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Last house on sinking Chesapeake Bay island collapses

The last house on Holland Island, a large Chesapeake Bay island that was reduced to one house by erosion, recently toppled over. The island gradually succumbed to nature and is now completely submerged by water during high tide.

The other reason is modern: climate change. The Earth's oceans are rising, scientists say, because polar ice is melting, and because warmer water expands. They have noticed the effect of climate change more in the past couple of decades, government scientists say.

These two factors mean that seas rise a tenth of an inch annually, eroding about 580 acres of Maryland a year, according to the state. The loss of land is all around the bay but is most noticeable on the low islands.

Holland Island was especially hard-hit: Like other Chesapeake islands, it was made of silt and clay, not rock, so its land eroded readily. Today, the ragged piece of marshy land is smaller than Holland's outline in colonial times.

"It's just like a dipstick," said Michael Kearney, a professor at the University of Maryland. "The water goes up, it just gets drowned."

After their heyday in the late 1800s, island villages began to wink out. James Island was abandoned about 1910, Barren Island about 1916. The Holland Islanders left about 1920, and most of the houses went with them, disassembled, put on boats, and reassembled in Eastern Shore towns such as Cambridge and Crisfield.

This house stayed behind.

White, who had worked as a waterman and a Methodist minister, bought the house and most of the island in 1995 for $70,000. It sits about six miles offshore from his home on the Eastern Shore.

He said the place became an obsession after he stumbled upon a young girl's grave in one of the island's grown-over graveyards.

"Bear with me a minute," he recalled, his voice breaking at the memory. "It said, 'Forget me not, is all I ask.'

"And I didn't. I still haven't," White said. He said he drew inspiration from a photo, taken in the same cemetery, where he saw the ghostly outline of a girl standing near the grave.

So at the age of 65, White began trying to save the island by himself. Erosion experts say he never had much of a chance: To bring back Poplar Island, farther north, has required about $667 million, vast tons of dirt, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

White first tried building breakwaters out of wood. The waves smashed them. He and his wife laid out hundreds of sandbags. The summer sun baked them, and many split open. White lugged 23 tons of large rocks around by hand and dropped them at the shoreline. But it wasn't enough.


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