captain john smith tangier island map
Captain John Smith published the first detailed map of the Chesapeake Region in 1612.

This summer, I was on a boat steaming across the Chesapeake bound for Tangier, a remote island smack dab in the middle of the bay. Known to Europeans since John Smith recorded the island in 1608 – and isolated from other communities – Tangier is renowned for the persistence of a local accent that bears jarring resemblance to the Cornish brogue of its original settlers who arrived in the late 1600s.

It is also famously succumbing to erosion and sea level rise at an alarming rate. Geologists estimate that, without significant intervention, the island will become uninhabitable in as few as 25 years. And at the same time as it has lost roughly 67% of its landmass since 1850, it has also dwindled in population from over 1,100 in 1930 to an estimated 450 people today.

As much as any other endangered place in the world, Tangier is fighting a daily and desperate battle for its survival.

Invasion

Accomplishing the remarkable feat of wresting 12 city-dwellers from their Saturday morning slumber, our cabal set off at an otherwise unthinkable hour for the three-and-a-half hour drive southeast along considerable length of Virginia’s Northern Neck.

from afar, it looked like any other town in this region of Maryland or Virginia, albeit one surrounded by lapping, hungry waves as far as the eye could see.

chesapeake breeze ferry, tangier island ferry
Chesapeake Breeze ferry. Photo source: tangiercruise.com

In Reedville, we climbed aboard the Chesapeake Breeze, a vessel that would take us on our ‘cruise’ across the Bay to the troubled land of Tangier. It occurred to me that our group alone would swell the population of the island by 2.7% that morning, not even considering the roughly 80 others we joined aboard the ship.

Charting a course for middle of the Chesapeake, our captain pointed out the faded spoils of Reedville’s past wealth. At a time, its status as a port handling huge amounts of fish products swelled its coffers, a tale still told by the seaside estates and shipping implements that line its shores. We passed just feet from an osprey’s nest, where a huge bird of prey fed her writhing young. I wondered if there was a bar onboard. There was not.

About an hour later, Tangier itself came into view. It stretched low and marshy above the horizon line, indicated most noticeably by a water tower. I thought that, from afar, it looked like any other town in this region of Maryland or Virginia, albeit one surrounded by lapping, hungry waves as far as the eye could see.

tangier islandSteeling into Tangier’s North Channel, we passed crabbing huts perched above the water on stilts. Many of these, the captain explained, included ‘shedding tanks’ to harvest soft shell crabs. Crabbers run water over recently caught blue crabs to simulate tidal conditions, lulling the critters into shedding their old shells as they would in the wild. Watching studiously for signs of molting, the fishermen then pluck the crabs from the water just before their new shells can harden and ship them to the gourmands across the bay.

Miles of low, green marshland stretched away to the north. With a single power line running along the otherwise ambiguous shore, I could almost imagine being in the Netherlands. On the south side of the channel, the small houses and docks of the town began to materialize.

As we docked, our two hours and 45 minutes on Tangier Island began. “Our boat leaves at 2:15 sharp,” the captain announced. “But don’t worry; if you miss it, we leave again at the same time tomorrow.”

“Our boat leaves at 2:15 sharp,” the captain announced. “But don’t worry; if you miss it, we leave again at the same time tomorrow.”

Invocation

lorraine's restaurant tangier, tangier island restaurant

We ran a long gauntlet as we arrived on the island, channeled on both sides by a chain link fence from the dock to the town’s main street about 100 meters away. Along the fence, locals handed out neon paper brochures advertising their businesses.

those who ordered the crab cakes declared them the most delicious they had ever eaten.

I caught one that really piqued my interest – in addition to advertising its delicious seafood, this restaurant felt compelled to assert the dignity and inviolability of the Tangier way of life. The poem-cum-prayer printed on one panel compelled readers not to sneer at “our humble dwellings” or the “waterman’s way of life.” God, the brochure reasoned, uniquely blessed this island and was sure to help it overcome its tribulations.

Passing a row of golf carts where a man called out an advertisement for island tours, our group made a beeline for Lorraine’s, one of the few restaurants on the island. After brusquely distributing us across two tables, an employee (perhaps Lorraine herself!) returned to take our drink orders. “Lots of folks don’t like our tap water,” she cautioned, strongly suggesting the iced tea. I hazarded a try of the water, and though a couple others followed my lead, most of us switched quickly to the tea. I stuck with the water, savoring a slight saline aftertaste faintly reminiscent of a long gulp from a water bottle after a day at the beach.

For many, the seafood was a religious experience. At my table, those who ordered the crab cakes declared them the most delicious they had ever eaten.

After lunch, we began to explore the narrow streets of the island, where locals speed around on a fleet of bicycles, golf carts, scooters, and mopeds. Ambling on foot, we passed the Swain Memorial Methodist Church, the epicenter of the town’s strong Christian devotion. Tangier’s Methodist faith dates from just after the Revolutionary War. In the early 1800s, a delegation of villagers established contact with a preacher on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, and regular ‘camp meetings’ subsequently began on the island.

During the War of 1812, the British used the island as the staging point for their attack on Baltimore, and mounted a cannon adjacent to the camp meeting site. Legend has it that the British Commanding Officer asked local preacher Joshua Thomas to deliver a sermon prior to the troops’ departure, during which Thomas accurately foretold British defeat in the battle that inspired Francis Scott Key to pen “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Along with the small nearby school, the church community is the backbone of Tangier public life. Just across the street, in the window of Jim’s Souvenir and Gift Shop, a sign indicates the store’s Sunday hours as: “CLOSED – See You In Church!!!” 

