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The Last House Falls on a Sinking Chesapeake Bay Island

Hollandislandhousefalls The last house on Holland Island has fallen.

The iconic wooden home, which became a symbol of the impact of rising sea levels and eroding land around the Chesapeake Bay, was knocked over by powerful winds over the weekend.

“It’s sad.  In a relatively short period of time, Holland Island went from a thriving community to nothing,” said Shawn Ridgely, a Chesapeake Bay Foundation boat captain who leads educational expeditions in the Bay and  photographed the house slumped over into the water this morning (picture above). “It’s mind-blowing to think that more than 100 years of memories have been wiped off the map."

The photo below shows what the house looked like this fall. Beautifulhollandislandhouse

Holland Island is one of more than 500 Bay islands that have sunk beneath the waves over the last three centuries, according to author William B. Cronin's book, The Disappearing Islands of the Chesapeake. The islands vanished because of a combination of rising sea levels, erosion and the natural sinking of land around the Chesapeake region.

Some of these submerged places, like Holland and Barren islands, until the early 20th century held the Victorian homes, churches, and graveyards of oystermen. Others were hideouts for pirates and schemers  – folks who wanted isolation so they could hunt illegally, gamble, and launch bizarre schemes like breeding black cats for profit.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Holland Island, located about a dozen miles northwest of Crisfield on Maryland’s lower Eastern Shore, was home to more than 360 residents and about 70 homes and stores. It also had a two-room school house, community hall, church and championship  baseball team.

Most of the Holland Island residents made a living by harvesting oysters in the winter and fishing and crabbing in the summer. Some also farmed wheat, fruit, vegetables and corn.

The island was about five miles long and one and a half miles wide.  But over the decades, rising Bay waters and natural sinking of the land (a delayed response to the retreat of glaciers some 12,000 years ago) ate away at the island. By 1914, residents began fleeing -- moving their homes by boat off the island to Crisfield, Cambridge and elsewhere in  Dorchester County.  In August 1918, a tropical storm hit the Bay, nearly destroying the church and prompting the last families to leave by 1922, according to Cronin’s book.

As more and more houses disappeared under the water, a few people returned occasionally for crabbing and hunting.  The last house on the island was used for a while as a hunting lodge.  But then that, too, stopped.  The island shrank to a marshy sliver of its former self.

Hollandislandhouseneartheend For the last several years, the last house (as shown at left) was surrounded completely by water at high tide. From a distance, it looked like a box rising up out of a lonely expanse of bay.  With the human residents all gone, scores of brown pelicans moved in.  News stories about the impacts of climate change and rising sea levels on the Bay featured pictures of the house and brown pelicans. The birds are native to Florida, but in recent decades moved north into the Chesapeake, in part because of warming winters.

The house's owner is Stephen White, a methodist minster who lives on the Eastern Shore.  Over the last 15 years, he spent about $150,000 of his own money in a valiant but ultimately futile quest to save the house from the rising waters by building up the shoreline with sand bags, timber, even an old barge, according to a Baltimore Sun article.

Shawn Ridgely, who works out of CBF’s Karen Noonan Center in nearby Dorchester County, said the house was standing last week. But then powerful winds started blowing last Thursday and over the weekend.  By Tuesday, the house had collapsed, he said.

Ridgely took a group of about 20 middle school students from Baltimore County out to the island this morning. He showed them the remains of the house, and used it as an example of how climate change is already impacting the Chesapeake Bay.

“They were blown away,” Ridgely said.

By Tom Pelton

Chesapeake Bay Foundation

 (Photos at top and bottom by Shawn Ridgely of CBF; middle photo Jay Fleming of the International League of Conservation Photographers)


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To say this house collapsed as result of climate change is a complete lie! How high has the bay water levels increased in the last hundred inch?? Tell the truth. This 100+ plus year old house collapsed because of 80+ years of neglect, natural erosion and land shift; not climate change.

