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Remembering a Girl Who Died in a Vanishing Land

Graveyard on Holland IslandOn a tiny, remote island in the southern Chesapeake Bay, gravestones rise beneath a gnarled hackberry tree. 

That’s all there is left to Holland Island, really.  A patch of spartina grass.  Wooden beams poking up from the waves just off shore, where the last house stood.

And about a dozen gravestones beside a pile of bricks.  Above the small island rises this enormous, twisted tree -– its branches filled with dozens of cormorant nests.  From the trunk of this tree, at an angle, juts a bone-white slab of stone that is being absorbed by the tree roots.

The headstone is now part of the tree. Next to it is a stone that reads:  “In Memory of Effie L. Wilson, daughter of John W. and Anne E. Wilson.  Born Jan 16, 1880. Died Oct. 12, 1893. Aged 13 years, eight months, 27 days.” And then an inscription: “Forget me not, tis all I could ask for.”

Jessie Marsh
The stone doesn't how the girl died -- perhaps it was an illness, such as pneumonia, which was common and deadly back then.

But one person determined not to forget Effie Wilson and all the other residents of this vanishing island is Jessie Marsh.  He’s a former waterman who who now works as a boat captain for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and lives on a similar island nearby, Smith Island. 

Both Smith and Holland islands, located northwest of Crisfield on Maryland’s lower eastern shore, are among the Chesapeake Bay’s disappearing lands.  Dozens of islands in the Bay are rapidly being eroded as climate change drives up sea levels and the land slowly subsides, due to natural geological shifts.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Holland Island was home to more than 360 residents, about 70 homes, a school house, church, and even a championship baseball team. 

Jessie Marsh’s relatives told stories about what happened to all those Holland Islanders.

Holland Island shoreline“Erosion is what done the damage, and what caused people to leave,” Marsh said, during a recent visit to Holland Island. “Most of the homes were on what’s called the west ridge, which is completely gone now.  And the water was just getting so close to them, it got scary.  They’d have storms and high tides.  And at last it looked like they were in the Bay, except for the houses. It just got scary. A few left. And then later on, it became like a domino effect… It’s kind of what I worry we’re facing on Smith Island now."

 About seven miles south across the water, Smith Island’s population has fallen from almost 800 in the 1930s to about 276 today. In May, Maryland proposed buyouts to some of the remaining residents who were facing flooding. But that spurred anger and resentment and among many islanders who refuse to sell out or give up. State officials killed the buyout plan.

The Smith Islanders are determined to keep their close-knit community. But they look across Holland Straight to see what happened there.

Last house on holland islandFor a long time, the last house on Holland Island stood almost entirely surrounded by waves -– a symbol of defiance with pelicans guarding its roof.  But then the house collapsed during a storm three years ago.

“Being from Smith Island, you can’t help but take that hard,” Marsh said.  “As soon as I seen it, it was like the end of something special.  It wasn’t only the house -– the whole Island.  It has always been a special place to me.”

That something special lives on. Not in the gravestones rising around the island’s last big tree. But in the memories and hearts of the remaining Bay islanders…and everyone who cares about the Chesapeake Bay.

Effie Wilson: you are not forgotten.

By Tom Pelton

Chesapeake Bay Foundation

Holland Island graves


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Thanks, Dennis. A strange beauty, in that the tree is absorbing the tombstone.

"Would it be that I were able to absorb such
priceless treasures...
lest they each exist only in my mind's eye"

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