Inundation

Walking down the main ridge road, business dwindled and we began to pass more and more homes. Most homeowners reserve a corner of their lawn for a mini cemetery, where they house the graves of their ancestors. A huge proportion of the headstones bear one of the three surnames of its earliest settlers – Crockett (that of the original founder), Pruitt, or Parks. Beneath each is a sloped concrete encasement for a coffin – the marshy, waterlogged ground makes a fully subterranean burial a very uncertain prospect.

After Hurricane Sandy battered Tangier in 2013, local islander Carol Pruitt-Moore made national headlines when she discovered exposed human remains on the northern island, where they had been unearthed from the remnants of a cemetery in an area known as The Uppards. Once connected to the town on the southern island by a roadway, the abandoned settlement of Canaan in the Uppards became a ghost town sometime in the 1920s or 1930s when water levels rose dramatically.

Today, memories of Canaan haunt the reset of Tangier. Many of the families in the remaining town remember grandparents, cousins, or great aunts and uncles who once lived in this northern outpost. The ruins of The Uppards continue to wash away – in this excellent VICE report, Pruitt-Moore herself points out the alarming rate of the area’s continued submersion.

While the entirety of Tangier could be underwater soon, it certainly would not be the first inhabited island in the Chesapeake to sink beneath the waves. Tangier’s story bears eerie resemblance to that of Holland Island, one of a handful of islands in the bay that were inhabited near the end of the 19th century and abandoned by the middle part of the 20th.

holland house baldeaglebluff
The last house on Holland Island in the Chesapeake Bay as it stood in October 2009. This house fell into the bay in October 2010. Source: baldeaglebluff via Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/baldeaglebluff/4060903093/

Holland Island was home to up to 350 people in the late 1800s, most of whom were watermen and their families. It included houses, stores, and a church. Abandoned in the 1920s, one sole house stood above the water until it fell into the bay after a storm in October 2010. Stephen White, a Methodist Minister, took over stewardship of the home in mid-1990s, pouring money, sandbags, and love into keeping the home from falling in. Pondering the heartbreaking end of his Sisyphean task, I can’t help but consider a future in which devoted Tangiermen tend to the waterlogged ruins of their homes for as long as they stand.

Reaching the modest bridge to the island’s west ridge, we spotted a crane. Slender and white, it stood solitary and still in the middle of a low-lying bank in the marsh. We snapped a few pictures and headed back towards town. 

Indoctrination

tangier island ferryNext, we stopped at the wonderful Tangier History Museum, where videos, newspaper clippings, and numerous artifacts tell the strange history of the island. As we paid the requisite $3 entry fee, a friendly cashier welcomed us with a brief orientation – “at the rear of the museum, you will see a movie that tells you all about Tangier, our history, and how we do so badly need a sea wall.”

Her exhortation is, by no means, an isolated one. In Tangier, the idea of an easterly seawall is an almost messianic pursuit, believed by many residents to be the only way the island can be saved. This is not without reason: the erection of an earlier sea wall all but halted rapid erosion on west side of the island in mid-20th century. However, with an estimated cost of $30 million, the funds are not readily available for a similar wall on the east side.

Compounding the prohibitive cost is the fact that, while a sea wall would likely slow down some of the island’s erosion, most geologists agree that it would provide no permanent fix to the issue of sea level rise. A wall may buy some time, but it is clearly no guarantee of Tangier’s continued survival.

The 45th President of the United States does not share this view. After seeing a CNN report on this very topic earlier this year, Donald Trump infamously telephoned the Mayor of Tangier to express his confidence in the island’s survival. Urgently summoned back to town from his day job as a waterman, mayor James “Ooker” Eskridge spoke directly by phone with the President. Trump reportedly told Eskridge, “your island has been there for hundreds of years, and I believe your island will be there for hundreds more.”

Nearly 90% of the island voted for Trump, and signs all over the island loudly trumpet support. Eskridge himself told reporters that he loves Trump, “as much as any family member.” Reportedly, he hopes that the President will advocate for funding to build the easterly sea wall, and a sign advertising that Trump is hard at work “Making America Great Again!!!!” stands directly in front of the disembarkation point for incoming ferries on Tangier. Will blind faith that the island will persist really do anything to save it?

In our country’s divided political moment, it’s hard not to sneer at that sentiment. But, perhaps in order to be a responsible visitor, it’s all the more important to reserve judgment.

spanky's ice cream tangier island
Eat ice cream and “re-live the 1950s” at Spanky’s Place. Source: http://tangier-island.com/

Leaving the museum, we made a brief stop at Spanky’s Ice Cream Parlor, where one of our neon brochures promised we could “re-live the 1950s.” I spotted a much different mantra on a chalkboard hanging behind the counter labeled “Food 4 Thought.” “Good character is more to be praised than outstanding talent,” it quoted self-help author H. Johnson Brown Jr. in exquisitely arcane cursive. “Most talents are, to some extent, a gift. Good character, by contrast, is not given to us. We have to build it piece by piece – by thought, choice, courage, and determination.”

There was a sign I could agree with wholeheartedly. A few minutes later, onboard the Chesapeake Breeze, I watched as the silhouette of Tangier faded away on the horizon. I thought about how mere existence on the island must require that brand of thought, choice, courage, and determination every single day. Much of that fight may feel incomprehensible to me – unthinkably foreign, even—but it is an admirable one.


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