Here's the truth, Patrick: An overwhelming and conclusive amount of evidence -- not only from international scientific groups like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, but also top American researchers at NASA, MIT, the University of Maryland and elsewhere -- suggests that climate change is causing sea-level rise. Polar ice and glaciers are melting,and warmer temperatures expand the volume of water because of the laws of physics.

This has meant that water levels in the Chesapeake Bay have risen about 12 inches over the last century, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. (Read their conclusion yourself at:

This 12 inch rise is far more than the 1 inch you suggest. And remember: most of Holland Island was only a few inches above sea level to begin with. So a foot rise in water levels consumed almost the entire island.

Of course, as my article mentioned, there is more going on here than just water level rise. Also at play is the "natural sinking of the land, and erosion," as I wrote.

According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, land around the Chesapeake Bay is sinking at the rate of about 1 millimeter per year. Meanwhile, the water is rising at the rate of about 3 to 4 millimeters per year. The two factors have combined to cause erosion on the island, with the rising water level eating away at the sinking shores.

As the last house on Holland Island became completely surrounded by water, its foundation was weakened (as evidenced by the photo above, taken this fall, of the house leaning to one side). And then, during this weekend's strong winds, the house finally collapsed. The collapse of the house was due in part to the fact to that the island around it had been eroded away by the rising waters.

Well said, Tom, and excellent work on the story. It's an amazing glimpse into our past, and a heartbreaking reminder of what our future could be, and an awe-inspiring look at the power of nature.

The final end to an era, indeed. Thanks, Tom.
I would have loved to learn more about the individual who tried to fight the forces of nature and maintain the house over the past decade. What motivated him? Has he finally thrown in the towel? And, will he cleanup all of his junk? Last time I saw it, there were two Bobcats and one large digger. It doesn't seem right that these chunks of steel will become part of the Holland Island legacy.

Its interesting that the "proof" of 12" rise in the bay leads to a dead link.

Thanks for letting me know, Kevin.

I fixed the link. It should be working, now.

Here it is again:

I am all for the cause of saving the Bay. I have been a supporting member of the organization for 15 years. However, I agreee with some of the other posters. How is climate change making the bays islands disappear? neglect is the largest cause of the disappearance of this house. Smith Island and Tangier are still above water.
Have the marsh lands disappeared because of climate change? I still see as many marsh lands on the bay as I did as a kid. Not withstanding marsh lands that men have destroyed deliberately. let's concentrate on the bay's ecosystem; this is the important role of the CBF.

Chuck: the last owner of the last house on Holland Island that I know of was Stephen L. White. He was (is?) a minister/developer who spent tens of thousands of dollars in a romantic but ultimately doomed quest to save his beloved home from the advancing waters.

Below is an excellent feature, by my former Baltimore Sun colleague Chris Guy, on the Rev. White's dreams for this now-crumbled house.


August 9, 1999, Monday

Battling time and tide to save vanishing island

Crusade: Stephen L. White has committed $40,000 and his own labor to preserving what's left of remote Holland Island.



HOLLAND ISLAND -- When he closes his eyes, Stephen L. White can see it all: the neat row of white clapboard houses, the plain country schoolhouse, the skipjacks and work boats in the harbor, the steeple of the Methodist church. He can almost hear the crunch of long-ago footsteps on oyster shell roads that once cut through the marsh of his remote island.

It is his island now. Eighty years after most residents had bowed to the relentless Chesapeake tides, hauling their homes and belongings on barges and schooners to the Maryland mainland, White has drawn a quixotic line against erosion that has gobbled all but 80 acres of sand and marsh of Holland Island in the middle of the bay.

A developer-builder and former Methodist minister from Salisbury, White has put up $40,000 to buy the last remaining house and about 75 marshy acres. He has created the nonprofit Holland Island Preservation Foundation, supported by a handful of descendants of the islanders who lived in a village of 350.

