Holland Island home's demise marks 'end of era'

WENONA — — For 15 years, Stephen White battled the elements. But time and tide have claimed another remnant of the Chesapeake Bay's fading maritime culture.

White, a Methodist minister and former waterman, poured his sweat, savings and even a little blood into trying to preserve the last house on Holland Island, an eroding stretch of sand and marsh in the middle of the bay, about six miles offshore from here



The two-story frame structure, which he figures was built 112 years ago, was the last vestige of what was once a thriving fishing community of more than 300 residents, with 60-some homes, a church, school, stores and a social hall. A fleet of skipjacks, bugeyes and schooners docked there. The community had its own baseball team and a band, histories recall.


Inspired by memories of visiting the already abandoned island in his youth — and by the plaintive appeal from the grave of a child buried on the island — White tried to halt the bay's inexorable encroachment. He armored the shoreline with timber, sandbags, even a sunken barge. When water began lapping at the home's foundation, he jacked it up.

Earlier this year, White decided he couldn't go on. At 80, he was battling cancer, and his energy was flagging. So he sold the island, which he figures has shrunk by 20 acres since he bought it. Last weekend, as gusty winds battered the house — already damaged by another storm a month ago — the bay finally claimed it. It collapsed into the water that washed beneath it.

"That's a bitter pill for me to swallow," he said this week from his home on Deal Island. "It's like I lost a loved one, but at the same time, I'm angry about it."

White said he spent perhaps $150,000, almost all of it his own money, on efforts to halt the erosion and shore up the house north of Crisfield. But he faults the state and federal government for not helping him more.

"They will not and are still not going to realize what erosion is doing to the Chesapeake Bay," he said.

Shoreline erosion is a fact of life on the bay. Maryland officials have estimated that this state alone loses about 260 acres of waterfront a year, depositing roughly 11 million cubic yards of sediment in the water. Sediment clouds the water, blocking out the sunlight that underwater grasses need to grow and smothering shellfish beds. Eroding shoreline also brings with it plants and other organic matter that helps feed the massive algae blooms that foul the water and rob the watery depths of fish-sustaining oxygen.

State and federal officials say they do take erosion seriously, but it's costly to control, money is limited, and the vast majority of it is coming from privately owned land.

"Unfortunately, without a major reconstruction of the island, it's a losing battle," said Dan Bierly, a planning section chief with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Baltimore District office, which handles shore erosion control projects in the Maryland portion of the bay.


Holland has plenty of company. Barren, Bloodsworth, James, Poplar and Sharpe's are the names of some once-inhabited islands, their settlement dating back to the 17th century in some cases. Some islands like Hooper and Deal are still populated, but they're connected to the mainland by bridges. Only Maryland's Smith Island and Virginia's Tangier Island are standalone communities out in the bay.

"Of all the now-abandoned islands, Holland's Island may have been the most consequential in terms of the size and vibrancy of its community," said Pete Lesher, curator at the

at St. Michaels. The museum has an exhibit on the bay's disappearing islands and their culture produced by Tom Horton and David Harp.

As is the case with most of the bay's islands, Holland was named for an early owner, a 17th-century colonist named Daniel Holland, according to "The Disappearing Islands of the Chesapeake," by William B. Cronin. Only about a half-dozen families lived there into the 19th century, but by the 1880s, it became home to more than 360 people, with most of the men oystering, crabbing and fishing, though some also farmed.

Ira T. Todd was born there in November 1917. He figures he was one of the last to claim it as a birthplace, as families had begun moving away by then. His family relocated to Crisfield, where he now lives.

"They were washing away even then," he recalled of the island. "I remember my parents telling me [water] came up in the backyard when storms would come."


While Holland is not the first to lose its population, the demise of its last house is nonetheless jarring to those who've seen it standing lonely sentinel on the bay. Many boaters used it as a navigational aid.

Don Baugh, vice president for education for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said he was saddened by the collapse, even though he figured it was on borrowed time. He called it "the end of an era."

"Those [other] islands disappeared before our lifetimes, and we just read to know about them," said Baugh, who's been working in and around the island for more than three decades. "But this is one that happened in our lifetime."

Visiting the island this week in preparation for a weekend bay foundation kayak trip there, Baugh picked up shards of old glass and pottery, a lump of coal and brick as he walked around. He said he'd found a china doll there once.

"For Tangier and Smith islands," he said, "you can't help but think this is a shot over the bow for them. … When these people lived here, they thought they had a pretty substantial community."

