The island is located only about a mile from Maryland’s Eastern Shore, south of Kent Island. But as I took a boat trip across the glassy blue straits out to Poplar Island early this morning, I realized that it’s an entirely different world, conceptually and historically.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Port of Baltimore have spent millions to rebuild a vanishing five-acre sliver of land into a 1,140 acre island with substantial manmade wetlands.
To allow huge ships to navigate up the shallow Chesapeake Bay into Baltimore Harbor, work boats dredge roughly 1 million cubic yards of mud and sand a year from the bottom of the Bay and pump it into a framework of rock walls on Poplar Island. This provides the foundation for a system of wetlands that is being built to support birds, diamondback terrapin and other wildlife in what was recently open water.
While construction continues, the island looks like an odd combination of wasteland and paradise. The air echoes with a chorus of engines and osprey.
From the water, Poplar Island doesn’t even look like an island. It looks like an eight foot tall wall of jagged rock rising from the Bay. Nothing seems to grow on top, except the long yellow stems of backhoes.
At the docks where my ferry landed, brown Christmas trees dangled from ropes upside down into the water. Workers recycled these snarly old evergreens as fish shelters. It looks strange, especially on a sweltering July day. A banded water snake slithered between the dead pines toward shore.
Then I strode up the docks inland, down a gravel road, and a lush wetland opened up before me. Sunlight danced on streams between vibrant tufts of spartina grass. Black ducks paddled in diamond water as swallows raced overhead. This is one of the several wetlands that the Army Corps plans to build here over the next two decades.
“Dredging has to be done to allow shipping to get to Baltimore,” said Steve Kilmon, site manager for Maryland Environmental Service, which is supervising the project. “It’s a beneficial use of dredge material. In the past, this material has been taken out to sea and dumped, or taken inland and put in holding locations, and all it does is stay there. So this is something different.”
But how to prevent the new Poplar Island from suffering the same fate as the old Poplar Island?
Settled by the English around 1632, Poplar Island was once large enough for about 100 residents, with several farms, a school, church, post office and saw mill. The British thought the island was important enough to occupy during the War of 1812.
During the 1930s and 1940s, a group of prominent business leaders and Democratic politicians – including Presidents Roosevelt and Truman – used the island as a hunting club.
But the natural sinking of land around the Chesapeake region, and the rising of sea levels caused by global warming, contributed to erosion that slowly ate away the island. It shrank from about 1,100 acres in the 19th century to only a few acres on shaggy tufts by the late 1990s.
Kilmon, the project manager, said that the new island will be built considerably higher than the old – rising as high as 30 feet above the Bay, compared to the three or four foot elevation of the former island. He said that will help it withstand erosion, along with eight foot rock walls that surround the most of the rebuild island.
“We hope it will last indefinitely,” Kilmon said. “It’s built to a standard to take pretty much anything that can come at it."
He noted that, on one side of the island, the builders may eventually remove the rock, so that it becomes a natural-style tidal wetlands with no barriers.
Areas of sandy beach are scattered around the island, as are inlets that allow diamondback terrapin and other wildlife to enter the wetlands. The eventual purpose is to designate the entire area as a sanctuary.
It’s an audacious project to try to rescue a drowned island. And it’s an impressive feat of recycling. But erosion and rising sea levels have gobbled up several other Chesapeake Bay islands.
And indefinitely is a long time.