TANGIER ISLAND — As often as she can, Carol Moore steers her skiff through the workboats and crab shanties of Tangier harbor and into the Chesapeake Bay itself as she makes her way to what she describes as her favorite place on Earth: a nearby island known to locals as “Uppards.”
Each visit for Moore is bittersweet, as there isn’t much left of Uppards, a defenseless piece of land that is losing ground to the bay at an alarming rate. More than a century ago, Uppards was home to a thriving community of homes, a school and stores, all connected by footbridge to the island occupied by the town of Tangier. All of those buildings are long gone, as are the people, the last of whom left around 1930, and all that remains are slivers of sandy beaches edged around ever- widening tidal marshes.
Moore and others who visit Uppards typically find shells, old bottles and, occasionally, arrowheads, as well as bricks from long-ago house foundations, tractor tires and even a bathroom sink. Something more distressing greets visitors arriving on the extreme northern end of the island: weathered tombstones the bay has lifted off graves now under water. Four years ago, on the day after Hurricane Sandy swept across the island, Moore arrived for a walk along the beach on Uppards and found a skull rolling in the surf.
“I was like, ‘Oh, Lord!’ Then when I looked more, there were at least three complete skeletons on the surface,” Moore recalled. “It bothered me, so I stayed three or four hours just contemplating … just feeling sad for the people and Uppards.”
Scientists say a similar fate awaits the rest of Tangier.
A study published in December in Scientific Reports says Virginia’s only inhabited offshore island could be lost in less than 100 years, though residents might have to abandon their island home within 50 years and perhaps even sooner because of continuing wave-induced erosion and sea-level rise associated with climate change that already have reduced Tangier’s land mass by more than half since 1850.
David M. Schulte, a marine biologist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and one of the authors of the report, calls the combination of erosion and sea level rise “a double whammy” for Tangier.
“The island is going away,” he said. “The action that has to save it has not been initiated. They’ve still got some time, but they’re running out.”
The first step in that action is a jetty along one edge of Uppards at the widening western mouth of the channel that leads into Tangier’s increasingly exposed harbor. The nearly 500-foot-long jetty would protect the harbor — the center of the island’s economy with its workboats, docks and crab houses on stilts that contain the island’s soft-crab operations — from damaging wave energy, particularly during storms. Without the protection, the harbor is in peril, meaning the island is, too.
The jetty was proposed by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1996 and has been under discussion and study ever since, with funding being the principal holdup. Now, though, funding for the state and local share of the project — 10 percent of the total $2.4 million cost — is in place, and the Norfolk office of the Corps of Engineers thinks the remaining federal contribution will be made available once the final stages of the planning and design process are completed in the coming months. Corps officials said they hope to begin building in 2018, with construction expected to take less than six months.
Even if the proposed seawall is built, it will provide only a partial remedy. More such man-made barriers would be required to give Tangier a fighting chance.
The Scientific Reports study suggests a series of offshore, segmented breakwaters be constructed around much of the island in conjunction with creation of a sand beach and dune system along the western shore between the breakwaters and the existing shoreline. The study also recommends building up low-lying marshes with dredged sand and planting loblolly pines and other woody vegetation to help maintain elevation and serve as a seabird nesting habitat.
Not that such a project is anywhere close to being formally studied or funded, but the authors of the report estimate the total cost would be $20 million to $30 million.
That’s a lot of money for a tiny piece of land that’s home to only a few hundred. Tangier Mayor James “Ooker” Eskridge has heard that time and again from outsiders who don’t see the value of such a steep investment in a place that scientists predict could be gone in a matter of decades.
“Man, I get steamed when I hear that,” said Eskridge, a native Tangier waterman who became mayor in 2006 when his predecessor decided he’d had enough and quit. Eskridge has become the face of the island and the person who usually meets with government officials and others to press the island’s case. He does not own a necktie.
“They don’t understand our way of life,” he said. “We’ve been here for hundreds of years. The watermen here don’t ask for a lot. We lose crab pots and crab houses from storms, but we don’t ask to be compensated by the government. We just bear it and keep going. But what we need now is out of our reach. We can’t do anything about it. We’d like some help from the government.”
For generations, Tangier Island has been populated with watermen who speak with a distinctive dialect and cadence that some compare to Old English and others say is merely typical of an isolated fishing village. The island now is essentially three ridges separated by marsh and canals — or ditches, as the locals call them — that are connected by narrow bridges. Bicycles and golf carts are the principal modes of transportation on the island.
Tangier had a long history as a Native American hunting ground before Captain John Smith came upon the island when he and his crew explored the bay in 1608, a year after Jamestown was settled. However, the first English residents didn’t settle on Tangier until the late 1700s, when Joseph Crockett arrived. Crockett remains one of the principal surnames on the island.
Farming was the primary occupation in the earliest days of English settlement on Tangier. Looking at the island now, it’s hard to imagine there was ever enough land to raise cattle, which at one time was the chief moneymaker.
Fishing didn’t become the favored means of making a living until later in the 1800s when modern transportation provided a gateway to the markets of the Northeast for Tangiermen — as islanders call themselves — harvesting oysters and later crabs from the bay. The seafood business fueled a rise in population on Tangier, which topped 1,000 in 1900 and reached its peak of almost 1,200 by the 1930s.
The island’s population has dropped in recent decades, and the 2010 census — and updated estimates — lists the population as more than 700, but Eskridge and Town Manager Renee Tyler say the actual population is below 500 as Tangiermen increasingly have left the island for jobs.
Enrollment at the Tangier Combined School — the state’s only K-12 public school — was more than 100 just 15 years ago but was down to 71 for the 2015-16 academic year, though holding steady from the previous year, said school principal Nina Pruitt. Of the seven members of the 2016 graduating class, two will be going to college, two into the military and three will be joining the workforce.
