Situated in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, a target for rising sea levels due to hurricanes and nor’easters and consequently damaging erosion, Smith Island, Md. faces an uncertain future. Its Old-World charm, marked by its distinctive accent, may vanish amid the throes of climate change.
The population of the island is 200. Its high was 800. Forty-five minutes by boat from the mainland (Crisfield), it is undergoing a tidal wave—in relative terms—of real estate sales. Out- of- towners are buying second homes despite the dire predictions of scientists about the impact of climate change on this outpost of watermen and Smith Island cake.
The price is right for waterfront property: less than half the cost of a condominium in Annapolis. And the view of the Chesapeake Bay and sunsets is magical.
The lifestyle is peaceful and tranquil. It is tempting to believe it is permanent.
Imagine a metaphorical bridge from the mainland to a piece of geography that defies conventional thoughts about a community. Smith Island bears little relation to most living spaces populated by thousands of people, cars and noise.
Smith Island is a paradise. Condé Nest Traveler, the “fantasy” destination website, would likely disagree. While the island lacks extravagant amenities and four-star restaurants, it has a quaint charm, as exemplified by few cars, preponderance of bikes and golf carts, Old English speech voiced by the natives, bountiful crabs and oysters and curious tourists impressed by simplicity.
It was founded in 1608, settled by immigrants from Wales and southwest England. Native Americans preceded the British invasion by 12,000 years.
Barring a climatic miracle, the future of Smith Island is doomed. Either it will be awash in water, destroyed by a hurricane or tornado, or dissipated by erosion. The stubbornness and resiliency of Smith Islanders are undeniable. They continue to find ways to ward off extinction through erosion-control measures financed by the state and federal governments.
But, for how long?
I find no joy in predicting a weather-related apocalypse. The island is spiritually connected to the Eastern Shore. It is a splendid relic of the past, its residents and newcomers devoted to a slower pace of life, where secrets are impossible and neighborly support inestimable.
Other islands have vanished, including Holland and Sharps islands in the Chesapeake Bay. Poplar Island, off Talbot County near Tilghman Island, exists and flourishes now only because of hefty investment by the federal government, specifically the annual deposit of two million cubic yards of dredged material from the shipping channels to Baltimore. The island, once the site of a lodge used by Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman and Washington, D.C. dignitaries, is currently a lovely wildlife habitat.
To be the victim of erosion is a terrible fate. Abandonment by its steadfast residents is the most reasonable course of action. Climate scientists can be wrong. The possibility is unlikely. The impact of climate change and global warming is well-documented.
Another factor is money. How many taxpayer dollars should be spent on Smith Island and erosion control? Though a gung-ho supporter of preservation, whether on the Eastern Shore or Annapolis, I would have to disregard scientific data to believe that Smith Island can withstand the vagaries of weather disasters and persistent erosion.
Were islanders to read this opinion piece, they would vehemently disagree. As they should. The prospect of accepting the demise of a 400-year-old homestead inhabited by generations of family members such as Tyler’s, Marshall’s, Evans’ and Smith’s would be an exceedingly unpleasant reality to accept.
Many have fled to the mainland for more predictable lives. Their separation from their homeland had to be rending. Nonetheless, the migration was inevitable, though some stayed behind.
Reinvention as a second-home venue is encouraging. It brings a sense of restoration and hope. It also is illusory. Sadly so.
Smith Island sits on the precipice of tentative survival. The odds are gloomy, if not downright unreasonable. I recommend abandoning a sinking piece of paradise. My proposal surely runs up against pride and tradition.
Evacuation after a destructive storm as Hurricane Sandy is dangerous. Lives might be lost. Homes will crumble. The irreplaceable culture will exist only in memories.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. After 44 years in Easton, Howard and his wife, Liz, moved in November 2020 to Annapolis, where they live with Toby, a King Charles Cavalier Spaniel who has no regal bearing, just a mellow, enticing disposition.