Where the mouth of the Chester River yawns wide to connect with the main stem of the Chesapeake, a roughly heart-shaped island stanches the flow of water as it disgorges into the Bay proper. Located at the very tip of Kent County’s southernmost peninsula, Eastern Neck Island is disconnected from the rest of the land by a thin tidal stream that grows more and less substantial with the wax and wane of the moon. The island itself is edged with billowing skirts of marsh grasses that waver with the wind, and inland, loblollies and hardwoods shade the interior’s thick layer of leaf duff. It is a beautiful place, an empty-of-people place, although it wasn’t always so. Eastern Neck Island, today a refuge for wildlife, was once a center of intense human activity. Like the Chesapeake in sum, the island has seen many versions of itself, revised by use, by erosion, by human hands.
It is winter the best showcases the uniquely Chesapeake gorgeousness that Eastern Neck Island embodies. As the island’s hundreds of acres of meadows and marshes turn ginger and rust, an incredible influx of waterfowl arrive to seek shelter in the island’s depopulated coves. Teals and canvasbacks, tundra swans and Canada geese all collect in Eastern Neck’s protected waters and as the sun sets, their clustered numbers turn the quiet island into a thousand-count conversation between goose, duck, and swan contingents.
A walk across Eastern Neck makes it easy to believe the island has never been influenced by people. Its trees tower, eagles circle high above on warm wind currents. Small creatures burrow noisily in the pine mulch, salt meadow hay lies in golden whorls, and cloven hoof marks are clearly impressed into the black mud along buzzing inland ponds. All seems as it evolved to be.
But it is only through the intervention, management and artifice of humans that Eastern Neck Island has achieved such pristine wilderness. Several iterations before its rebirth as today’s Chesapeake eden, Eastern Neck Island was a highly trafficked outpost of the Ozinie Indians, an Algonquian-speaking people connected through trade with the Powhatans, the Nanticokes, and the Susquehannocks tribes of the Western, Lower, and Northern Bay. The island, standing sentinel at the mouth of the Chester, afforded a perfect location for a seasonal people who sought the sustenance of teeming flocks of migratory waterfowl and the bounty of the great oyster reefs just offshore that could be waded to and plundered.
Today, parts of the island reveal the white, flaking remains of thousands of years of oyster dinners known as middens. These great mounded oyster discards now form bisque-colored beaches where delicate wafers of shell slowly recede back into the estuary that bore them several thousand years ago. Indications of favored Indian oystering grounds, the midden beaches are visual clues to one chapter of Eastern Neck’s oyster-laden history that has vanished from the modern day Chester River.
Oyster midden beach on Eastern Neck’s Bogle’s Cove.
During colonization in the early part of the 17th century, Eastern Neck Island, like Kent Island, was a choice location for its fertile soil, access to fresh water and plentiful game, and ready proximity to harbors with water deep enough for the draught of transatlantic sailing vessels. Two men in particular, Col. Joseph Wickes and his partner Thomas Hynson, coveted the island and sought to own it in its entirety, steadily purchasing tract after tract of land over a period of 12 years. The island’s forests were partially cleared, and fields of tobacco and wheat were planted. Wickes and Hynson were able to export their crop in vessels constructed of Eastern Neck lumber, in shipyards located on their doorstep. Houses made of fine red brick boasted of Wickes and Hynson’s agricultural and trade successes- “Wickliffe” and “Ingleside” were constructed in the center and the northwest portion of the island, respectively, and over the next 150 years they grew higgledy-piggledy, as Chesapeake houses did, with additions and cat slide roofs and gables. Other houses soon joined them, as the population of the island expanded to include slaves, craftsmen, shipwrights, and merchants.
Wickliffe, early 20th century.
By the 19th century, there were a few small towns on the island, basing their livelihoods on agriculture and the water trade. Overton was the largest, and was located near the steamboat dock known as Bogles Wharf. There were schools and barn dances, an oyster packing house. The water, and the abundance of life harbored in the islands coves and points remained the backbone of the community, and winter oyster harvests, spring shad runs, summers of watermelons and peaches piled high on buyboats, and fall with the vast numbers of waterfowl provided sustenance, income and security. A few hunting lodges were built in 1902 and 1930 to house wealthy sportsmen who only stayed during hunting season. So time would pass for a hundred years, with little changing beyond the the seasons for the inhabitants of the heart-shaped high land in the embrace of the Chesapeake and Chester.
In this 1902 map of the island, the town of Overton and the wharf south of Bogle’s Cove is clearly marked.
During this era, William Dixon, a visitor in 1923, remarked, “…as far up the creek as one could see, was literally a mass of waterfowl, so thick, that it almost seemed one could walk upon them. I am not exaggerating in the least when I tell you-no history of the earliest records of the flight and congregation of waterfowl could have exceeded what we saw that day. There must have been hundreds of thousands-the very best of all our known varieties-Canvas, Red and Black Heads; intermingled also great quantities of geese and swan.”
Swans collect in an inlet.
But change was on the horizon, as the Bay Bridge opened up the Eastern Shore to development speculators in the years following World War II. The country was booming, the economy was flush, and thanks to the mass production of personal yachts and sailboats, there were more people yearning to make their leisurely sunset over the Chesapeake a permanent fixture of their day-to-day lives. Places like Kent Island were being divided up and sold off in lots to newcomers to the Eastern Shore, who sought a rural lifestyle with the convenience of an easy commute to the larger cities on the other side of the Bay. By the early 1950’s, the scrutinizing eye of suburban progress had its eye on Eastern Neck’s open fields and loblolly stands, superimposing a grid pattern of over 290 lots where meadows and shoreline existed.
A map of the island shows the proposed development on the island’s western shore.
A closeup of the “Cape Chester” development.
An outcry rose against the proposed development, as it has many times since then on the Eastern Shore. The local population objected to the transformation of their Chesapeake eden into the banal landscape of sameness constructed extensively throughout the counties on the other side of the Bay. In particular, the rich habitat of Eastern Neck’s shorelines and marshes was threatened by the construction, which would have consumed hundreds of acres of salt meadows under tidy lawns and asphalt curbs. It was at this point that the federal government stepped in, acknowledging the island’s increasingly rare waterfowl habitat and ultimately approving Eastern Neck Island as a game refuge in 1962. Ironically, much of the public opinion at this point was against the refuge (for fears about it negatively impacting the property tax base), although the development concept had also been reviled. On the Eastern Shore, many have observed, no change is a good change.
Today, Eastern Neck Island is a stunningly beautiful trompe l'oeil of a Chesapeake wilderness seemingly untouched by plow, axe, or mason. On warm days, visitors in search of a patch of isolation in the midst of a busy world arrive, cresting the little bridge that barely attaches the island to the rest of the county. They walk their dogs under the oaks and beeches, skip stones over the tickling waves at the water’s edge, and bask in the lovely idyll that this little lonely bit of Eastern Shore could be all theirs, if only for a moment. But while its quiet expanses of pine savannah and waving plumes of spartina patens may seem utterly natural, uncontrived and uninhabited, all is not as it seems. Below a crust of oyster shells as thin as a teacup lip are the remnants of the people, the community, and the commerce that once dwelled here, and the ghosts of a future that almost came to be. The crockery of the island’s departed people, their obscured foundations, and their memories form the foundations of today’s Eastern Neck Island, a place where today, to quote Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”