The rise and fall of Bay’s level determines islands’ empires
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During Capt. John Smith’s first voyage up Chesapeake Bay, one of his projects was to map what he encountered.
Smith’s barge, an open row– and sailing vessel of “near three tuns burden” (capacity) was well-packed with the captain, his party of gentleman adventurers, a few sailors and Dr. Walter Russell, who was likely a doctor of philosophy—perhaps with some medical training—but not a surgeon in the limited sense of 17th century practice. Russell had just arrived that spring of 1608 aboard the Phoenix, a small, square-rigged ship, which had resupplied the colonists.
When the Phoenix left to return to England, Smith’s explorers started out in convoy, separating from her near Smith’s Isles at the Bay’s mouth, then turning northward for exploration.
Smith’s “Mappe” is generally acclaimed as one of the most successful, widely used and copied of this exploration age. It shows a chain of islands they encountered extending out to form a loose arm embracing what came to be known as Tangier Sound, which borders Maryland’s Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay. The first of these, which was approached during a violent spring thunderstorm, was named Russells Isles by Smith and his shipmates in honor of their recently arrived comrade. Smith’s map shows nine of these islands ranging up to the latitude of the Patuxent River, 39 deg. 20' N.
Opposite the Patuxent, Smith’s barge was trapped for two days by violent squalls that came out of straits between the islands, which was dubbed “Limbo” because of their delay there. (Today it’s known as Hooper Strait.)
On the Bay’s Western Shore, they saw and mapped three large islands east of their course, but apparently failed to see the Choptank River beyond. It remained for future explorers to name Kent, Tilghman and Sharps Islands, the latter of which vanished after centuries of erosion.
As the Bay’s first exploration party returned down the Western Shore, Russell saved Smith’s life after the latter’s wrist was pierced by a poisonous stingray spine. Smith would later write his “Generall Historie,” which includes a section contributed by Russell.
As for Russell’s namesake isles, they, unfortunately, no longer recall his contribution. Many of the islands and all of the shorelines he saw have disappeared. That’s nature’s way, and has been for thousands of years.
Today, there are about 44 islands in a loose chain south of the Patuxent. These are slowly being dissected over time by sea level rise and shoreline erosion, leaving the higher areas as distinct islets. This process has been taking place since a rising ocean inundated coastal river valleys to form the Chesapeake at the end of the last (Wisconsin) glaciation 10,000–12,000 years ago. A peninsula slowly pinches off to an island, to chain of islands, then slowly vanishes.
The region’s Archaic period hunter-gatherers of that time settled near creeks and shorelines. Most of their cultural remains, campsites and artifacts are lost on the Bay’s bottom, occasionally dug up by oystermen or clammers.
Colonial plantation owners were the first to pay attention to the sometimes rapid process of shoreline erosion because their culture, which was based on land ownership, led them to survey and set property lines and values on what had been a commons for native Americans.
The owner of a waterfront plantation could watch his holdings erode into the Bay.
(The social and economic influences of this are graphically depicted through several centuries for the mythical Devon Island in James Michener’s novel, “Chesapeake,” which was probably patterned on the now-vanished Sharps Island.)
Although apparently uninhabited in Smith’s time, the Bay’s island shores reveal native American artifacts, some of them thousands of years old. The oldest date to immediate post-glacial times and the hunter-gatherer cultures who ranged these lands in the time of great Pleistocene mammals. There was no Chesapeake Bay then, only a landscape dissected by river valleys that would some day form our estuary’s core.
Many other artifacts date from the Middle Woodland period of native American culture, from about A.D.750 to the time of European colonization. The sea level was much lower then and the islands had greater geographic relief and were large enough to have freshwater sources that would be lost to saltwater intrusion by the 17th century.
Several of those lower Bay islands, including Smith, Tangier, Barren, Hooper, James and Sharps, were settled by Chesapeake farmers and watermen. While the salt marsh has swallowed their farmland in the lifetime of people now living, Smith and Tangier still have viable fishing settlements and are popular tourist destinations.
Many other islands were abandoned by humans and reverted to wild habitat along the course of their devolution from island to estuary. Barren Island is a formerly inhabited place in this archipelago.
