The Islands that Disappeared

Forget me not, is all I ask.

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Our latest sim is located in the Chesapeake Bay, an estuary in the US states of Maryland and Virginia.  The Chesapeake Islands are famous for the simple reason that they disappeared. Built on clay and silt, over the course of a century the islands were gradually submerged as a result of erosion exacerbated by sea level rise. They were the islands that sank. For our new sim which opens today, we have focused on two of the islands, Holland Island and Sharps Island. The landmark is here.

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Holland Island is arguably the best known island in the Chesapeake Bay. Once home to almost 400 watermen and farmers, the island was slowly sinking for much of the twentieth century – during which time it halved in size, from 160 to 80 acres – and was gradually abandoned.

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The last house on the island, built in 1888, finally collapsed in 2010, before falling into the sea altogether two years later.

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Our reconstruction tells the story of an extraordinary man, Stephen White, who fought for fifteen years to hold back the sea and save the house.

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Stephen White, a waterman and Methodist Minster, first visited Holland Island when he was a boy. Years later, he was visiting one of the island’s three cemeteries when he saw an inscription on one of them …

Forget me not, is all I ask
I could not ask for more,
Than to be cherished by my friends
So loving and so dear.
Dearest Effie, thou hast left us,
And our loss we deeply feel.
But tis God that has bereft us
He will all our sorrows heal.

The grave belonged to Effie L. Wilson: “Born Jan 16, 1880. Died Oct. 12, 1893. Aged 13 years, eight months, 27 days” …

effie grave

The discovery inspired Stephen White to embark on a campaign to stop Holland Island from disappearing into the sea. He purchased the island for $70,000, and set up the Holland Island Preservation Foundation. For fifteen years, Stephen and his wife waged their own battle against the sea. Spending $150,000, they built wooden breakwaters, laid sandbags and carried 23 tons of rocks to the island and dropped them at the shoreline.

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They employed an excavating machine and a small bulldozer to dig makeshift levees. They even sunk a barge just off the house to break the waves.

Despite these efforts, the silt on which the island had been built could not resist the waves, steadily eroding – just as it had for the past 100 years – until the Whites finally admitted defeat in 2010, and sold the island to the Concorde Foundation.

Today, Holland Island consists solely of marshland – home to many thousands of birds – which is often completely submerged. Fishing still takes place there, as can be seen in this video (around the four minute mark) …

… so we have reflected this in our reconstruction. But given the precarious and ever-changing nature of Holland Island, this is a recreation that seeks to convey a spirit and an atmosphere. In particular, we have tried to encapsulate that dreadful moment in 2010 when Stephen White had to accept that the house was beyond saving …

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In addition to the house, we have also rebuilt the cemetery White would have visited, which disappeared along with the house.

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We have also recreated this distinctive sign from another of Chesapeake Bay’s sinking places, Tangier Island, which reflects the religious spirit that pervades many of the Chesapeake Islands. The inscription – “God so loved the world’ – is from John 3:16

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Holland Island also had a distinctive lighthouse – the Holland Island Bar Lighthouse – which also its own compelling history. The lighthouse was built in 1888, consisting of a house on a screw-pile foundation …

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On March 31, 1931, the lighthouse keeper,  Ulman Owens, was found dead in the kitchen, which was in disarray, suggesting that there had been a violent struggle. Blood stains were in evidence all around the room, and there was a blood-stained butcher’s knife near the body. The dead man, however, bore evidence only of scraping and bruising, with no gunshot or stab wounds visible.

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Bizarrely, the inquest into Owens’ death ruled that the he had suffered some sort of fit- even though on the night of the murder, a local captain saw a vessel cruising without running lights, its wake leading directly back to the lighthouse. A subsequent autopsy revealed that he had suffered a cracked skull. The case was re-opened, and a federal agent would later testify that he overheard a suspected rum runner, Guy Parkhurst, say, “There go the rats that turned us in. Well, the lighthouse keeper got in the headlines. We did that. What these rats get will be worse.”

The uncertainty surrounding Owens’ death lingers around this strange structure that stands alone in Chesapeake Bay. As an article in a local newspaper stated at the time …

The waters of Chesapeake Bay moan round the old Holland Bar lighthouse. The hoarse screams of the seagulls resound through the chill spring air. The fogs rise and subside. The moon glints through the clouds of approaching storms. And always the yellow pencil of the lighthouse lamp traces its pattern on the murky waves.
But the hand that guides its course is not that of Ulman Owens, whose wounded body sleeps peacefully in a little seaside churchyard.

In 1960, the house was dismantled, and an automated light was constructed on the original platform. As far as we know, this structure still exists, and we have recreated it at the sim …

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While we were researching the history of Holland Island, we started to become interested in some of the other islands in the Chesapeake group. Although it was located some distance north of Holland Island …

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… Sharps Island stood out not least because it is home to a lighthouse – the Sharps Island Light, dating back to 1838 – that bears comparison to the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Apparently, the lighthouse started leaning in 1977 due to ice flows. We could not resist replicating this strange structure at the sim. Although the lighthouse still exists, it was deactivated in 2010 and appears on navigation charts only as “Sharps Island Obstruction” …

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Sharps Island sank somewhat earlier than Holland Island, disappearing from view by 1960. Besides the distinctive lighthouse, we have added the hotel that was built on the island by Miller R. Creighton in the late nineteenth century, alongside a boardwalk and steamboat landing. The hotel was very popular, but inevitably short-lived.

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According to this newspaper article in The Star Democrat, it may have been the solid appearance of the Sharps Island Lighthouse that convinced its owners that erecting such a building on this land was a good idea. If so, they were sadly mistaken. The article quotes Margaret Stevens Parsons – who lived at a farm on the island as a child – vividly describing her experience of relentless erosion …

The farm consisted of eight big fields that were cultivated, with a large garden, a big apple orchard and a damson and peach orchard. The yard where the house stood was as wide as half a city block and as long as one and one-half blocks. On the west side was a heavy pine woods. Each winter they would cut the trees back from the shore about 10 feet and before the winter was over, the wind and waves had washed away the earth and trees would be falling into the Bay.

The island itself had been reduced drastically in size by 1900, while the hotel itself was closed and torn down just ten years later. We struggled to find images of the hotel, although this one is strikingly evocative …

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This has been a fascinating and rather poignant project, not least because of the extraordinary myths and stories that surround these islands. We especially enjoyed the challenge of imagining the houses, hotels, churches, tracks, and piers that sank … and recreating the traces that they left behind, forever lost in time …

Besides the few structures on the sim, there are many birds – cormorants, herons, albatrosses, gulls, brown pelicans, geese, swans, ducks, grebes, loons, osprey, pheasants, woodpeckers, crows, magpies, kingfishers, jays – which we believe are found in the Chesapeake Bay today. For us, what’s left of these islands are poignant, ghostly places, in which one cannot but imagine the lingering sadness of residents forced to abandon their homes – as well as the grim determination of Stephen White.

As ever, the sim won’t stay open for long, so please enjoy visiting while you can and post your pictures here.

6 Replies to “The Islands that Disappeared”

  1. Touching story of the disappeared islands. The man fighting with the sea … sort of Don Quijote confronting the windmills… in different dimensions though.

    The sim is absolutely wonderful. One of the best of your creations. If not the best…

    Liked by 1 person

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