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Losing battle against the bay

A storm last week dealt a crippling blow to the last building on Holland Island, a remnant of a once-thriving town.
A storm last week dealt a crippling blow to the last building on Holland Island, a remnant of a once-thriving town. (Astrid Riecken)

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By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 25, 2010

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.

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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.


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