Marilyn Pruitt, an office assistant in the town office, a small structure at the end of the island’s airstrip, was stuffing envelopes with water bills when she recalled the housing shortage on the island when she got married in 1992.
“We couldn’t even find a place to live,” she said. “There was nothing available.”
Last summer, she counted 70 to 75 unoccupied houses on the island. That number has dropped into the 60s, said town manager Tyler, as several new families have arrived.
Jerry and Rebecca Dunivan moved five children and two goats from their farm in Chesterfield County to Tangier last fall, a chance for their kids to grow up in a place with “a little bit more of a slow pace,” said Rebecca Dunivan. They purchased a house across from Spanky’s, the island’s ice cream shop. “It’s like a big family here, and, yeah, there are family squabbles and everybody knows your business, but at the same time, if there’s ever a crisis, everyone is going to come out of the woodwork (to help). It reminds me of what I imagined the 1950s to be like.”
The Dunivans are rarities: newcomers without any family connections on an island where many of the families go back generations. They settled on Tangier after considering a few other places, including Maine, which they determined was too cold.
Dunivan spoke as she took a break from finishing drywall in a neighbor’s house; her husband was installing new floors. The Dunivans have found plenty of work — roofing, plumbing and welding, as well as repairing golf carts — to make a living. Reports of a vanishing island did not dissuade them from coming.
“I don’t think we’re going to disappear,” she said. “If it did, it would be a crime. The way of life here is so unique. I plan on living here the rest of my life.”
Maxwell House coffee in plastic foam cups fuels strong opinions and lively talk from those who gather in a backroom of the island’s old health clinic. For an hour or so every day except Sundays, a half-dozen or more men sip their coffee, lean back in their chairs and offer their views on a wide variety of issues — sometimes all at once.
“We solve a lot of things here,” said Eskridge, the mayor, with a laugh.
On a Thursday afternoon, the conversation, as it often does these days, focused on the seawall issue. The men talked about government spending and how it doesn’t make sense to them for the United States to spend billions of dollars to fight a war in a foreign country and “then turn around and spend billions of dollars to build it back up,” as Leon McMann put it. “Makes a lot of sense, it does.”
Tangiermen are particularly frustrated because they know a properly placed seawall can work. Thirty years ago, the southwestern side of the island was losing land at a rapid rate, threatening Tangier’s airstrip, until a stone seawall was constructed.
“We were losing 20 or 25 feet a year in shoreline there,” Eskridge said. “They completed that in ’89, and we haven’t lost 1 inch since, so it works.”
They are further perturbed because of extensive projects in the bay, such as the $9 million “living shoreline” constructed last year at Glenn Martin National Wildlife Refuge, a dozen miles to the north of Tangier just across the Maryland state line. There, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service used sand, rock and boulders to create almost 4 miles of barrier to protect the marsh, which is home to an array of migratory birds. No one lives at the refuge, though the work likely will benefit adjacent Smith Island, where fewer than 300 people reside and which also faces a similar plight as Tangier.
“They put enough stone up there that you could circle (Tangier) with it almost,” Eskridge said. “It’s people that need the help and not ducks.”
Jerry Pruitt talked about the large percentage of Tangiermen who fought in World War II, recalling, “I used to hear my mom say there weren’t no young men left on the island.” He told the story of one man who was shot and bayoneted and still managed to survive. Nine didn’t make it home from that war.
Eskridge is painfully familiar with the notion of patriotic sacrifice: An older brother was the lone Tangierman killed in Vietnam.
“All we’re asking for,” Eskridge said, “is a few stones.”
Carol Moore has been visiting Uppards since she was a child and would accompany her father.
The name, she thinks, comes from people in the town of Tangier saying they were going “upwards” or north to the island. “I was up there all the time. I remember when it used to be filled with fig trees, maple trees, walnut trees and flowers, goats and chickens. I remember the land being so big and wide and high and long. In the 1970s, we didn’t get to travel very much. It was like when you left Tangier to go to Uppards you were in a whole other world.”
After finding the human remains four years ago, she returned home and called authorities.
Archaeologists with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources retrieved the remains — four adults and a child, a girl estimated to have been 3 to 5 years old — and cleaned, conserved and analyzed them. Analysis of coffin hardware and other funerary artifacts indicated that the individuals were likely buried in the very late 1800s or early 1900s, said Joanna Wilson Green, an archaeologist with DHR. The remains were transferred to the Smithsonian Institution, where they will be held until the people of Tangier decide whether to rebury them on the main island.
“I haven’t been up here since November, and I see a huge difference,” said Lonnie Moore, Carol’s husband, who took visitors to Uppards in late April because his wife was recovering from recent surgery. As he walked on the ever-narrowing beach, he noted how much less of it there was since he’d last been there. “It’s unbelievable. You get one real powerful storm, … and I don’t think you’d have anything left except the marshes.”
What the disappearance of Uppards represents is not just the washing away of family cemeteries or personal history but a disquieting glimpse into the future of Tangier without construction of additional breakwaters to protect what’s left of the island.
“It almost feels like when I go to Uppards I’m taking a journey into my past, but when I take my grandchildren, it’s like I’m taking a trek into their future,” said Carol Moore. “I remember the life I had on Uppards and Tangier, and when I go, I try to imagine what it will be like for my grandchildren not to have Tangier and Uppards.
“I don’t really pay a lot of attention to what the scientists say. They can come here and look at it every few years and do statistics, but I’ve lived it. I know what’s happening.”
PHOTOS: Tangier Island
For centuries, Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay has been eroding and the landscape changing, affecting the few hundred residents, most of whom make their living on the water. They are asking for help in the form of a seawall to stop or control the erosion that threatens their homes and way of life.