By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 26, 2010; 7:26 PM
ON HOLLAND ISLAND, MD. The story was strange enough to be a child's fable: In an isolated section of the Chesapeake Bay, there was a two-story Victorian house that seemed to emerge directly from the water.
And, scurrying around it, there was a retiree, trying to keep the house from falling in.
Finally, the man gave up. And last week, the house did, too. Raked by a storm, it cracked at the spine and collapsed into a one-story wreck.
The tale of the house and the man illustrates the Chesapeake's problem with rising oceans and sinking land. It has already erased life on most of the bay's islands and now is threatening to erase the islands themselves.
The century-old house was the last structure left on Holland Island, an abandoned watermen's community. Waves had eroded so much land that, at high tide, the house seemed to sit directly on the waves.
For the past 15 years, a former minister named Stephen White had been trying to hold back the water, protecting the house's foundations with timbers and rocks and sandbags.
"I lie in bed and feel like I failed. And then I remember that I did everything that I could," said White, who had first visited the abandoned island as a boy.
The house, at its beginning, was nothing special: three rooms up, two rooms down, with a kitchen on the back. It was built around 1888 and was one of about 60 houses on an island more than three miles long.
At the time, the bay was dotted with inhabited islands, where people farmed or watermen sailed out to dredge oysters.
Holland Island was one of the largest: Historians say it had more than 360 people around 1910, with two stores, a school and a baseball team that traveled to other islands by boat.
But the inhabitants' luck, and their land, would not hold.
Sea levels in the Chesapeake, scientists say, are rising faster than they are in some other coastal regions of the United States. One reason is ancient: The land here has been slowly sinking for thousands of years, settling itself from bulges created by the weight of Ice Age glaciers. The weight of glaciers to the north pushed the Earth's crust down, and the crust in this area went up like the other end of a see-saw. Now, the whole region is slowly sinking again.
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.
All the while, the bay got closer.
During Hurricane Isabel, in 2003, waves rolled through the kitchen. He fixed the house. But last winter the combination of high winds and tides pushed the house off two of its supporting piers.
Other people snickered at White, the Sisyphus of Dorchester County. But he held out hope that a big donor or a government agency would swoop in and help him save the place. None did.
In June, White fell ill with hemolytic anemia, a near-deadly drop in his red blood cells. He finally sold the house, and his part of the island, to a foundation run by a Falls Church investor, Robert Fitzgerald.
"It's a struggle that the strongest wins. And I wasn't the strongest," said White, now 80. He is still undergoing chemotherapy, although his red-blood-cell count has returned to normal.
Fitzgerald was inspired to protect the remaining pieces of the island after reading about it in The Washington Post in 2000. But it was too late for the house, which sat on a particularly vulnerable part of Holland Island.
On Thursday, a group of Chesapeake Bay Foundation employees went to visit what remains of the island. From a distance, the house was still a strange - though shorter - sight, its boxy frame standing out against the flat water like the outline of a ruined farmhouse on the plains.
When they got closer, the damage was obvious. The house had broken open in front, and a bed jutted out from a second-story bedroom, its white sheets fluttering in the wind. The evidence of White's struggles - an excavating machine, rocks, a small bulldozer - sat half-submerged around it.
"It just kind of hit me. For the last 35 years, I've been using that house as a landmark," Don Baugh, a vice president at the bay foundation, said as the boat approached. "That's pretty damn sad. That's the end of an era."
It definitely won't, however, be the end of the Chesapeake's erosion problems. A few miles away, a watermen's community on Smith Island is just a few inches above the waves. And Maryland is contemplating how to, in one official's words, "facilitate abandonment and retreat" when faster-rising waters eventually threaten towns on the Eastern Shore's mainland.
White hasn't gone out to see the ruined house, but he has seen pictures. "It's the death of a loved one," he said.
Even now, he hasn't entirely given up hope. Asked Thursday whether the house could still be fixed, White considered it. "Nothing's impossible," he said.
Out on the water, Baugh looked at the unsteady remains of the house and considered the same question. In the distance, the sun was setting, and another rainstorm was rolling over the bay.
"A couple nights like this," he said, and "I don't think you'll see anything left."