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James Island losing ground in the Chesapeake

Army Corps of Engineers looks to one day restore James Island in mid-Chesapeake

Maybe it was just the way the place looked from a boat on Saturday, or maybe it was Kent Mountford's essay that mentioned how the place used to be inhabited, or maybe it was due to the arrival of a new book about the Piscataway and other natives of Maryland — whatever it was, I found myself trying to imagine what life was like on James Island before the English arrived 400 years ago.

It likely rose fairly high above the waters of the Chesapeake Bay. It was probably full of trees, perhaps loblolly pines. It might even have been connected to nearby Taylors Island on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

Maybe prehistoric people lived there; maybe they just visited. Maybe the Piscataway passed through. Or perhaps the centuries went by without a single human visitor, and James Island was simply a nesting ground for birds near the mouth of the Little Choptank River. I don't know. I can only imagine. A deserted, slowly sinking island will do that to you. There's something mystical about it, as if it were a floating piece of time itself.

Mountford, an estuarine scientist who spent a good part of his career with the Chesapeake Bay Program, cobbled together some of the history of James Island in an article for the Chesapeake Bay Journal several years ago. He quoted historians and archaeologists, referenced old maps and drew on his experiences as a frequent visitor to the place. "Piecing together the vanishing island's history is a story told mainly through maps and memories," Mountford wrote.

English colonists named the island for St. James in the 17th century. The island went from more than 1,300 acres in the mid-18th century to about 550 acres by the late 1990s. Indeed, Mountford concluded, there were times when erosion and migrating sands affected James Island so much that there were periods when it was firmly connected, then not, to Taylors Island.

The north end of James Island was once a mile wide. (It is nowhere near that now.) There was once a settlement, too, Mountford discovered, with a store, a small schoolhouse and what might have been an oyster-shucking house. This happened during the mid-19th century and again in the early 20th, archaeologists concluded. But, if there was a village, it's gone now.

"A map from 1903 shows a road running down the west shore with lanes leading to four likely dwellings along the shoreline in a configuration that suggests they might have been farms," Mountford wrote. "There's archaeological evidence for some of this settlement scattered in shallows on the bay's bottom, and at least one partial foundation with a doorstep stone still survives on the island's marshy west side."

For a while, a lumber company took timber off the island, and there was once a large herd of sika deer there. The deer, along with a winter goose population in the Little Choptank, drew hunters, Mountford learned. In fact, a gun club formed in the 1960s and bought the island from Louis L. Goldstein, the legendary Southern Maryland politician who served nearly 40 years as Maryland comptroller until his death in 1998.

Who knew Louie once owned an island?

The James Island Gun Club built a cabin 100 feet inland, according to Mountford, but by the late 1980s the cabin was 15 feet out in the bay, which gives you an idea about the rate at which the island is sinking.

There isn't much there now. In fact, James Island looks like three islands because large slices of it have sunk into the Chesapeake, in part because of sea-level rise. The vegetation on one of the pieces was apparently decimated by last winter's wind and ice.

James Island is one of several in the bay that has eroded with time. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says an estimated 10,500 acres have been lost over the last 150 years in the mid-Chesapeake.

Still, there's a plan to restore James Island. The Corps of Engineers has James Island in its project lineup for the bay. The project is similar to the high-profile restoration of Poplar Island to the north, using massive quantities of dredging spoil from the Chesapeake's shipping channels and the port of Baltimore to build up the sinking island and turn it into a bird sanctuary. James Island is a major part of the next phase of mid-Chesapeake restoration projects, according to Chris Gardner, a spokesman for the corps.

But it could be a decade before anything happens there, and that seems like a long time for an island that already has lost so much ground.

drodricks@baltsun.com

Dan Rodricks' column runs Wednesday and Sunday. More commentary can be found on his blog, Roughly Speaking, on baltimoresun.com.

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