Interesting Places:Holland Island in the Chesapeake Bay

Holland Island was once five miles long. It was home to a fishing community of 250 to 360 people, with more than 60 homes, a church and other buildings. But erosion forced the residents to leave — with the last fleeing in 1922 — and for decades now the island has been receding into the bay and only one abandoned home remained, threatened by the bay.

So what happened to Holland Island, and why did one man try to save it?
The unique feature to the islands in Chesapeake Bay is the composition of mud and silt rather than rock; this makes Holland Island more susceptible to shoreline erosion from exposure to crashing waves.The lack of a rock foundation has seen the land slowly sink for thousands of years, the result of post-glacial rebound from the Earth’s crust being pushed up and down from movement of ice-age glaciers long ago.This combined with the melting polar cap has seen the Earth’s oceans rise, further accelerating the erosion process for the islands of Chesapeake Bay.Holland Island started to noticeably lose shoreline in 1914. The residents tried desperately to save their island by importing stones to build walls and in some cases sinking boats in an attempt to slow the erosion, but all attempts failed.This would force most residents of Holland to tear down their homes and relocate to the mainland. Some would stay and take their chances, but a tropical storm in 1918 was the final straw for the last family who would leave when the church was damaged from the rain and high winds.A few stragglers would stay behind to reap what they could from the fishing seasons, but this ended when the church finally closed in 1922.Holland Island would sit abandoned and neglected until 1995 when Stephen White (right), a Methodist minister and former waterman who grew up on the island, would purchase it for $70,000 and try to preserve its legacy by creating the Holland Island Preservation Foundation.For 15 years Mr. White spent time and money attempting to stave off the water, but he had little success.

Stephen built breakwaters out of wood, but the waves devoured them. He and his wife feverishly laid sandbags only to watch them split open in the hot summer sun and dissolve in the high tides. They carried 23 tons of rocks to the island and dropped them at the shoreline, to no avail.

They brought an excavating machine and a small bulldozer to dig makeshift levees and replace shoreline, but the silt would not stand up to the waves. As a last resort Stephen even sunk a barge just off the house to break the waves, but the water could not be stopped.

White estimated he spent nearly $150,000 in his efforts to save the island, and he figured the island shrank by about 20 acres during his fifteen years of ownership.

In mid-2010 Stephen White fell ill with hemolytic anemia. In declining health and realizing he had done all he could, Mr. White acknowledged the fight was too great and sold Holland Island to local venture capitalist group Concorde Foundation.The foundation commissioned a photographer to take aerial pictures during a survey of the island in the fall of 2010. It would turn out to be the last known pictures taken of the house before it would collapse.

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