During Tropical Storm David last year, the wind-driven waters of Chesapeake Bay wrested one foot each hour from the shores of this dwindling island chain two miles off Maryland's Eastern Shore.
When it was over, as much as 15 feet in places had disappeared into the bay, telescoping a year's relentless erosion into one stormy September night. Today, the processes proceeds unabated and unhindered by human efforts to stem the tide.
"This damn island has broken everyone's heart who been on it," said Kevin Sullivan, director of the Smithsonian Institution's Chesapeake Bay Center, which largely owns and oversees the remains of Poplar. "I suspect it will happen to us, too."
This place, where as many as 100 persons once lived and farmed, bore their children and buried their dead, and where Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry s. Truman fled from the pressures of the presidency, is home now for a lone caretaker, his cat, a small herd of deer and battalions of birds. In places, only stands of daffodils mark the sites of human habitation. In time, they, too, will be gone as Poplar sinks inexorably -- like the lost island of Atlantis -- into a watery grave.
For what was once, in colonial times, a single 1,000-acre land mass is now in seven pieces, ranging in size from some 50 tree-covered acres, at the southern end, to tiny islets of a few square yards barely visible at high tide.
The main island of Poplar, once the vital center of human life, is now a narrow north-south strip where up-rooted trees lie like floating tombstones in the water, fallen from the banks along with crumbling bricks and bric-a-brac of a vanished civilization. "Poplar Main" may be the fastest eroding island in the bay, scientists believe. This decade, they say, could well be its last.
Since 1847, the western shoreline of Poplar has receded 2,790 feet. Between 1964 and 1971 alone, 119.7 feet of westward shoreline eroded into the bay. A decade ago, only 54 acres of the main island remained. Today, less than half is left.
South of here, Sharp's Island is completely gone and Barren Island remains on the maps but is devoid of people. Further down the bay, residents of Smith and Tangier islands cling tenaciously to their land, demanding action to save it. Here, the homesteads and graveyards of generations have washed away, and there are no residents left to fight for the island's salvation.
At low tide, the flotsam and jetsam of history washes up on the shore. Caretaker Michael Passo's window sills and shelves are filled with old bottles that once contained Dr. Kilmer's Swamp Root Kidney, Liver & Bladder Cure, Dr. Thompson's Eye Wash and Fink's Magic Oil.
On Poplar Main, chimney runs and a few wooden boards are almost lost amist the untrampled growth. "This is almost primeval," said Sullivan, on a spring inspection tour, just before a jet plane thundered incongruously overhead.
Sometimes, on weekends, city people come here under Smithsonian auspices to study the wildlife and sleep at the lodge on Jefferson Island, northeast of Poplar and once attached to it. "It really gets to be a rat race," Passo said. "On the other hand, it's great they come. Otherwise, nobody uses it and there wouldn't be any justification for even me being here."
Linked to the outside world only by a 46-foot work-boat and a radio telephone, the 32-year-old Navy veteran mows the lawn, maintains the lodge and its electric generator and, as the one-man Poplar Island police force, shoos away unauthorized visitors, except during storms.
The battle for Poplar Island in fact ended a decade ago when the forces of man abdicated to the forces of nature. Various schemes to used baled solid waste or demolition debris from Baltimore were discarded as impractical. Other proposals to place bulkheads on the outer islands were deemed too expensive.
Even plans to shore up 20-acre Jefferson, now partially protected by parts of Poplar to the west, have run into snags as bidding for bulkheads exceeded the $50,000 budgeted for the job.
"Our feeling right now is to do what we can to preserve the integrity of Jefferson," said Sullivan. "As far as the outer islands, I think we're prepared just to let them go."
For now, Sullivan worries about Navy planes that fly too low and powerboats that comes to close, disturbing the rare ospreys that hatch their eggs on manmade platforms near the water and the great blue herons that nest atop loblolly pines.
The Smithsonian staffers have their own names for the islands: making up Poplar, for example, are the isles of North Point, the Heron Island, Poison Ivy and Marshy Island. Jefferson, where the caretaker and occasional visitors stay, retains the name bestowed by 20th century politicians, Coaches -- Coaches Neck before it was severed -- keeps the name of uncertain but ancient origins.
It was all known to begin with as Poplin's Island, named after an associate by Capt. William Claiborne, a Virginia Puritan who laid claim to the island in 1631. Claiborne gave the island, however, to a cousin whose family was killed by Indians here in 1637.
In 1654, the island was sold for 10,000 pounds of tobacco to a Thomas Hawkins. His widow later married a Foster, from whom the island took a new name. In 1699, the island was sold again, this time to the former Dutch governor of Delaware. The father of Charles Carroll -- one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence -- purchased it next.
The British plundered the island during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. By the 1840s, maps show, Cobbler's Neck -- later to be called Valliant and then Jefferson Island -- had separated from Poplar.