Last year, he refurbished a dredge and had it hauled to the island, the first step toward erosion control on a crumbling 500-foot section of the island. He says he can stem erosion for a fraction of the normal cost by doing most of the work himself. All he needs is money -- maybe $140,000.

Robust at age 69, White plans to retire next year and devote all his considerable energy to saving Holland Island. His only worry is whether he'll live long enough to complete the project.

" I've got grant applications all over the place," White says. "We need to find people who want to do more than talk about preservation. The bay has barrier islands just like those on the ocean side. We have the know-how and the technology. I don't accept a fatalistic outlook that there's nothing we can do."

The best hope is a $20,000 matching grant White has secured from the state Department of Natural Resources shore erosion program. The money, reserved in an escrow account, won't be released until he comes up with $20,000 or more on his own. The grant program, which began in the 1970s and stopped awarding grants last month, has steered more than $500,000 to shoreline property owners, says administrator Leonard Larese-Casanova.

Coaxing a recalcitrant three-cylinder outboard motor that powers his beat-up, 16-foot skiff, White set out on a clear morning last week from a public landing near Wenona, the Somerset County town where he grew up.

The small boat crosses eight miles of choppy Tangier Sound. Dodging bobbing painted corks that mark hundreds of crab pots set out by watermen, he headed toward Holland Straits, the channel ringed by Holland, Bloodsworth, South Marsh, Adam and Spring islands.

Teeming with gulls, cormorants, herons and other sea birds, the flat strips of sand and marsh also provide habitat for a growing population of pelicans that began nesting in the marsh cord grass a few years ago.

Approaching Holland, which is about 10 miles north of Smith Island, an osprey hovered above a tall hackberry tree. Great blue herons and snowy egrets scattered at the sound of a boat motor.

"Once you see the wildlife out here, it's hard to imagine that this isn't worth saving, just for the habitat that's provided," he says.

White deftly maneuvered his small craft to a rickety dock. Even at high tide, there is no channel, and the greenish-brown water is about 2 feet deep.

The battered three-story house White first visited as a child -- when George Parkinson, his uncle, lived there as a caretaker in the 1940s and 1950s -- is perched precariously on what is the northern end of the island. Waves nearly lap the foundation.

Currents and tides have cut Holland into three slices, White says, with the largest maybe a mile long and a half-mile wide. About 75 graves, some dating to the 1700s, lie in a cemetery in a grove of stunted myrtle trees at Eagle Point on the southern end of the island. A smaller graveyard on Holland's north end was long ago claimed by tides.

White returned to the island for the first time in 30 years in 1989, and it was these graves, with the erosion that threatened the former caretaker's house, that compelled him to try to save what was left.

"I just don't like to listen to the naysayers. If we listened to them, nothing would ever get done," says White, who plans to donate his island property to the preservation foundation he started.

One of the skeptics is Kent Mountford, senior scientist at the federal Environmental Protection Agency's Chesapeake Bay Program office.

Like many bay specialists, Mountford sees rising sea levels as an inexorable pattern throughout the bay, a historical reality that has been observed since the Colonial era.

Expensive erosion control efforts, including the use of mud and sand dredged from Maryland shipping channels, might be more cost- effective if used to replenish larger islands near Holland that offer habitats, he says.

"He has a nice rookery there, but he's asking an awful lot for a very small piece," Mountford says. "All these islands are important as nesting areas, and they're all eroding. The lost communities are part of the bay's history and will con tinue to be. Erosion control is doable maybe for a generation or so, but eventually the bay is going to win."

One witness to that history is 87-year-old Virginia Haley Trexler. Last summer, for the first time, the Parkville resident returned to the island she and her family left in 1918.

The trip, arranged as a birthday gift by her family, stirred vivid memories, especially of the lone house remaining on Holland -- the house White knew as a caretaker's dwelling. It was built for Trexler's uncle, Grant Parks.

One of the last of Holland Island's natives, Trexler has remarkably clear memories of her early childhood.

