scuttled skipjack, finally crumbled into the Chesapeake that had so long labored to claim it.

Today, birds rule the island’s marshy acreage, safe in the knowledge that not a single predator lurks in the spartina. Each tide brings ghosts back of the families and community that once existed here: salt-stained porch trim in a whimsical pattern, a frosted green bottle for digestive tonic, the outlines of the last foundations and headstones, parting the verdant grasses before they, too, are finally submerged.

Cool Things from Collections- the Poacher’s Decoy

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Just a few of our 10,000 treasures in our Collections Building at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.

One of the most magical places here on our campus at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum is the Collections Building. Tidily arranged on sterile-looking white shelves are a pirate’s horde of Chesapeake treasure: ship models and oyster cans, one-of-a-kind Bay boats from over 100 years ago, sail maker’s benches, steamboat menus, cork life jackets, the first Evinrude outboard motors, antique eel pots, and that’s just on the first row. Each object tells the story of some aspect of Chesapeake life or work, a talisman of a past Bay where the water represented sustenance, stability, and income.

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A red-breasted merganser drake decoy, by Alvin Meekins, 1955. CBMM Collections.

Some of the the most interesting things in our collection are the most unexpected. As a maritime museum in the middle of the Atlantic Flyway, it makes sense that our collections would include decoys, as waterfowling is a big part of the Chesapeake’s unique heritage. Generally these are grimy, battered working decoys used for sport hunting, but there are a few decorative ones as well by big names like the Ward Brothers. Within that comprehensive collection of decoys there are a few surprises- like the merganser pictured above. These are working decoys, too, but these are special- created for use in the off season, or for birds that were illegal to shoot. They are examples of poacher’s decoys.

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The bottom of the merganser, with a torn detail label.

This merganser drake decoy, made by Alvin Meekins of Hooper’s Island, Maryland, was confiscated at an illegal spring shoot in Dorchester County in the 1950’s, and both the decoy and its use are full of information about the Chesapeake’s environmental history. It was created during a ‘golden era’ of Chesapeake decoy carving, after the Migratory Bird Act of 1918 created limited seasons and shooting methods for waterfowl hunting.

Prior to that time period, there were very few limits to hunting at all, and those regulations that did exist were a patchwork of different limits, seasons, and rules that changed depending on which Chesapeake county you hunted in. Birds could also be baited, trapped, and shot on the water. There was no great need for decoys, which are primarily used in on-the-wing sport shooting.

With the new regulations in 1918, restrictions were federally placed on hunting, regulating seasons, limits, techniques, and locations. On-the-water shooting was eliminated, which suddenly made concealment and camouflage a necessity for anyone who hoped to get a shot at a bird in flight- and opened wide the market for decoys as key element of a waterfowler’s “gunning rig”.

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Red-breasted Merganser detail- note the crest.

Decoys varied from river to river, reflecting the migratory birds that sought refuge in different parts of the Chesapeake. The northern Bay, the celery-grass-rich Susquehanna Flats in particular, were famous for canvasbacks, while the southern Bay was the winter home for a large variety of diving ducks.

Dorchester County, Maryland,  where the merganser decoy was created, historically offered migrating waterfowl shelter in its expanses of salt water marshland and its reedy shallows, which teemed with small finfish. The mergansers, along with other fish-eating diving ducks, congregated by the millions in these open southern Bay tributaries. 

But the drawback with mergansers is that they are what they eat- though filling, their flesh reeks of fish. This was no deterrent for the highly practical waterfowlers in Dorchester County, however, who merely piled the fishy duck on top of the muskrat and woodpecker that already filled their plate and had at it.

Similarly undeterred was the poacher who used this decoy for a spring shoot, several months outside of the winter hunting season.  For many years after the waterfowling regulations went into practice, wardens had their hands full and their ears pricked for the sound of gunshots as they attempted to control the waterfowler’s longing to return to the limitless good ol’ days.

Delbert “Cigar” Daisey recalled poaching mergansers and avoiding wardens, “The bulk of the money I made back then was from trapping ducks. You just had to worry about the wardens. Hell, they knew all your traps and who you were selling to. I’d shoot mergansers, sometimes twenty-five to thirty-five a day from February to April, and then sell them to the people who worked in the oyster shucking houses. The good birds, black ducks and pintails, I’d sell to the other professional people during the week.”

As creative as poachers could be in attempting to skirt the law using decoys, baits, traps, or big guns(their backfiring homemade guns were truly works of eyebrow-scorching art), wardens were just as artful at catching them, as our out-of-season merganser proves. Wardens used boats, airplanes, dogs, and ingenuity to catch poachers, and our collections and exhibits have proof of their success, in decoy, gun, and photograph form.

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It’s a lot of history in just one decoy, and its just one decoy in a row of hundreds in the CBMM collections, packed carefully away until their story gets a chance to be shared.

 

Underwater Meadows

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Widgeon grass. Photos in this post courtesy of chesapeakebay.net

Below the waves of the Chesapeake Bay, trillions of tiny life forces are moving. They flash translucent fins, their claws snap at passing minnows. They creep from their white shells and unfold their feet, waving at passing morsels of plankton. They release a whoosh of water, and with it, a smoke ring of sediment.  Although each takes a different shape, these oyster, fish, crab, snail, mussel, and barnacle residents of the Bay proper all have something in common- they are breathing. Their hearts beat their blue or black foreign blood, and tiny lungs force oxygen out of their atmosphere of brackish water and swirling sand. The source of much of this essential element is all around, waving in rhythm with the ceaseless currents: grasses. Dense underwater meadows throughout the Bay are steadily taking in carbon dioxide, sunlight, and nutrients, and releasing oxygen’s breath of vitality into the surrounding waters.

