The third time was a charm. Recently I finally accomplished a quest begun almost two years ago - a visit to Poplar Island, in the Chesapeake Bay just a short distance off the Bay Hundred section of the Tilghman peninsula on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. I have been reading about Poplar Island since I first fell in love with this region upon moving to Maryland in 1976. Regulars readers of this blog are already familiar with my strong affinity for islands of any size, and Poplar Island fits the bill. There is something about an island, especially one so close to the mainland, that calls to me. So I have long dreamed of exploring Poplar Island at my first opportunity. I have been patient; I knew I would get out there one of these days. There was only one problem. The island was quickly disappearing, the victim of water and wind erosion. At one time the island covered nearly 1500 acres, yet by the mid 1970s its land mass had been reduced to a collection of small islets measuring 3-5 acres. If I waited too long, Poplar Island would disappear altogether and there would be nothing left to explore. As luck would have, the island has not disappeared and is now rising anew from the waters of Chesapeake Bay. So, after two aborted attempts to visit the island, the third attempt went off without a hitch.
For such a small island, it has a long and fascinating history. The Spanish may have discovered the island in the late 16th century, and John Smith is known to have been in these waters in the early years of the 17th century. The island was surveyed in 1627 by William Clairborne, of nearby Kent Island (the first permanent English settlement in what is now Maryland), and christened Popeley’s Island in honor of Lieutenant Richard Popeley, one of Clairborne’s associates who had come with several men from Elizabeth Citie, Virginia to help defend the early settlement. Clairborne also named a nearby island, later known as Sharp’s Island, after himself. There is evidence that a herd of pigs called the island home in 1632, and these two islands were the first to be cleared and planted in 1634, the same year Lord Baltimore and the founders of the Maryland colony sailed up the Chesapeake Bay.
Ownership of Popeley Island later passed to Richard Thompson who developed an extensive plantation raising corn, tobacco and other crops, as well as livestock. In the summer of 1637, Thompson returned from a trading expedition only to find wife, children and servants massacred by the local Nanticoke indians. Thompson abandoned the island and established a plantation on Kent Island where he remained for the rest of his life. By the mid 17th century a new plantation was established on the island by Thomas Hawkins thereby severing the last connection with Clairborne. It was also around this time that the island came to be known as Poplar Island.
We don’t know much more about the island’s history until the early 19th century when it served as a British base during the Chesapeake campaign in the War of 1812 while the Royal Navy was conducting naval operations farther up the Bay and around Baltimore in 1813-1814. The British found a protected harbor and food for their sailors and troops. By 1815 they had withdrawn from the Eastern Shore although naval squadrons continued to operate throughout the Bay.
Already in the mid 19th century Poplar Island was suffering from serious erosion and was actually three separate islands - Poplar, Cobbler’s Neck and Coaches Neck - although still known collectively as Poplar Island, or the Poplar Islands. It was around 1840 that ownership of the islands passed to the grandson of Charles Carroll, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence who died at age 95 in 1832. Learning that there was a demand for black cat fur in China, the younger Carroll established a fur farm on the island, importing hundreds of cats and contracting with local waterman to supply them with fish. There are very few reliable details about this endeavor, but the legend has it that one winter the Bay froze over and the waterman could not supply the necessary fish to feed the cats. So they struck out across the ice and dispersed throughout the surrounding farms and plantations.
In the 1880s, the Poplar Islands had a population numbering 70-100 people. A small community known as Valliant, named after one of the local families, included a post office, a school (which also served as a church), a general store, and a sawmill (which may have led to the erosion of the islands through the cutting down of the island’s trees). The islanders continued to fish and grow crops which were sold on the mainland, yet by the early years of the 20th century the population had dwindled as families moved to the mainland and the school was finally closed in 1918. Although still privately owned, what remained of the islands was left to Mother Nature and the elements.