She remembers landing in Baltimore on a schooner on Armistice Day. Vendors were giving away ice cream in celebration of the end of World War I as she and her family boarded a streetcar. Trexler's favorite cat, who had made the schooner trip in her arms, jumped into the crowds near the docks and was lost.

"We never had any intention of leaving our island, but the tides kept getting higher and higher, " says Trexler. "When it reached our kitchen, my father said it was time to go. A hundred years ago, it was heaven on earth, but we learned we had to accept change."

Its a cycle. The climate has been warming for thousands of years. The glacier that formed the bay stated melting thousands of years ago. If the CBF was so "floored" by a house that has been in danger for decades they could of saved it with their deep pockets. That's the pity of this story. Turn on your filters......AL Gore did not invent the interwebs...LOL

The only way this house could have been saved would have been to move it off the island. The island is now almost completely under water. Other residents moved their houses off the island -- literally ferried them on boats -- back in the 1910s and 1920s. But the story here is not really about the house itself -- it is about the well-documented phenomenon of sinking Chesapeake Bay islands. Now, if you want, you can doubt that climate change and rising sea levels are linked to that phenomenon. It's a free country and you can believe what you want. Some people choose not to believe in evolution, for example, and that's their right. But I respect the judgments of scientists at the University of Maryland, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, NASA, MIT, the United Nations and elsewhere who have reviewed the evidence and have concluded that greenhouse gases created by humans are, in fact, having an impact on sea levels around the world. And that means here, too, in the Chesapeake Bay.

Rising temperatures are also having an impact on the Bay's ecosystem -- by allowing in new species, such as the brown pelicans that now flock around the remnants of Holland Island. Brown pelicans, a bird native to warmer areas farther south, such as South Carolina and Florida, historically never nested in the Chesapeake Bay. But then around the 1980s, the pelicans for the first time started nesting here because the winters became warm enough for their young to survive.

Even though I knew this day would come, I am still so sad to see it happen. This island was the subject of my graduate work when I was a master’s student at UMD 20 years ago. My work is quoted in William Cronin’s book and I published my own paper on this subject in 2006 ( My research included historically mapping shoreline changes of the island staring in 1849. Holland Island, along with all Bay islands, was and is sinking due to relative sea level rise in the Bay. As a graduate student, using the rate of land loss for the 140 years that were studied, I estimated that the last remaining upland area would be gone by 2001. Steven White delayed this date with his efforts to save the house, but it was inevitable. So neglect is not the reason for island loss as he spent so much time and money to protect that house. Unfortunately, at the current rate of land loss, the entire island will be under the waves within the next several decades. Yes “Smith and Tangier are still above water”, but they are sinking too. For those who deny climate change, just talk to any Smith Islander and they will tell you what life has been like on a sinking island.

The old house should have been salvaged for parts (such as fancy archwork, beams, etc.) years ago.

Instead of spending tens of thousands of dollars trying to keep an already dilapidated stucture from falling off of the edge of Holland Island, Mr. White could have built a new Visitor's Center/Home on tiers in the middle of the highest ground remaining on the island using some remnants of the old house. A structure on tiers can survive without land just as many lighthouses do.

Trying to save that house was just not practical and now I am concerned that this recent event will kill the spirit of the Holland Island Preservation Foundation...

The sad story of Holland Island illustrates the human cost of rising sea levels. The data shows that people are already losing property, resources, jobs, etc., due to climate change (less rapidly in the USA than in Asia and Africa). In a few places, it even happens before our eyes.

The most important evidence of climate change doesn't come from stories like Holland Island's, but from the overwhelming quantity of data in peer-reviewed scientific publications. I used to work for a large, peer-reviewed science journal and I saw that scientists are a diverse group of people with only one common belief: the belief in data and evidence.

Scientists are each others' greatest critics. Any scientific finding that appears in a peer-reviewed science journal has already gone through a rigorous and completely anonymous examination by multiple scientists specializing in the field. The observations of climate change meet these standards.

