Holland’s Island: Dorchester County’s ‘Lost Atlantis’

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Dorchester Banner/Brice Stump
Ann Foley, author of the Hollands Island book.

SALISBURY — John Andrews can hardly believe the yard he cut as a boy is now a sand bar under the Chesapeake Bay.

More than a yard has been submerged on Holland’s Island. Gone, too, is the two-story house built in the late 1800s, all the outbuildings, graveyards, and acres and acres of the island since Andrews was pushing a motorless mower in 1958.

All that remains of the church, school, stores, post office, dozens of houses, picket fences, and 350 residents, are a few piles of bricks, two graveyards and the occasional shell buttons and bottles found on the beach.

Located just six miles south of Bishop’s Head, in Dorchester County, and seven miles north of Smith’s Island, Holland’s has become a ghost island of birds and tombstones.

Andrews went to the island with his brother Paul, and their uncle, James Hill. “He was friends with Gene Bounds who at the time, owned Holland’s Island and Dennis Moving and Storage in Salisbury,” Mr. Andrews said. “That company was located near the old Union Station and my uncle was the railway master at the time, so they got to be friends.”

On weekends Mr. Bounds invited his friend and his two nephews to Hollands Island. The party stopped in Dames Quarter to pick up “Bee” Kelley. “He was the cook and caretaker,” Andrews recalled. “At Deal Island we took the boat, Miss Dottie, over, stopping on our way to buy peelers for fishing and soft crabs for eating from watermen. Paul and I cut the yard, about an acre, with two push mowers. That was our job.” When finished, the boys explored the island in a 15-foot boat with a 25-horsepower outboard. “We fished around the island, and caught a lot of nice rockfish in the shallows. We could go as far as we wanted as long as we were in hearing distance of a large bell that was on the side door of the house. When Uncle Jimmy rang the bell, we had half an hour to get back for lunch, which was baked beans, hot dogs and soft crabs. You never knew it got so dark at night as it was on Holland’s Island. Nothing but the stars from horizon to horizon and a silence you hardly find anymore,” Mr. Andrews recalled.

“It’s just incredible. It’s all gone,” he said, looking at a photo of the Grant Parks house by Maryland photographer Aubrey Bodine. It was where Andrews worked as a boy.

Holland’s Island is now the subject of a book, the first ever comprehensive history of the island and a time that was, by author Ann Foley of Elliott Island.

The “Holland Island” book of 225 pages brings the people of the island back to life, a book that tells the story of the “Lost Atlantis of the Chesapeake Bay” before and after the residents left almost a century ago.

Just off the shore of Dorchester County, and a 25-minute boat ride from Deal Island, a dozen or so trees mark this marshy oasis of 60 acres in the bay that was settled in the 1600s.
Decades ago, Ms. Foley met Smith “Smitty” Rue, near Cambridge, and he told her he had a wealth of information on Holland’s Island. The two collaborated and Ms. Foley wrote the text of the book in three years.

“I was with a friend fishing out there years ago and happened to look to the east and thought I saw a house sittin’ on the water. You know how your mind works. Then it came to me, that’s Holland’s Island,” Mr. Rue said.

That incident set the stage for collecting material for a book. At an auction in Church Creek, years ago, Mr. Rue discovered a box of letters from Emma Willis, a school teacher on the island, about 1901. He knew he wanted to do something with his research. Foley, he said, was the woman for the job. Mr. Rue and Ms. Foley met in the 1990s when both were driving mosquito spraying trucks in Talbot County, “I don’t know nothin’ about computers or puttin’ a book together,” he said, as he leafed through a pile of newspaper clippings. “Ann was the one for that.” Ms. Foley, too, did additional research. “The Edward H. Nabb Center at Salisbury University has oral history tapes made by folks from the island or whose families came from there, a huge help,” she said.

She also relied on the Rev. Stephen White of Deal’s Island for information for the book. Rev. White purchased the island in 1995 and sold it several years ago.

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Dorchester Banner/Brice Stump
John Andrews holds a photo of the house on Holland Island, where he cut grass as a boy.

Rev. White, and his wife Diane, believed they could save the island from the lapping tongues of bayside waves.

He bought the island and started a nonprofit foundation. He was concerned that the loss of the barrier island would open shoreline of the Tangier Sound, and other areas, to aggressive water erosion.

Rev. White and his wife spruced up the last remaining house on the island, formerly the home of Grant Parks and his family. It was the same house and yard where John Andrew worked as a boy. Weather permitting, they stayed in the old house on weekends, and worked to stabilize the shoreline, moving sand and dumping tons of rock, by hand, along the shore.