Bill Cronin, in his forthcoming book, “The Chesapeake’s Vanishing Islands,” says that by legend, Barren Island first came into English hands when a Nanticoke chief lost a wrestling match to some tough colonist.
Later, Richard Preston, a Puritan seeking religious freedom in Lord Baltimore Charles Calvert’s more liberal Maryland colony, settled on lands just south of St. Leonard Creek on the Patuxent River. Despite his anti-Calvert and anti-Roman Catholic activities, Calvert, in 1664, granted him land in Dorchester County as well as all of Barren Island, which at the time was probably near a thousand acres. Preston paid his landlord a “quit” or “free and clear” rent of 14 shillings annually.
Cronin states that in the 18th and 19th centuries, Barren Island contained 14 farms, a one-room school, small local stores, and a Methodist Church served by a visiting minister.
A colleague, Michelle Monte, once found a stamped copper medallion dating from this period while beachcombing. It resembles an Indian head penny, but is pierced for a cord or wire on one edge and bears the date 1803, which is long before the U.S. Indian head penny was minted. It was once thought to be a tobacco tag but an expert has since scotched that interpretation, and it remains a mystery.
I discovered Barren Island nearly three decades ago while navigating my yawl, Cemba, through Tar Bay and the Hooper Island chain to reach the Honga River through Barren Island Gap. On that course, with the island close to starboard, one could not help but see that the big hunting lodge on its western face, was being threatened by erosion.
The lodge was built in 1929, with materials scavenged from the Caswell Hotel demolition in Baltimore, and barged over from Solomons Island.
Louis L. Goldstein, Maryland’s late comptroller, once told me that he’d bought both Barren Island and the hunt club from for $55,000. “I got the guns and all,” he said gleefully. He didn’t keep it for long, and subsequent owners were faced with the rapid erosion of the island’s west face.
In 1985, we took a dinghy ashore to witness the slow destruction of the old lodge, which was renewed with each winter’s northwest gales and each year’s few millimeters of sea level rise. It was a dramatic commentary on the impropriety of building on a windward shore. Despite an extensive bulkhead, the Bay was having her way, and the lodge was collapsing into the Bay.
The floor of the lodge’s main room was already a ramp down which upholstered furniture and disembodied cast-iron radiators were sliding. The roof, still intact, provided shelter for a whirling colony of swallows, which nested and fledged its young each spring. The room’s bar still had glasses perched against its sloping varnished rail and many of these contained bird droppings. Curtains, much the worse for wear, blew in the sea wind across glass-paned double doors now askew.
Years later, I sailed my yawl, Nimble, to Barren Island with Chesapeake Bay Program colleagues, all of whom were enthralled by this special and increasingly wild place. The massive cast-iron coal stove that once cooked waterfowl stews and roasts for visitors had been hauled away by someone as salvage.
By the end of the century, the last standing part of the structure had collapsed, leaving a mound of broken beams and shingles atop which a nervous osprey had nested.
We found an old bulldozer in the island’s forest on the eastern side a few years ago. It had been inundated by corrosive salty Bay washovers often enough for the 2-inch thick steel working edge of the blade to be rusted through. Traces of paint remained on some parts, and a brass patent plate gave a date of 1946. The machine had apparently been used to sculpt the topography to encourage wet impoundments and attract waterfowl. At least one such pond still exists, now inhabited by frogs, minnows…and mosquitoes.
One autumn night in 2000, I anchored completely alone in Barren Island’s silent but uncertain lee, protected from a southeast wind.
This was one of those times when the island spoke to me: October’s sun had set quickly, and the water was oiled orange and indigo, the shadow of Cove Point’s cliffs across the Bay was a smoky burnt hue, and the sky above graded from yellow to yellow-green to the increasing dark of blued-steel. Geese conversed over submerged grass beds up by the island and a loon called. I could have easily been in the 17th century.
I turned to go below for the night and was stunned to find the full moon had risen above Barren Island’s north end, and hung over a Bay so calm, just a single reflected image sat swimming in the water next to me, tranquil and lovely.