Thanks for an excellent requiem to a place that once meant a lot to those that lived there. We lose a little bit of ourselves when our home, or the home of our ancestors, disappears.

Most agree climate change is real. And, I agree it is sad to see a home or a town sink below the water in one’s lifetime. It was sad to see Bodkin Light sink slowly into the Bay 40 years ago. However, to put this into perspective, and understand that change in climate and the rise and fall of the sea has gone on for millennium, as I stand at the base of Calvert Cliffs, when the Atlantic Coast was repeatedly submerged beneath the sea. Studies of fossil animals and plants indicate that in those times, a warm shallow ocean covered this area. Cypress swamps lined the shore. A river wound slowly toward the sea through sand dunes dotted with scrub oak and pine with a climate somewhat warmer than now. Millions of years later, the ocean retreated and what once was sea bottom is now exposed in the cliff face in Calvert County.

We cannot change what has taken place since the dawn of time; however we can certainly make change to what we currently have, and have embraced in our time. What is truly sad is the development along the shoreline and inland over the past 150 years. We have inhibited the natural flow of the bay by choking its tributaries with manmade jetty, dikes, bulkheads, and concrete fishing piers through development.

From Bethlehem Steel built on its own slag at the mouth of the Patapsco River, to recaptivated land where there were once dunes and beach along Assawoman Bay in Ocean City. We are our own worst enemy. The western shore just in the past 150 years has turned the Bay into a toxic dumping ground from industrial encroachment. Between dredging the Baltimore Harbor to build Hart/Miller Island, to expansion of Seagirt and Dundalk Marine Terminals, again from the spoils of our own toxic waste for fill.

In the 1600s, the Curtis Creek area was once the first stopping points at Stansbury Cove for European vessels, because of the artesian water supplies. Since then, Curtis Creek shores are lined with oil tank farms, chemical plants, and at one time the world’s largest producer of sulfuric acid; which has literally dried up those supplies. Although cleanup efforts will take decades due to outfalls from the production of chromium ore waste, ferrous sulfate, titanium sulfate, phosphate fertilizer, paint and other chemicals, efforts will never recover the leaching that has occurred into the aquifers which supply thousands of households downstream, and as far as the eastern shore.

To suggest that climate change is causing sea-level rise and the Chesapeake Bay has risen about 12 inches over the last century, is a natural occurrence. But, it is nothing compared to what we have done to the Bay it that same century. On a positive note however, perhaps the rise of Bay waters is nature’s way of “flushing” away our sins of the past.

A 10/26/10 Washington Post article does a good job telling the story of the gentleman who spent the last 15 years trying to save Holland Island. He recounts feeling compelled to save the island after visiting the Holland Island cemetery and seeing a gravestone with the words "Forget me not."

In the accompanying photos, a few gravestones appear, and one faintly shows the name "Price." Doubtless a distant cousin of mine, since my Price ancestors came to the Chesapeake region centuries ago. Very eerie.

I hope that we can restore the Bay and its wildlife while also respecting our human ancestors who sheltered in--and yes, polluted and altered--the region.

They are who we thought they were...we let them off the hook!

My father and a group of his buddies bought the house years ago (I believe it was the early 1980"s) and used Holland Island as a fishing and hunting lodge. My husband and I and our oldest son visited there many times. In the early days we did lots of crabbing along the grassy shore line and we could easily catch a bushel or more in a short time just using our nets. Over the years the grasses died and the crabs left and more and more pelicans and green headed flies arrived. Despite the "roughing it" we continued to visit from time to time. My Dad, brothers, husband and son went there many times to fish and would also "brave the island" in the dead of winter. They have many stories of being caught in snow storms while "vacationing" at "the island". When my dad, Don Beazley, called last week to let us know the house was gone, he was very sad. We will always cherish those memories.

