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  Treasured Islands

The islands of the Chesapeake are disappearing at an alarming rate. William Cronin's new history of the region — replete with rich black-and-white photographs by A. Aubrey Bodine — gives us reason to mourn their loss.

By Catherine Pierre
All photos courtesy of the Johns Hopkins University Press

Opening photo: A Gwynn's Island dock house in the mid-20th century (Mariners' Museum, Newport News, Virginia). In 1847, Charles Carroll launched an enterprising business on an island in the Upper Chesapeake Bay: the Great Poplar Island Black Cat Farm. Carroll (son of Charles Carroll Jr., who built Homewood House on what would become Johns Hopkins' Homewood campus) had heard that there was a market in China for black cat fur, so he offered 25 cents apiece for female black cats. He shipped the cats to Poplar Island, paid a local waterman to deliver fish daily, and let the kitties have the run of the place. All was well until winter arrived. The bay froze, the fish couldn't be delivered, and the hungry cats made off across the ice to the mainland, thus bringing an end to Carroll's feline farm.

In its history, Poplar Island was much more than a fur factory, according to retired oceanographer William B. Cronin, author of the new book The Disappearing Islands of the Chesapeake ( JHU Press, June 2005). It was the site of an Indian massacre in 1637, base camp for the invading British fleet during the War of 1812, and from 1931 through 1946, a getaway for presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman and many other prominent Democrats.

But history, for Poplar Island, seems to be coming to an end. Long the victim of erosion from rising seas, 40-mile-an-hour nor'eastern winds, and hurricane-level storm surges, all that remains of the island — once 1,500 acres — is four small spots of land that total about five acres. Disappearing Islands captures the history of Poplar and 40 or so other remaining islands in the bay — before they're gone for good.

The ever-changing Chesapeake Bay as it appears in the 21st century (by Bill Nelson, after author's sketch). The bay's islands are constantly threatened by erosion, made worse in the last century by global warming. Cronin, 90, spent 30 years exploring the bay and its tributaries, both for work and for pleasure. He spent his career as a scientist with the Johns Hopkins Chesapeake Bay Institute, a hydrographic research center founded in 1947 by the U.S. Navy, the Maryland Department of Research and Education, and the university. When he wasn't working, he frequented the area's beaches, coves, and salt marshes aboard his sailboat Ginger, getting to know the islands and their inhabitants. He also spent hours researching their histories at regional museums, historical societies, and archives.

The result is an island-by-island chronicle of the bay that documents the islands' earliest native and non-native American settlers, some of their more colorful inhabitants throughout the years, and their current fate — many islands today are home only to plant- and wildlife. Illustrated largely by pictures taken by renowned photographer A. Aubrey Bodine, it is a delightful book for anyone who cherishes the Chesapeake.

Waiting for a Baltimore steamboat on Solomons Island, circa 1920 (Mariners' Museum). In the past several decades, Solomons has been home to the University of Maryland's Center for Environmental Studies, a site for World War II mine testing, a hospital burial ground for sailors with no known relatives, and a haven for nude sunbathers.

To a point, sinking islands are a natural phenomenon. But Cronin notes that global warming has caused the speed of their disappearance to accelerate. Scientists believe that before 1900, the water level in the Chesapeake Bay rose about 3 feet every thousand years. In the past 100 years, though, the seas have risen a full foot. "The sea is rising a little every year," says Cronin. "It's just a matter of a few millimeters, but year by year it raises, raises, raises."

Cronin devotes a chapter to "Lost Islands," the more than 500 that have disappeared altogether. "They're in the land records," says Cronin, "but they're not on modern charts — islands that were very large, some of them 400 acres."

One can imagine that all the islands in Cronin's book will make that list some day.

Poplar Island, however, may be getting its second chance. According to Cronin's book, the state of Maryland is using it as a disposal site for a 20-year, $427 million dredging project. Eventually, materials brought up from the shipping channels around Baltimore's port will bring the island back to its original shape and size. It will be home once again to osprey, egrets, and blue herons.

Maybe even one or two cats.

A deserted house on Kent Island in the mid-20th century (Bodine Collection, Maryland Historical Society). Kent, site of Maryland's first permanent European colony, has in recent years seen a housing boom, with residential developments, shopping centers, airfields, and marinas.


Deal Island blacksmith Melvin Collier, photographed by Aubrey Bodine in 1953 (Bodine Collection, Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore, Maryland). Deal Island is home to two towns, Deal and Winona, where life centers around crabbing, oystering, and other water work.


On Smith Island, a fisherman keeps his catch alive in a wooden crab float, 1945 (Bodine Collection, Mariners' Museum). Actually a collection of large and small islands, Smith Island was discovered by Captain John Smith in 1608. It was named for Henry Smith, a mainland farmer who, in the mid-17th century, used the island for grazing livestock and growing vegetables.


Watermen take a break in a workboat galley, about 1950 (Bodine Collection, Maryland Historical Society).


A Gwynn's Island fisherman on his boat, 1943 (Bodine Collection, Maryland Historical Society). Fishing and crabbing are still a way of life for many of the island's 400 permanent residents, though these days many can make a living catering to the tourists who flock there in the summer months.

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