New life came to the islands in the 1920s and early 1930s. Bootleggers used the islands during Prohibition, and in 1929 they attracted a group of prominent Democrats from Washington who were looking for privacy and solitude to escape the rigors of the nation’s capital. Coaches retained its present owner while the Democrats purchased Poplar Island and Cobbler’s Neck, which was subsequently renamed Jefferson Island by the Maryland legislature in honor of the first President to break with the Federalist traditions of his predecessors. It was here they constructed a lodge - the very exclusive and males only Jefferson Islands Club founded in January 1931 - which became a favorite wartime getaway for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Vice President John Nance Gardner, members of the FDR cabinet, and other political leaders and industrialists of the day. Here they enjoyed the privacy they sought while taking part in local fishing and hunting opportunities. The club’s glory days were numbered, however, and the main lodge burned down in March 1946. Only the chimney and the front porch, including the concrete ramp constructed to accommodate FDR’s wheelchair remained, and the Democrats left for good.
The two islands were purchased by the club’s former caretaker and his wife, who moved their family from Wickwire, Maryland to the islands in 1948 and built a hunting and fishing operation - the Poplar Island Lodge - on the ruins of the old clubhouse on Jefferson Island. The islands continued to erode. Poplar Island measured approximately 200 acres of trees and marsh while Jefferson Island was around 40 acres and Coaches was 90 acres. The natural harbor formed by the three islands, known locally as “The Pot,” was frequently an anchorage for the large skipjack fleet still operating over the nearby oyster beds (more on this in an upcoming post). This rebirth was short-lived when the lodge closed in 1953 and the owners returned to the mainland.
The islands passed through several owners in the following decades but remained uninhabited as the Bay’s waters continued to wash them away. By the early 1990s only Coaches remained; the other two had dwindled to four remnant islands with a total area of 3-4 acres. They could very well have disappeared forever, the fate of other Bay islands, had it not been for a rather creative effort by the State of Maryland, the Maryland Port Authority, and the United States Army Corps of Engineers to find a productive - in fact a constructive - use for the silt and mud dredged annually from the shipping channel leading to and from Baltimore. For years such dredging material was disposed of at nearby Hart-Miller Island or subtlety dumped in open water around the Bay. Perhaps with Hart-Miller island reaching capacity and simple dumping being an ineffective manner of disposal, the disappearing Polar Island might offer a new possibility?
This is why I finally traveled to Poplar Island. It was a cool and misty morning as I arrived at Knapps Narrows, separating Tilghman Island from the mainland, to board the Terrapin, the utility boat operated by the Maryland Environmental Services which is overseeing the restoration of Poplar Island. Established back in the 1970s, MES is now an independent and not-for-profit state agency responsible for managing Maryland’s numerous land, water, and air resources projects, including the use and management of dredge material as a natural resource. The trip from Tilghman Island took about twenty minutes, passing close to Coaches and Jefferson islands, before we stepped ashore at the Paul S. Sarbanes (in honor of the former US Senator from Maryland) Ecosystem Restoration Project on Poplar Island. Jefferson Island, which still has a scattering of buildings among the trees, and the wooded Coaches Island, are privately owned and not part of the project although they are certainly benefiting from the protection from further erosion offered by Poplar Island.
The restoration of the island began in 1998 when rip-rap dikes were constructed, much like the edge of a jigsaw puzzle, following the original shoreline. After that, a number of additional dikes were erected separating the island into individuals sections, or “cells” - the pieces of the puzzle which also incorporate the last vestiges of the remnant islands - which are now receiving the dredge material. This is collected in large clamshell scoops during the annual dredging season between November and March when traffic and other activities in the shipping channels are at a minimum, and then loaded on barges for the roughly forty mile trip down the Bay to the island. Once it arrives in slurry form, it is piped to one of the cells to a prescribed depth and allowed to dry, what is known as “crust management.” Channels and creeks are also developed to permit the Bay’s water to enter the cells at high tide to create low marshland while the high marsh is planted with grasses to create new wildlife and bird habitat, including diamondback terrapins as well as ospreys, herons, terns, and many other bird species. Old Christmas trees have also been collected and scattered around the island to provide protected nesting areas. Eventually almost 20 million cubic yards of dredge material will be shipped to the island by 2029 when the restoration of the island will be completed; although much work will still be needed before the habitats are finished in 2039.
I returned to Tilghman Island with a good feeling about government and the private sector working together to protect rather than rape our environment. The restoration of Poplar Island is a success story and one can only hope that the lessons learned here will be put to good use in the future. Many of Chesapeake Bay’s islands are quickly disappearing and there is a chance that they, too, can be saved, and with them the endangered wildlife, bird and fish and shellfish habitats they afford.
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