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Stranded on Smith Island


Smith Island.--In this frigid winter of 1994 the decline and fall of Smith Island progresses.

The nearest point of contact between the Chesapeake island and the rest of the world is Crisfield, approximately 10 miles away across the Tangier Sound. For the past 20 years we have been well served by two ferries, the Island Belle, owned and operated by Otis Tyler, and the Capt. Jason, belonging to the brothers Terry and Larry Laird.

Both boats leave the island at 7:30 each morning, returning in the early afternoon with freight, passengers and mail. There is also an evening run that departs for Crisfield at 3:30 p.m., arriving back at the island shortly after 5 p.m.

Since the beginning of the year, both ferries have suspended their evening runs until March, creating hardships for those who can't run errands or make appointments on the mainland before the ferries leave Crisfield for the 12:30 p.m. trip back to Smith.

This is especially difficult for a number of elderly cancer patients who must make a daily journey to Peninsula Regional Medical Center for radiation and chemotherapy treatments.

Even more alarming is the number of days when the ferries refuse to run at all, leaving grocery stores without fresh bread or milk, and islanders with no mail. Appointments with doctors must be rescheduled or canceled, prescription medicines don't reach the ill, and anyone caught on the wrong side of the Tangier Sound is stranded.

Of course, there have been many days when weather has rendered navigation hazardous. Ice has blocked waterways and destroyed buoys and channel markers. But there have been days when the relatively short crossing would have been feasible, and the ferries simply didn't run.

Captain Tyler and the Lairds justify the reduced schedule, claiming that insufficient passengers and freight make an evening run to Crisfield unprofitable for both ferries.

Certainly no one on Smith Island can dispute the fact that there is less ferry business during the winter months. Once the crabbing season and Christmas holiday pass, the island's contact with the mainland is reduced to what is essential and necessary.

But it is exactly this essential business that is being disrupted by the cutbacks in ferry service, and complaining about bad weather or meager profits doesn't solve the problem.

In an attempt to find a solution, the island's pastor, the Rev. Edward Gladden, requested a meeting between Captain Tyler, the Lairds and church officials. Among the solutions proposed was a splitting of the schedule between the two ferries: One boat could make the morning run and the other the evening. There was also some talk of the church subsidizing one or both ferries to help alleviate cost.

Not one of the captains showed up for the meeting.

Human settlement on Smith Island has survived more than 300 years by the grace of God, and a sense of community and cooperation that is rare in contemporary society. Captain Tyler and the Lairds have often demonstrated their leadership and community spirit.

If that spirit is now faltering, what can the future hold for the people of Smith Island?

Chris Parks, a native of Smith Island, is a free-lance writer.

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