An Island, Recreated

Poplar and Jefferson Island, looking south. Photo ca. 1935 by H. Robins Hollyday, courtesy of Talbot County Historical Society.

Polar Island ca. 2008. Photo by Hunter H. Harris.

Over the centuries, many of the Bay’s islands have completely disappeared, washed away by wind and tide. During the period between these two photographs, Poplar Island nearly became one of them.

In the 1930’s, you can see the lee shore of the island scattered with the last of the island’s trees, which fell as the sand and soil washed out from under them. During that period, some prominent Democrats bought Jefferson and Poplar Islands and established the Jefferson Islands Club as a place for men honoring Jeffersonian ideals, “where the humdrum of party politics might be broken now and then by communion with the great outdoors.” Between then and 1946 when the clubhouse on Jefferson Island burned down, the islands were host to Franklin D. Roosevelet, Harry S. Truman, and innumerable Democratic congressmen, businessmen, and military generals.

Rep. Sam Rayburn, House Majority Leader, Secretary of War Woodring, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Speaker of the House Bankhead, and Secretary of Agriculture Wallace leaving Annapolis for the Jefferson Island Democratic Club on June 25, 1937. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress collections.

Even as the clubhouse hummed with international leaders, the island was washing away. During storms, whole acres were lost to the relentless waves. Like many islands throughout the Chesapeake, it seemed fated to wash completely away, until Poplar Island became the focus of a stunning public works project. The US Army Corps of Engineers needed a place to put the millions of yards of clean fill dredged up from the shipping channel approaching Baltimore Harbor and carrying it across the Bay by barge to reconstruct the island. Poplar Island became the repository, and so was saved from inundation.

Double-crested cormorant colony on Poplar Island. Photo courtesy of the Chesapeake Bay Program.

By 2016, everything behind the retaining dikes built to define the island will be filled in, but that doesn’t mean that Poplar Island isn’t already being put to good use. Today, the rebuilt island is a nature preserve and bird refuge, teeming with life in its abundant marsh grasses. Once again, Poplar Island is an important gathering spot- only, its modern visitors sport feathers instead of straw boaters and neckties and spend their time making nests rather than brokering deals.

Aerial of Poplar Island, courtesy of the Chesapeake Bay Program.