“I knew it was a super-human task.” By the time he sold the island several years ago, he figures the 80 acre island was down to 60 acres. “Seemed like every time we had a strong northwest wind it would take another foot or two off the land. Hurricane Isabel was the worst, waves went right through the house. I was fighting tooth and nail (with government agencies and conservation groups) to get help to save the island. It never came.”

Rev. White failed, but it wasn’t from a want of trying. He had indeed tried to move heaven and earth, but in the end, it was churning water that washed away more than 20 acres of the island along with his work and dreams.

“Steve made a great effort to save the island,” said Eldon Willing of near Princess Anne, who, with others, helped sandbag the foundation of the house to keep hurricanes after 2000 from washing the house into the bay.

“Some people thought he was crazy, trying to stop the erosion, but he knew what was going to happen to the mainland and Tangier Sound when these barrier island disappear,” Mr. Willing said. “I think time has proved him right.

“I give him a lot of credit for trying. When those islands go, the whole character of Holland Straits, the shoreline over here on Deal Island and other places will change dramatically. Sand will cover over oyster beds and Tangier Sound will open right into the Chesapeake Bay.”

“My father took me over there when I was a boy and my mother’s brother was the caretaker in the 1950s,” Rev. White said. “I began exploring and was fascinated by the things I saw. The West Ridge was pretty well gone by then. It was a sandy ridge of land once, up to 40-feet high.” That ridge, where most of the island houses were built, it is now underwater, along with several graveyards.

Ironically, the state owned about half an acre by the house and didn’t act to protect it, according to Rev. White. Now it’s gone.

Rev. White has just published his booklet, “The Day the Laughter Died, The Story of Holland Island on the Chesapeake Bay.” It contains history of the residents and details White’s efforts to save the island. It is available through Saltwater media.com.

“One of the reasons I wrote my book was to call attention to what’s happening to the shorelines in the bay.” The plight of the house and island have propelled Holland’s Island into the news, “If only I had the press coverage then, that the island has been getting now, maybe we could have saved it,” he said. “Got sick about six years ago. Never got to do any more work after that. Then I sold it to a fella in Texas.”

Ms. Foley and Rev. White related the particulars about Holland’s Island being the subject of nation-wide news stories in 1912. That winter a severe freeze had isolated the island in the Chesapeake and, on Feb. 3, 1912, Capt. Tilden Webster of Deal Island reported that he heard gunfire from Holland’s Island and he interpreted it as a distress call from the residents.

Such thick ice would easily have permitted residents to simply walk the seven miles between Deal and Holland islands. “They could have easily walked it, and even pulled a sled,” said Jack Willing of Chance.

Nevertheless, the steamer Gov. Thomas was ordered to break the ice between the islands. It would be joined by three others.

In the meantime, the supposed plight of the Holland’s Island residents was being featured on the front page of the Baltimore Sun, suggesting that the entire population had died from hunger and sickness, according to Rev. White.

A 12-man “rescue” party, from the cutter Apache, reached the island by boat Feb. 8. They encountered a party of skaters gliding over the ice. The merrymakers invited the crew to their homes for a dinner of goose and chicken. The gunshots initially heard as a call of distress turned out to be shots from duck and goose hunters.

“When the islanders found out about the attention they were getting—it was nationwide—they were both amused and embarrassed,” Rev. White said.

Over the years islanders knew their island was washing away. In the late 1800s work was done by islanders to shore-up the beach with stone.

Huge chunks of the sandy West Ridge would fall into the bay around 1900, one resident reported. Roads were flooded over and some of the homes had water sweeping into their first floors.
Houses were taken apart or moved on barges to sites in Somerset and Dorchester counties. By 1920, plans were made to sell the island’s landmark Hopkins Chapel Methodist Church to a congregation in Fairmount, in Somerset County. By then the island was deserted. The end of an era was official.

As for the Grant Parks House, Hurricane Isabel sealed its fate. It crumbled to the ground.
The house was surrounded by water, an island now unto itself. Just five years ago, Steve White burned the ruins, which he deemed a potential navigational hazard should the debris float away.
The book, Holland Island, with 224 pages and 125 illustrations, is priced at $24.95.

Available online at facebook.com/hollandislandbook and through Barb’s Gift and Hallmark Store in the Twilley Center In Salisbury, Apple Discount Drugs at their Fruitland and Quantico Road locations, Craig’s Drug Store, Especially For You and the Bay Country Shop, all in Cambridge, and The News Center in Easton.

Contact Brice Stump at myshorehistory@gmail.com.

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