Smith Island, with fewer than 300 year-round residents split among three communities, also is eroding — the northern shore is receding 10 feet to 12 feet a year, by one estimate.


David Laird, who lives in Ewell, the largest of the three island communities, said it was "scary" there when Tropical Storm Isabel blew up the bay in 2003. Water rose to the second step of his house, he recalled. Even in less extreme weather, high tide can bring water into the streets, he said.

"I'm pretty sure I won't see it," said Laird, 71, but adds, "This could go the way of Holland's Island."

The Corps and state have collaborated to fight erosion there. A bulkhead was built a few years ago around the islet holding one community, Tylerton. But a $12 million project meant to halt land loss on the northern shore has been tabled for nearly a decade, without funds being appropriated, according to Kevin Brennan, the Corps' project manager for the island.

Even if the funds are found to slow erosion on Smith and other inhabited islands, their future inhabitance is in question, scientists caution.

"The erosion long-term is driven by sea-level rise," said Court Stevenson, an ecologist at the University of Maryland's Horn Point environmental laboratory.

Sea level in the Chesapeake rose about a foot during the 20th century, roughly twice as fast as it had in the previous several thousand years. Perhaps half of that came from the land itself slowly sinking, an after-effect from the last Ice Age. But scientists predict that with global warming and the melting of polar ice, the sea level rise could double or even triple in coming decades.


In 1914, as the exodus from Holland was beginning, the island was 5 miles long and 11/2 miles wide, Cronin wrote. Today, it is a fraction that size — and erosion has split the island in two, with the northern portion a sandy, almost barren, slip. The house that once stood near the northern tip is now out in the water at high tide, its green shingled roof is slumping and mattresses threatening to spill out the broken sides into the water.

The southern islet is more substantial, but mainly salt marsh that's wet at high tide. A hummock near the center holds a cemetery with dozens of headstones, many toppled over and covered by grass. "In memory of Leah Price," reads one, which says she was born in 1745 and "departed this life" in 1838 at the age of 92.

Beyond the poignant reminders of a lost human community, the island teems with wildlife. Flocks of pelicans and cormorants huddle at the water's edge and nest in the trees on the southern islet. The branch of one tree sags under the weight of a nesting bald eagle.

White said he first visited the island in his teens with his father. His uncle was the caretaker then for the house, which was used mainly as a hunting and fishing lodge.

"It made an impression on me because it was so different from the lands around it," he recalled. "It had trees and high ground and all."

White went off to college and became a minister and builder, but about 20 years ago, he rekindled his interest in the island when he went out there again.


"I almost didn't recognize it, from what it was," he said. But what really inspired his quest to save what was left, he said, was an epitaph he found on the gravestone of a 12-year-old girl buried there: " 'Forget me not, is all I ask.' It was sort of an epiphany for me."

He bought the island for $70,000 from a group of Virginia men who used it for hunting, and spent another $10,000 on equipment. He formed the Holland Island Preservation Foundation.

"I thought people would just jump in and give money," he said. "But they didn't. It was either hardheartedness or my ineptitude at raising money, or both."

White says he tried building groins out of timber to hold onto the retreating shore, but storms dismantled them. He filled sandbags. But he says he lacked the funds to bring in boulders to line the shoreline or build more substantial groins.

"Until I got sick, I was working like crazy on it," he said.

So, a couple months ago, White found a successor for his quest. He sold the island to the Concorde Foundation, a three-year-old nonprofit whose mission includes buying and preserving properties of "historic, environmental or scenic interest."


Saving Holland Island is the foundation's first project, said Rob Fitzgerald, 46, who runs an investment firm. Fitzgerald, who lives in Falls Church, said he became intrigued by White's efforts when he read about them in a Washington Post article several years ago. He stayed in touch and joined White there this spring to help him.

Fitzgerald said he was born in North Carolina and has little familiarity with the bay, but said he was struck when he got off the boat by the scenic beauty of the place, and the wildlife. "It looked like something out of National Geographic," he said.

"I like challenges," he answered, when asked why he arranged for the foundation to buy the island.

"What we would like to do is get the island back to its former glory," he said, but then added, "I don't think that's going to happen." If halting the erosion proves futile, he said, the foundation might focus on making it available for educating schoolchildren and the public, both on the island's history and on the natural forces at work.

Disappointed as White is by his failure to save the house, he said the effort has been rewarding in one important way. It brought him together with his wife, Diane, who is descended on her mother's side from the Parks family that once owned the house. She worked alongside him.

"One of the best things about the island is I got her," he said.


Baltimore Sun researcher Paul M. McCardell contributed to this article.