The earth is what, maybe six billion years old. And during all that time there has been a tremendous amount of climate change. So what's different now? The so-called climate scientists are receiving public grants to study climate change and have come up with ludicrous things like global warming. If these people were scientists, when someone asked questins about their conclusions and extrapolations, instead of calling them names like global warming deniers and skeptics, they would give them the raw data and let everyone else come to a conclusion, either confirm or not their own conclusions. Until that starts happening, these whole thing about global warming is a hoax, a gigantic hoax, run by grant money. I cannot believe anyone with any intelligence would lend it any credibility at all.

Jim, you suggest that global warming is "hoax" run by "grant money." But where do you think the real money is? In grants for research? Or in the oil industry, the coal industry, the natural gas industry, and in all the other numerous interests that use fossil fuels? If money talks, fossil fuels have a much louder voice.

Also, I would note that the scientists from MIT, NASA, the U.N., the University of Maryland, and other top institutions who have documented climate change publish their findings in peer-reviewed scientific journals that are completely transparent about the sources of their facts and numbers.

I would love to see some early pictures of the island from the early 20s.

Most of the island is underwater, especially the northern tip where the house stood. Nearly totally submerged. You should take a trip out there to see it. It's amazing.

Nice handling of the rather aggressively toned climate change deniers - I actually prefer to call them the pollution is good crowd - you can't aim smoke stack after smoke stack at the sky and not change the biology of not only the planet but your own body.

Earth and its inhabitants are a totally integrated system and 100 plus years of the industrial revolution has deposited more than its share of sediments and chemical poisons into our rivers, land, air, food chain and our tissue and blood stream as well....

Nice article and good discussion - the whole tone of the aha the link doesn't work crowd is disappointing - just look around mates. Don't be mad at the environmentalist we're trying to help and actually care.

And whats so politically threatening about changing industry to become sustainable when actually leaving the status quo to operate with impunity is the cause of not only the demise of our collective health but the demise of our market system as well.

Jobs vs the environment is a phony argument - as we change from a dirty energy society - the clean energy jobs will emerge - ten fold.

The dirty energy boys are still making a boat load of cash so they're not going to go without a fight...but the truth of the matter is inevitable and the sooner we lay the foundation and move to a clean energy reality the better off and less expensive it will be - including all the reclamation projects that need to happen (hint that creates jobs)

If anybody decides to go see this house as the Bay is swallowing it up. Please go see the next town destined to suffer this wrath. The town is Saxis, Va. The erosion over the years has taken it's toll on the shoreline. My family has owned a house there for 35 years and we see the Bay has taken quite a bit of shoreline. The town was like Holland Island once was when we first bought the house, crabs and oysters were abundant. I remember my parents buying a gallon of oysters for $20 at the point of the island.
The Army Corp of Engineers had planned on building a jetty along the shoreline to help control the erosion. The project fell through with the failing economy. I would like to find a way to save this precious island which was founded in 1664. It has a lot of history and was once inhabited by Indians, I find arrowheads along the shore. Bottom line, this jetty project will cost an estimated 8 million, with a population of under 200, I fear that this place will be written about here in the future as the last house there falls victim to the Bay.

All of tidewater was and is a swamp. Swamps are notorious for being wet and mushy. Another thing I would like to point out, the Chesapeake Bay was terribly polluted for A Long Time - until serious clean up efforts lowered the toxicity, the wildlife was scarce to say the least. Yes it is a bit warmer here now but I would put a little money on our cleaner waters being what brought the Pelicans to town. The jury is still out to lunch on the true cause of sea level rise and there are alot of theories. It seems silly to discount any theory or to count on any theory until it is proven - but we should not stop searching for answers. It makes no sense at all to give up any conservation efforts or to just "do like the Chinese" or whoever you blame for the condition of our planet. You are along for the ride so why not try to make it fun for everyone? Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rejoice!

What do your stupid flour needs have to do with Holland Island or even the Chesapeake Bay, "Viagra Online"?!

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