Smith Island - Vanishing under the rising ocean



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Smith Island is an eight by four mile island lying twelve miles off of Crisfield, Maryland. Slipping slowly and exorably under the rising waters of the Chesapeake Bay, inhabitants continue to hang on to a land and a life style that seems doomed.




The lands of the Chesapeake Bay have been going under for the last 13,000 years. During the last ice age when a sheet of ice extended from the polar caps into southern Pennsylvania, the sea level was some 500 feet below where it is today. The Chesapeake Bay did not exist. A great river, what we now call the Susquehanna River, carved a 200 foot deep gorge on its way to the continental shelf to the ocean shore. That shelf is some 100 miles out to sea today. The great ice sheets have melted into the oceans raising them and flooding the old river valleys.

Recently the pace of that rise has quickened. Now six times faster than in early colonial times, the ocean and Bay waters rise a foot and a half every one hundred years. Perhaps that doesn't sound like much, but if your home is only a couple of feet above the average high tide, it is important. The rising waters eat away at the edges of the land, storms roll over it and life becomes difficult. with only 10% of the 8000 acres of marshland being inhabited, the people of Smith Island are just one big hurricane away from having to totally abandon their home.

But that is not the only problem for the people of Smith Island. Born and raised on this tiny piece of land in the middle of the lower Chesapeake Bay, the people whose ancestors used to farm marginal but dry land must now spend a lifetime of hard work wresting a living from the waters. Crabber men, oyster men, fishermen as season turns to season, the rhythm of their lives are paced by their environment. But now the excesses and conflicts of the outside world are impinging on the 400 residents still left on the island. With a long history of isolated living through more than ten generations on the island, they have their own idioms, accent and strong Methodist religious background. Life moves at a different pace and with different rules than on the mainland.

Not only is the land disappearing, but so are the people. As of the 2000 census, the average age of Smith Island residents was 50.5 years. The average house value was $55,000.00 and the average income was $26,000.00. Opportunities for the children of the families of Smith Island are slim on the island. Things are better financially on the mainland. The young grow up and move away. The old continue to struggle on.

Due to the pressures of the population increases on the mainland, the pollution in the bay has increased dramatically in the last 50 years. This has affected the fish, crab and oyster populations in the Chesapeake waters and severely lessened opportunities for Smith Islanders to continue to wrest a living from the sea. Supplemented by some tourism, they continue to struggle, hampered by minimal catches and low prices. Resentment of newly arrived and sometimes pretentious outsiders who have recently become concerned about the state of the Bay festers among those who have seen many seasons living in and on the Bay.

Visitors arrive on one of two ferries from Crisfield twelve miles to the east or from Virginia some twenty miles to the west. There are three towns, Ewell, Rhodes Point and Tylerton. Several B&B and a restaurant or two service the weekend summer traffic. Electric golf carts and bicycles ply the few roads in and outside of town. Crab pots and shedding pens line the small harbors. Each morning's dawn sees an exodus of traditional Maryland work boats to the crab or oyster grounds surrounding the island.

It is a different world, a place out of time. Go soon. it may not be there one day.


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