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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)

Comments

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Another Chesapeake "island" that has disappeared since we sailed near it in 2004 is Grog Island, off the mouth of Indian Creek in Fleets Bay, VA. Only a few dead pine trunks are now visible.

The out-of-date cruising guides that describe Grog as a great place to picnic remind us sailors how tentative these just-above-sea level high spots are.

We sailed by James Island (really a group of small islands) at the mouth of the Little Choptank River two years ago and found some of them submerged then. No telling if any trees remain alive on them now.

yes, climate change has played a part - however, anything built close to the bays and oceans is always at risk. Entire towns and islands have been disappearing since the dawn of time - eventually the ocean takes back what belongs to it. I live near the Jersey shore, and there are many stories of entire towns and villages along the ocean and bays which are no more, places that disappeared back into the water long before the industrial age and greenhouse gases could be blamed. The foundations of the buildings are often built on little more than sand bars, which are supposed to shift and move with the tides over time. The opinion is that these sand bars, or small patches of land off the mainland, are buffers, and serve to protect the mainland from the brunt of erosion and bad weather. Perhaps these places never should have been built on in the first place.

I just saw the Mayor of Tangier Island at the tail end of a TV interview and i totally agree as symbollic gesture of a positive effect for building a wall !

Can't see the forest for the trees. Admits the island is sinking and then blames global warming. Brainwashed; will believe what is said regardless of the facts. The ICCP report was and is a crock of sh**. Of course it is warmer after an ice age. Do you want ice covering Chesapeake Bay? 95% of the Earth's history was warmer than it is now. Let that sink in. Greenland was farmed a thousand and some years ago. We know because the Vikings wrote about it. In the 1920's it was also said that if we didn't do something within a few years the oceans would rise and flood the world. Didn't happen. There is no link between CO2 and global warming. Ice core samples show higher levels of CO2 after warming, not before. The temps at higher altitude, where the CO2 is supposed to be catching all this heat is the same temp. NASA's temps that Al Gore used were wrong and were corrected by a science blogger, and NASA admitted their mistake. So the hottest ten years weren't. The Swedes or Norwegians (don't remember but you can look it up) recently came out with a report that we have already started a cooler wetter trend. Funny how the ICCP recommended socialism to fix the problem. Greedy bastards. People who believe in global warming simply are bad at logic. They fall for bandwagoning; everybody else is saying it. And many other logical fallacies. They can't even do research in the information age. It's just pathetic.

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