My lee vanished in the night and I woke early with Nimble pitching at her anchor, exposed to a fresh northwest wind.
I took my dinghy into Tar Bay, on the east side behind Barren, and worked cautiously through a vast underwater meadow of widgeon grass. About 150 geese and some black ducks were feeding on this marvelous resource, rich with seed at this seasonal juncture. I rowed through the last of it to Possum Island, which lies behind Barren off the Hooper Island chain and in the middle of Tar Bay. Cronin reports there was once a 175-acre farm on what today is only a remnant with a few struggling trees.
Traces of the house can still be found in the shallows: bits of crockery, shingle, brick, parts of a cast iron stove.
And there at my feet were the broken parts of two native American quartz projectile points and some bits of Late Woodland shell-tempered pottery which could have been well over 1,000 years old.
I was snapped out of my reverie, looking up to find a man on the beach. No doubt he wondered what I was doing in his space. After a hearty greeting, I learned he was Edward Simmons of nearby Hooper Island. He has lived and guided hunters here for more than half a century.
Simmons leases three spots for duck blinds on Possum and was out salvaging washed-up crab-pot buoys. He splits the bullet-shaped floats lengthwise, adds a piece of copper pipe in the resulting groove for weight and sticks in a carved wooden head to make inexpensive bufflehead duck decoys for hunting the most common species taken from his blinds. “I just love it out here; lookin’ at the world…” he said.
Simmons said that Eastern Shore artifact expert Bill Yates thinks points like the larger one I found may have been Indian oyster knives. At our feet, in Possum Island’s shallows, I could have still picked up half a peck of oysters that morning. People have found more than a thousand points of various kinds out here over the years, Simmons claimed.
Simmons told me about Barren Island’s vanished settlement. “They lived on the Bay (side) ‘cause that’s where the deep water was and they sailed to Baltimore and Philadelphia.” There were three cemeteries, one long gone into the Bay, a second disappearing and the third — he pointed to a copse of trees at an area called Cove Point — is near a heron rookery that sometimes hosts 350 nests.
“I brought some people from the West out here, looking for graves.” Simmons mused, “and I found the grave of one of my neighbors’ grandma.” Mrs. Phillips had died in 1892, and last year he brought her granddaughter the stone, laboriously lugged in three pieces aboard his skiff. Brought it right to her door, so it could be erected in the family plot on Hooper Island. All together again, but…on another eroding island!
Graves on the west side of Hooper Island are also being lost. In one spot, a cemetery has stone riprap placed around it and the graveyard now protrudes from the shoreline into the Bay.
As erosion took away the island’s west face, one after another family moved east to the Hooper Island chain. Houses were jacked up and slid aboard barges for their new locations. Simmons bets there are maybe 13 houses there that once occupied lots on Barren Island.
In his parent’s memory, the last owners on the island were the Moultons. “My mother said the last was a pretty rough old character, wore just a piece of rope to hold his pants up. Grew most everything he ate right on the island.…gathering oysters and such, too. Used to be oysters there…” he pointed east to the once intertidal flat that permitted walking on a very low tide, all the way from Hooper to Barren Island with just one deep spot to wade.
The 1862 chart of Barren Island seems to pre-date the settlement Simmons spoke of, showing just farmland here, and today’s navigation channel, leading east to Hooper Islands and the Honga River was absent, not dredged until well into the 20th century.
A string of low sandy islands, today collectively called “The Marshes” trail down from the south end of Taylor Island, which lies north of Barren. Together with the Hooper Islands, these define the perimeter of Tar Bay. Simmons said that in his lifetime, and before Barren Island Gap was dredged, you could occasionally wade from Taylor’s Island to Barren.
These bars of sand and shells have been the sites of wonderful colonies of nesting terns as well as territory for a few oystercatchers. I sailed the Chesapeake Bay Program’s first director, William Horne, over to the Marshes in June 1990. We landed cautiously, staying along the water to avoid disturbing the nesting birds or accidentally trampling eggs that are simply laid in small depressions on the bare sand.
Intrusions were — and should be — so rare that an osprey, usually high in some dead tree, had nested right on the ground. Her two beautiful and robust chicks gazed at us with baleful red eyes — powerful predators in the making.
