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Life as a Fellow in the MdHS Library: The Changing Geography of Crisfield, Smith Island, and Tangier Sound

Food inspector John F. Earnshaw inspecting oyster shucking operation, Baltimore, Maryland, c. 1914-1915.  Arthur J. Olmstead Collection, PP133-5, MdHS.

Food inspector John F. Earnshaw inspecting oyster shucking operation, Baltimore, Maryland, c. 1914-1915. Arthur J. Olmstead Collection, PP133-5, MdHS.

As a Wing Fellow in Chesapeake Bay Maritime History at the Maryland Historical Society, I have spent the last year unearthing primary sources about the history and culture of women’s work and labor in the Chesapeake Bay area. My work focuses primarily on the crabbing and oystering communities of the lower Bay around Crisfield, Smith Island, and Deal Island. I began my research not really knowing where to start, as there is an abundance of information and books written about the Chesapeake Bay. However, early on in my research I became very interested in the use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in order to track changes in geographic landscapes. I was happily surprised to discover that the MdHS’s archives had a set of large maps specifically of the lower Bay area, and that these maps spanned a significant portion of the 20th century.

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The three maps that I found were a topography map of Somerset County from 1906, a hand-illustrated fishing map from 1959, and a general highway map from 1965. I also added a current Google satellite map of the area for present-day reference. Using these four maps, I did basic comparisons in location, shorelines, marsh grasses, and geographic reference points in order to see how the lower Bay has changed throughout the 20th and 21st century.

The Chesapeake Bay is flanked by a peninsula on its east shore known as “Delmarva” comprising the three states of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. Towards the southern portion of Delmarva, at the Virginia/Maryland border, resides the Tangier sound. This smaller body of water in the Bay extends from the state border to the south, Smith Island to the West, Bloodsworth and Hoopers Island to the North, Deal Island at its northeast corner, and Crisfield on its Eastern bank. This particular area is at the forefront of many of the central issues that plague the Bay in terms of cultural and environmental sustainability.

Once known as “the seafood capital of the world” Crisfield is now a sleepy crabbing town that is also the central docking point for ferries taking tourists and residents to the islands of Smith and Tangier. Crisfield was once the main area where commercial fishermen, (known as watermen), took their catches to be picked, packed, and shipped all over the country. The town had crab-picking factories lining its shores, and also was the home to many watermen families.

Crab Fishing, Crisfield, Maryland, c. 1953. Photograph by A. Aubrey Bodine. B990-1A, MdHS.

Crab Fishing, Crisfield, Maryland, c. 1953. Photograph by A. Aubrey Bodine. B990-1A, MdHS.

Smith Island, known as “the jewel of the Chesapeake” has been the focus of many different literary and historical studies of the Bay. This island contains three small towns – Ewell, Rhodes, and Tylerton – and is only accessible by ferry. The location of Tom Horner’s novel An Island Out of Time: A Memoir of Smith Island in the Chesapeake is often seen as the quintessential non-fiction novel about this island, as it details the life of watermen and the environmental and cultural issues that they face.

Deal Island to the north, is also a watermen’s community, with the towns of Dames Quarter, Chance, and Wenona still predominantly subsisting on fishing. This island is also home to the skipjack fleet – large wooden boats that once were the main working model on the Bay for oystering and crabbing. Every year in Chance, the community hosts the annual skipjack race during Labor Day weekend.

Oyster tongers, James River. October 8, 1953. Photograph by A. Aubrey Bodine. B997-3, MdHS.

Oyster tongers, James River. October 8, 1953. Photograph by A. Aubrey Bodine. B997-3, MdHS.

All three of these areas now cater to tourists in varying degrees – bed-and-breakfasts can be found in any of these locations, along with opportunities for charter fishing. However, these communities have also gone through drastic changes as the rise in water level has eviscerated miles of their beach shores, and environmental degradation has caused catastrophic loss in catch rates.

