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."
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.
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)