Island of Calm

By William G. Scheller
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 12, 2000

I was sitting down to a plate of soft-shell crabs in the back room at Ruke's store and restaurant, which is one of only three places to eat in the town of Ewell on Smith Island, when a young couple came in with a snazzy new stroller. In the stroller was a 4-day-old boy, pink and wrinkly. The waitresses started fussing him up, joking about how he was a "keeper," like a legal-size crab.

Parents and baby were just back from the Maryland mainland, where the nearest hospital is, and although there were probably 300 years or more of Smith Island in that baby, it was almost as if they had gone to the mainland to get him. They had brought their little keeper back the way you'd bring back a stroller from the Wal-Mart in Salisbury, the way you bring back everything else to Smith Island. The island is self-sufficient in crabs, and not much else.

Smith Island is Maryland's only inhabited Chesapeake Bay island unattached to the mainland by bridge or causeway. It lies 12 miles by boat west of the town of Crisfield, across the arm of the bay called Tangier Sound (Tangier, another remote yet populated island seven miles south of Smith, belongs to Virginia). John Smith was the first European to chart Smith Island, in 1608, but it was named instead after Henry Smith of Jamestown, who was granted 1,000 acres here in 1679.

By that time emigrants from Cornwall and Dorsetshire already had settled on the island, by way of Jamestown and Virginia's Accomack County. They were farmers, who later turned from the poor land to the rich bay and became watermen. The baby at Ruke's is their linear descendant.

So is the crab industry, for nearly every man on Smith Island is a waterman today. Most of the soft-shell crabs eaten in the United States are caught within a 50-mile radius of Smith Island, and when they aren't in season the islanders take them in the hard shell. Crab shanties line the waterfronts of Smith Island's settlements, and the watermen's trim, low-slung work boats crowd the docks.

The name "Smith Island" is deceptive, suggesting a single shoreline wrapped around a neat bundle of dry land. But Smith Island is really dozens of islands, some of them mere hummocks of black needle rush, smooth cordgrass and other wind-swayed marsh plants, threaded by a maze of tidal channels. The whole cluster amounts to some 8,000 ragged acres, of which perhaps 900 are habitable. Most of the rest, roughly the northern part of this patchwork of land and water, make up the Martin National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge grew out of a gift to the federal government from the late Glenn L. Martin (as in Martin Marietta), and is off-limits to visitors.

There are three communities on Smith Island. Ewell is the metropolis, with a 1996 population of 215. Rhodes Point, a mile to the south, counts 85 souls along its single road, paralleling the narrow waterway called Sheep's Pen Gut. And Tylerton sits all by itself, 80 citizens strong, on its own little islet. It had a school until 1997, when the state decided that its two students would have to make the daily cruise to classes in Ewell. That was the end of the last one-room schoolhouse in Maryland.

None of all this reaches more than five feet above sea level. The average elevation is two feet. I brought my bicycle to Smith Island, and it was the only one I saw with more than one speed. If the global warming people are right, the last crab shanty on Smith Island will disappear even before the Grand Canal sloshes into the vestibule of St. Mark's in Venice. Already, Rhodes Point is struggling with relentless erosion. "If the sea doesn't cover us over, if people don't stop eating crabs, and if the good Lord's willing," one islander has remarked, "there'll be a Smith Island maybe another hundred years." As of now, the first item on the list might be the iffiest.

I suppose it was the business about Elizabethan accents that first got me interested in Smith Island. You always hear about these places where people are supposed to still speak Elizabethan English -- the backwoods of Appalachia, or islands off the Atlantic coast -- and even though you know that Primestar and DirectTV have doubtless blasted anything that quaint off the face of the earth, you go anyway, hoping to hear what the most elegant instrument ever devised for human communication actually sounded like. Nobody, of course, has the damnedest idea. Given the places where the legend holds, this usually leaves you to wonder if Sir Walter Raleigh came across like George Jones, or if Hamlet's Ophelia could have sung "Crazy" like Patsy Cline.

But Smith Island's dialect isn't standard American Southern, as if there were such a thing. Linguists group it with what they call Tidewater English, and it is built around some interesting vowel sounds. "Round" comes out "rayund"; "room" is "reum"; and "house" reached my ear as "hayose" or "haise," depending on which end of Ewell I had pedaled to. Still, nobody said "prithee" or "forsooth" while I was there.

A tourist's day on Smith Island runs at a stately pace. The farthest exploration I could make, without a boat, was to bicycle out to Rhodes Point. I had the narrow road almost to myself. There are very few automobiles on Smith Island -- some people get around exclusively by golf cart -- and at least half the cars I saw were innocent of Maryland tags (one Pontiac seemed, judging from the rear plate, to be registered in the state of Dale Earnhardt).

Wheeling alone across the great salt marsh, I watched snowy egrets and great blue herons, and stopped once to follow a fiddler crab's circuitous crossing of the blacktop: He was the safest crab in all of Chesapeake Bay. I got to Rhodes Point and found a row of houses, some lived in and some abandoned; crab shanties with saltwater bubbling through trays where "peelers" (crabs on their way to being soft-shells) finish molting; a trim church and graveyard; and a boat repair yard. I didn't see a soul.

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