By looking at a small body of water in the Bay such as the Tangier Sound, one can get an idea on some of the many multi-faceted histories that this area contains. The issues of the Bay can actually vary greatly depending on which part of the Bay is being discussed, but by focusing on one particular section, some of the complexity and variety of issues that need to be addressed can be understood.

Shucking Oysters, Baltimore, MD. Date and photographer unknown. Z24.1344, MdHS.

Shucking Oysters, Baltimore, MD. Date and photographer unknown. Z24.1344, MdHS.

Beginning to the north, Bloodsworth Island lies in the western corner of Tangier Sound. For much of the 20th century, it was used as a naval gunnery range, including the detonation of live bombs. For this reason, Bloodsworth Island is off limits because of its extensive contamination of unexploded ordinance. Many watermen point to this as another source of contamination and pollution of the Bay, as these weapons rust and corrode in the water. When looking at the current Google satellite maps in comparison to the 1906 maps, one can see the corrosion of the banks and the disappearance of its smaller islands to its southwest.

[MAP] Map of Somerset County showing the Topography and Election

Deal Island has also faced geographic change throughout the 20th century.  Looking at the four maps, the change in Little Deal Island to the south is apparent, and today it is actually completely uninhabitable because it is below sea level. Perhaps the most drastic difference can be seen at the border between Deal Island and the mainland that is Dames Quarter. Looking at the 1906 map, it appears as a river to the north that becomes a larger harbor inlet. However, throughout the course of the 20th century, one can see the transformation where the water level rises at the northern shore and starts to submerge the north east coast of Deal Island. The change in its beach shore can be observed daily. What was once a beach that extended two miles out, and was the site of a hotel and paddle boat business in the early 20th century is now completely underwater. One can see remnants of the beach at low tide every day. By high tide, the beach is gone.

[MAP] Map of Somerset County showing the Topography and Election

Detail of Map of Somerset County showing the Topography and Election Districts, 1906. MdHS.

Further south in Crisfield, James Island State Park has also gone through geographic change. Once habitable, the area is now basic marshlands that are unlivable. Crisfield itself is easily flooded during heavy rains and hurricanes. In fact, the city is still recovering from Hurricane Sandy, as the storm destroyed Crisfield’s main dock and many of its homes, forcing residents into temporary housing. Some residents are still displaced.

To the southwest corner of Tangier Sound, Smith Island has changed dramatically because of rising water levels. Here the maps show drastic differences, as smaller inlet islands disappear, and the internal rivers of the set of islands start to grow wider and consume more land. Smith Island homes are also being bought by vacationers, and the towns that once were watermen communities are changing to sleepy vacation towns. Many residents of Smith Island have moved away or passed away, as opportunities for the younger generation are slim, because of the decline of the fishing industry.

However Smith Islanders still maintain their independence and connection to the island. In 2013, after Hurricane Sandy, the government offered Smith Island residents a buyout, which the islanders flatly refused, citing that what they needed was to work with the government in figuring out a solution, not to be pushed out.

In 100 years, the next map of Tangier Sound will look very different. These communities and islands are struggling, and they comprise the unique geography and cultural landscape of Tangier Sound. Local watermen communities continue to work and keep their heritage alive. Government and non-profit organizations also continue to try and find solutions to the depletion in crab populations and changes in geographic landscapes. Through cooperation and communication, the next map of Tangier Sound will hopefully reflect the efforts of local communities, government and non-profit agencies. (Paulina Guerrero)

Paulina Guerrero is a PhD candidate in Folklore from Indiana University. She studies the intersection between environmental issues and cultural sustainability in the lower Chesapeake Bay area of Tangier Sound. Her interests are also in women’s work and the unearthing of women’s history through primary sources.

[MAP] General Highway Map, Somerset County, Maryland. Department

Maryland Oyster Tonger Tilghmans. November 1946. Photograph by A. Aubrey Bodine. B2044, MdHS.

Maryland Oyster Tonger Tilghmans. November 1946. Photograph by A. Aubrey Bodine. B2044, MdHS.

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