From the 1880s until the 1920s, however, as many as 15 families lived here. The Valliants' general store and post office was on the smallest island. The larger Poplar Island contained a one-room schoolhouse that doubled as a church, a lumber mill, a graveyard, a road and at least half a dozen farms. Coaches, by then a separate island, also housed several families.
The farmers grew tomatoes, tobacco, watermelon, cantelope, corn and wheat, which they reaped with a steam-driven thresher, now said to lie under water one-eighth of a mile from shore. There were horses and oxen to pull the plows and carriages. There was no electricity. There were no cars. They made it to the mainland in log canoes.
The men who worked the water reaped good harvests of crab and oyster in "the pot," the natural harbor formed by the island chain. Today, rockfish are said to be plentiful near the old wells that have since submerged.
"It was a beautiful old island with oyster shell walks and little white picket fences," recalled Dolores Reese, 65, who visited as a child.
"We had our own cow and tilled the farm with horses," said Ida Richardson, now 73.
She started school here, she said, under the tutelage of Joseph F. Valliant, "a right good teacher." He was also the last teacher. The school closed after he died in 1918.
Ida Richardson's long-ago island neighbor Harvey C. Howeth, died earlier this year, aged 88. His widow, 87-year-old Nannie Howeth, still lives around the corner from Ida Richardson in Tilghman, a nearby Talbot County town.
The Howeths were married June 7, 1916, and lived on the island for nearly four years before the brothers Harvey, Jim and Charles Howeth sold their farms, "reserving, however, the growing crops for 1919; the burial plot as now laid out to remain forever undisturbed," according to the deed.
"I don't want to move over there anymore," said Nannie Howeth, in the living room of her small cottage. She had three children on the island and they all died in infancy. "I had an awful time over there," she said.
After moving, Harvey Howeth became a housepainter. He longed for the island his wife loathed. "I have four bunches of Easter lillies in the backyard that Harvey planted over there when he was a child," his widow said.
One by one, the families left. Howeths, Lednums, Ridgeways, Sinclairs, Haddaways and finally Valliants migrated to the mainland.
By 1929, Poplar was left largely to the moonshiners. Federal revenuers raided the place that year, arresting five bootleggers, seizing their yacht and smashing a 1,000-gallon still. Mail service to the islands ended in 1932. a
Congressional Democrats bought one of the islands for their Jefferson Island Club in 1931. It was touted as the "Playground of Presidents" after Presidents Roosevelt and Truman visited several times. "The senators did a lot of drinking over there and they used to have a crow shoot," said Perry W. Cooper, 89, who worked there as cook and handyman in the 1930s. Alice Haddaway worked there, too, and once spilled peas all over Harry Truman.
Poplar Island, by then a gunning club belonging to an Annapolis lumberman, was briefly inhabited during the 1930s."We went back before my mother died," said Margaret Harrison Greenhawk, 70. "She said she wanted to go back home." They spent two hard winters there, and the old lady died shortly after returning to the mainland in August 1939.
A 1942 aerial photo shows four abandoned houses and a fragment of unpaved road, but by then Poplar was a complete ghost town. On Jefferson, the "President's Club" burned down in 1946 and was sold two years later to the first of a succession of owners. There was another lodge and another fire, an alleged arson, and finally the third lodge that survives today. In 1965, a Philadelphia physician acquired the island chain, which he has since largely donated to the Smithsonian.
"We loved it and went there on weekends and vacations," said Dr. William L. Elkins, "but it became impractical, so I got the Smithsonian in on the deal, realizing if anyone could stop the erosion, it would take someone like that with some wherewithal." But not enough, as things turned out.
Government estimates to save the islands ranged from $800,000 up to $4 million. And there were those, even in the Smithsonian, who questioned the very idea.
"By what right (or to what purpose) should man seek to mitigate a process as inexorable as the wearing down of the once-tall Appalachians, or the extinction of the wooly mammoth, or the demise of some other species doomed by nature?" asked Dr. David Challinor, a Smithsonian official, in 1971.
So Poplar Island is rapidly washing away. With the dimishing land, the heron nests have dwindled too, from 500 to 1963 to 75 today, according to the best estimates. When Poplar goes, the safe harbor that still welcomes boats in a storm will be gone and the bay will have its way with Jefferson and Coaches and, ultimately, the mainland.
"there are some rather titanic forces out there on the bay, especially with a 30-mile-an-hour wind," said Jan Reese, of St. Michaels, who is known as "the osprey man" for his all-consuming interest in the birds.
The forces lashing Poplar welled up suddenly on a recent spring night, moving in the early evening from the northwest across the bay. A cherry tree swayed precauciously at the water's edge some 100 feet from the lodge. There were loud thunderclaps, lighting and heavy rain, and the wind-whipped waters formed white-caps in "the pot."
Passo, the caretaker, raced out the rickety 300-foot pier to better moor the small powerboat marked "Poplar Island Security."
Soon, the storm was over. The cherry tree had survived and so had the islands, if only for the moment.