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Grasses in the shallows off of Poplar Island.

There is much talk about these grasses today, due to their integral role in the balance of the Bay’s equilibrium. This submerged aquatic vegetation (or SAV for short) supplies not only oxygen, but food, habitat, and tidal buffers for the myriad residents that populate their green, verdant kingdom. Like trees in a forest, SAV in the Chesapeake shape their environment and the animals that have adapted to dwell symbiotically under their protective canopy. Where the grass grows, the Chesapeake’s animal populations thrive and the water slows, dropping sediment and gaining clarity. But when those meadows shrink, the bottom of the Bay becomes a cloudy wasteland of unproductive mud. Without Bay grasses, crabs lose their spawning grounds, migratory waterfowl go hungry, perch gasp for air, and waders at the water’s edge lose sight of their toes once their knees get wet. SAV have a huge impact on the health of the Chesapeake- quite a feat for something that seems so easy to ignore.

A carp peeks from a carpet of bottom grasses.

Knowing this, it seems no surprise that as the Chesapeake Bay grasses decline for the third year, so too has the population of the Bay’s blue crabs. The Baltimore Sun reports:

"An aerial survey flown from late spring to early fall last year found 48,191 acres of submerged vegetation, down 21 percent from the extent of grasses seen in 2011, according to scientists from Maryland and Virginia.

It was the third straight year of reported declines, following a 21 percent drop in 2011 and a 7 percent dip in 2010. Since hitting a peak of sorts in 2009, the bay’s grasses have shrunk to a level last seen in 1986, shortly after scientists began conducting annual surveys of the bay’s grasses.

Scientists attributed the losses in large part to an extended run of unfavorable weather, with extreme summer heat in 2010 killing off lower bay grasses and heavy rains and tropical storms knocking back vegetation in the upper and middle bays.  Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee flushed millions of tons of sediment down the Susquehanna and other rivers, turning the bay murky brown for months afterward.”

A crab in the grass.

For blue crabs, the loss of Bay grasses has been a severe blow. Underwater meadows provide food and shelter for crab during the summer, when the courtship and reproductive season are well underway.  But summer is also a time when grasses are particularly susceptible to the warm-weather algal blooms, which block sunlight and stunt the growth of the grass beds. Nutrients from septic tanks, from farm fields and pastures, and from car exhaust that have collected in the Chesapeake’s tributaries throughout the spring encourage the growth of these malignant blooms, which expand with oily rapidity as temperatures rise. On the Bay’s bottom, shaded over, the oxygen-producing grasses wither, leaving blue crabs homeless and focused on survival rather than romance.

It’s a vicious cycle, but one that reminds us how deeply and irrevocably interconnected the Chesapeake’s life forms are. For a healthy Bay, one that is productive, clear, and vibrant, we must look to maintain the lawn. Not the clipped, manicured kind in our yards, stretching to the water’s edge, but the kind down below the waves, with roots in the Chesapeake’s sandy bottom where the crab couples hide to find some privacy.

Want to track the rise and fall of Chesapeake grasses over time? Check out this AMAZING time-lapse interactive map, over at the Chesapeake Bay Program:

The Chesapeake Bay Program featured this incredible photo essay this week, focusing on Poplar Island. Off of the point of Tilghman Island, on the neck of land shaped like a raptor’s profile that the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum also calls home, Poplar Island has been the focus of intense restoration efforts over the last decade. Like many Chesapeake islands, sea level rise, storm surges, and deforestation took its toll on Poplar, and the island disintegrated back into the Chesapeake over a hundred year period. Old timers can remember the club on the island in the 30’s that welcomed politicians and celebrities (one woman recalled spilling peas accidently down Harry Truman’s neck), and before that, a town of about 100 souls had called Poplar home. It was even a military base during the war of 1812. But by 1990, less than five acres were left. A century of plows, cattle, and the ceaseless activity of wind and water had first broken up the land into three separate islands, and as the decades inexorably passed, those islands dwindled until only shrinking fragments of green remained in the great expanse of Bay.

It was only due to an ironic turn of events that saved the island from total immersion: dredging saved the island from sinking. While federal and state officials sought a location to dump the sediment dredged from shipping channels approaching Baltimore Harbor, the National Fish and Wildlife Service was seeking a new location for protected habitat for birds, waterfowl, and other wildlife. Poplar Island was the perfect solution: use the dredge spoils to rebuild the land mass, which would be planted with grasses and would provide shelter and food for animals.

In this essay, the remarkable progress on Poplar is clear. The fate of many other Chesapeake islands, slowly slipping into the Bay with every tide, is not so certain. But, as Tom Horton says, “They’ll go out with a bang.” And from these photos, the visual fireworks of an rescued Chesapeake island are undeniably evocative, compelling, and a reminder of what we stand to lose as these wild outposts disappear back into the waves.

All photos courtesy of the Chesapeake Bay Program: http://bit.ly/m7GQZ