by Caitlyn Johnstone
June 20, 2018
This is the first installment of a three-part series on Deal Island, Maryland.
A small country road, ambitiously designated a state highway, branches off Route 13 in the town of Princess Anne, Maryland, and meanders out into the marsh of the eastern shore. For 19 miles, the road travels through forests of loblolly pines before giving way to miles of marsh grass and patched water. Continue out into the marshes, past where you would expect to see humans, and you end up in Deal Island, one of the last classic Chesapeake Bay watermen communities.
Watermen have been making their living off the waters and their lives on the island for more than a hundred years. It is the home of the skipjack, the sail-powered oystering boat and state vessel of Maryland. Here, people still take to the water in search of a bounty while the rest of the word sleeps.
“I call it my church in the mornings,” says waterman Butch Walters. “It’s a peaceful time. You get in the mornings; you see the sunrise. You see everything comes to life.” Walters is a man of fifty-six, and on the younger side of the remaining Deal Island watermen. “Everything is just gloom and doom, dark, and when the sun starts coming…it comes to life.”
Age is hard to gauge when a livelihood wakes one up in such a spiritual way, and retirement can be well into the nineties, but there is no doubt that the remaining watermen of Deal Island may be some of the last. The current size of the island is dependent on your level of optimism: the county website describes Deal as being three miles wide and one mile long. The resident-maintained island website describes Deal as six miles wide and three miles long. It depends on how you determine what is “land” and what is “water,” a line that becomes ever more difficult to draw as time goes on. Deal Island is, like most of the islands in the Tangier Sound, slowly being lost to the sea.
A changing island
Under the Chesapeake Bay lie more than oyster beds. Straight out from Deal Island is a patch of marsh called Holland Island, home to birds and not visible at all during high tide, when it fully disappears beneath the waves. Under the surface are the remains of an entire community—homes, schools, churches, shops and a post office. In 1910, Holland Island was the most populated island in the Chesapeake. Ninety working vessels made port on the island, returning each night to beautiful Victorian homes. Just like Deal does today, Holland Island had a traveling baseball team. Such a lively community created the illusion of permanence.
By 1922, Holland Island was abandoned. With no bedrock to hold it in place, erosion quickly took back the island to the Bay. Some of the homes were dismantled and taken to Crisfield, Maryland, to be rebuilt. Others tried to remain behind on their island, only to have devastating storms pull the land from under their feet.
On a visit to the island many years later, former waterman Stephen White came across the headstone of a little girl in one of the abandoned graveyards. Because of the inscription on this headstone, he poured blood, sweat and tears into trying to save what remained. One single house remained above the waves in the decades to follow, beautiful and desolate. White and his wife placed sandbags, stones and wood and even sunk a barge as breakwaters. The sea proved a larger opponent, and White gave up the fight for Holland Island in 2010. The headstone of the small girl that had driven his fifteen-year crusade read, “Forget me not, is all I ask.”
The last house on Holland Island would be photographed many times in the years since its abandonment. A venture capital group bought the island in the fall of 2010, commissioning a surveyor to take aerial photos of the disappearing sand with its solitary home. The last house collapsed into the waves in October of 2010.
Today, the remains of structures below the waves, and the welcome respite of shallow sand out in the Bay, make an excellent refuge for wildlife. Walters likes to crab pot around the submerged Holland Island, and has always been strangely drawn to it.
“I’ve always had a touch for it, you know, in my heart,” he explains, gesturing at his chest, “because people used to live there.”
Walters’ nephew recently began researching the family ancestry and discovered their ancestors were residents of Holland Island. For Walters, that knowledge was a shock. The current state of Holland Island makes it hard to imagine the bustling life and community that used to call it home.
The islands of the Chesapeake Bay are curious in their virtually rock-less composition, making the lands highly susceptible to erosion from storms and everyday wear. The Chesapeake basin has long-term geology working against human habitation as well: thanks to the compression by a heavy sheet of ice during the last Ice Age, the Chesapeake basin fluctuates from its release similar to the way Jell-O would wobble in and out after a pressing finger was lifted. Currently, the Chesapeake basin is sinking, bringing the land closer to the water at the same time that the water is rising up to meet it.
Deal Island today
This is all happening on a slow geologic scale, but the combination of factors facing Deal Island is accelerating the timeline for its human residents. In this area, it is not a matter of what is causing the changes—whether you want to believe it is human-caused climate change, changes that are part of the natural cycle of the earth, sea level rise, erosion alone, a sinking Chesapeake or a combination of factors—the reason is not important. Everyone on the island can see the changes. Current residents will likely live out their days on Deal Island, but the island and the way of life will not last forever. However, there is still a ways to go until then.
The knowledge remains in those working the water, and residents are taking the long view. Further up the road into the interior of the island, a new heritage museum is taking shape. It began as a skipjack museum that has developed into a history of the people and their way of life, preserving the society and culture of the watermen and their families.
Working against the changing world is a monumental task, but passing on traditions and preserving an island’s culture aren’t. The people of Deal Island are working to save their heritage, in pictures and memoirs if not in passing on the traditions, to stand as a stronger, more permanent “Forget Me Not.”