In the wide open waters of the Tangier Sound, a 30-minute ferry ride carries you from the closest town, Crisfield, to the classic charm of Maryland’s Smith Island. The low land is framed by endless water and sky, and the island is surrounded by thick, verdant wetlands roamed by egrets the color of bleached bone. Today, Smith Island is also home to a few hundred souls in several small towns that still largely rely on waterwork as the main economy.
240 residents live year-round in three communities of Ewell, Tylerton, and Rhodes Point— a significant drop from the island’s heyday when over 800 people lived on Smith and supported themselves well through the booming harvests of crab, fish and oysters. Today’s Smith Islanders, though less in number, still make a living from the Chesapeake—scraping for soft shells in summer and dredging for oysters in winter— but as the Bay’s environment declines, the number of watermen dwindles every year.
Mark Kitching is one of these watermen- in fact, he’s the head of the Smith Island Watermen Association. He grew up on the island and raised his family there, and acknowledges that though its a challenging place to live sometimes, we wouldn’t trade it for the world. Kitching loves the traditions on Smith Island, but he’s also willing to experiment— he and a partner have been growing a few thousand oysters on a new lease just a little north of where he docks his scraping boat. Unless Smith Island embraces some change, with new harvests or new kinds of people, he asserts, then the island won’t be around in 100 years.
Smith Island’s fisheries aren’t the only reason people are leaving the island. The Chesapeake’s insatiable tides have eroded away huge portions of the shoreline, and the Bay has rushed inland, inundating once-dry yards, homesites, and roads. The US Army Corps of Engineers estimates that in the last 100 years, Smith Island has lost 3,300 acres of shoreline, and scientists warn that the entire island could wash away as early as 2030. On the island, this truth is everywhere. Houses stand empty and abandoned, and stagnant pools collect beneath their mired foundations. Especially on the western side of the island, which bears the brunt of the erosion, once-handsome homes are quietly decaying into the marsh. Their paint peels and clapboard sags even as ornamental pomegranate trees in their jungly yards drop overripe fruit to the sodden ground.
But in each community, a nucleus of activity and life still thrives. Neighbors greet each other in the evenings on the streets where trucks without license plates haul fishing gear and golf carts trundle along. The Methodist Church is a community hub, busy with the goings-on of small town life from spaghetti dinners to funerals. Unleashed dogs roam in friendly packs as their owners enjoy constitutionals and greet each other. The one restaurant in town serves up mean soft-crab sandwiches and coffee, which some old-timers linger over around lunchtime.
Over at the Smith Island Center, tourists watch an informational video about the history of the island, browse exhibits exploring the island’s traditions and former residents, and admire a custom set of ‘Crab-opoly’ created by a waterman one long winter, years ago. Tourism— from photographers, environmental types, students and weekenders— is a force on the island, although it is unsurprisingly seasonal. All summer long, visitors arrive on the ferry from Crisfield, ready to demolish a buttery crab cake at the Bayside Inn restaurant or a slice of the renowned Smith Island layer cake. Once temperatures drop, however, it’s back to a long winter of familiar faces and the occasional isolation of a deep freeze.
Small, friendly, and approachable, Smith Island is a place that represents the essence of what makes the Chesapeake unique. Life lived at sea level means one deeply connected to the Bay’s seasonality, its currents and its vacillating moods. It also has created a close knit community whose residents can rely on each other for a cup of sugar or to fix a workboat, yet still welcome outsiders with warmth and acceptance. These old-fashioned, small town values in a quintessentially Chesapeake setting are Smith Island’s most charming, resonant qualities— and fortunately, even hurricanes haven’t yet been able to wash those away.
All images by author.