A few black skimmers were nesting here, too, the first I’d seen north of Tangier Island. The sky above us was dramatic and full of skirling birds. We quickly left to minimize our impact on their afternoon. Horne and our wives have never forgotten that afternoon.
Tar Bay had been made a wildlife management area by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources five years earlier, and one of their biggest management challenges lay just offshore that afternoon. The Bay was virtually white with non-migrating mute swans, and we quickly counted about 500. Their impact on the terns and skimmers would be very damaging as they increasingly occupied these breeding islands as loafing areas, trampling eggs and chicks, driving off adults.
That afternoon I estimated that there were 200 pounds of dog-sized swan feces deposited on these skinny sand islets. In future years, the count of nesting tern pairs would drop to barely a dozen as these big birds took over the territory.
Barren Island’s pedigree during these years was checkered. There was a proposal for an upscale 200-slip $25 million marina with a lodge and cabins. It was even considered as a prison site, With an estimated value of $250,000 in 1988, the DNR upped the ante to $495,000, and buyers with questionable proposals backed off. Eventually, a deal was struck with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which will manage the island in perpetuity.
Two years ago, brown pelicans, whose summer visits to the Chesapeake were unprecedented in history, used Barren’s southernmost islet remnant as a loafing area and last summer they nested and fledged many young. I estimated about 50 nests when I visited, long after the birds had flown south for winter.
The nests were in low groundsel bushes to avoid periodic flooding, but on the marsh surface were some of the season’s casualties. The wing bones of an adult lay there, marvelous hollow structures, light as balsa wood, with the attachment scars of primary flight feathers dotting one edge.
Several years ago, when the channel at Barren Island Gap was given one of its periodic dredgings, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sponsored a series of “geotube” shoreline protection structures along the island’s north end. Silty material from the channel was pumped into fabric tubes to make a string of “sausages” offshore to impede wave action, then more material was pumped behind them to create fast land. The tubes leaked silt until, at substantial expense, coarser grained sand was brought in to do the job.
Bare, cracking sediment from the drying dredged material extended out a long distance from where the original — if eroding — marsh edge had been, and thousands of periwinkle snails and fiddler crabs crept out across what was to them an interminable desert, and died for want of water. Success was declared a couple years back, and volunteers came out to plant the drying sediment with beach grasses.
A new proposal is being floated by the Maryland Port Administration and the Corps to make Barren Island, and a short list of other eroding islands, sites for the disposal and beneficial use of dredged material from upper Bay navigation channels, much as the Poplar Island group is being used presently. Barren Island is a long, expensive way down the Bay to transport wet silt and sand, but there are other islands still farther south under consideration.
The environmental buy-in comes from the intended re-creation of Bay-island habitat lost to erosion, and the possible protection offered to leeward islands — in this case Hooper. While dredged channel material is not necessarily hazardous, it is still a waste product that the Bay community has fought over for years.
Before plans for Barren Island go too far, I hope people will take a close and personal look at the Poplar Island project, which I visited last autumn. It is not one of the wild Bay islands I’ve come to love — even treasure — during my decades on the Bay, but very much a massive, stone ramparted fort and repository for one of navigation’s difficult disposal problems. The work to make it look natural is too expensive.
While many birds will colonize any open space in the interim and while they have to, it will be many years before this project will be left alone for wildlife; many years with heavy construction equipment, all-night floodlights and the coming and going of innumerable barge loads of silt.
All of it bears a significant load of nitrogen for the Bay, both in its removal and deposition. Look carefully at the sources of those dredged materials and be very clear about the real and justifiable need for those proposed channel works. Poplar Island should last many years longer than projected. Visit and appraise the joined structure of Hart and Miller Islands in the Upper Chesapeake, where portions of the dredged material disposal cells are being closed and public use is permitted on part of the island. This facility still releases nitrogen to the Chesapeake.
I hope I will be too old to sail to my special Bay island habitats before they undergo such restoration and improvement. I prefer the memories I can still gather there in solitude, watching the Bay continuing to slowly take back the land as time goes by, and sea level rises.
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