Van­ish­ing

FOR HUN­DREDS OF YEARS THE PEO­PLE OF VIR­GINIA’S TANG­IER IS­LAND HAVE BUILT THEIR LIVES—AND A ONE-OF-A-KIND COM­MU­NITY—AROUND WHAT THEY’VE BEEN ABLE TO HAR­VEST FROM THE WA­TER. NOW THE SEA THREAT­ENS TO TAKE IT ALL BACK.

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Ris­ing tides threaten Tang­ier Is­land’s unique way of life— and the iso­lated sea­far­ing com­mu­nity that calls it home.

It’s no easy place, this squig­gle of mud and marsh in the cen­ter of the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay.

It is among the most iso­lated com­mu­ni­ties in the East, un­con­nected by road or bridge to any­where else and a dozen miles from the near­est main­land town. The sur­round­ing wa­ter is moody, as winds have plenty of room to build waves fast. A heav­ing deck is the fare one pays to reach the rest of Amer­ica.

Storms bring light­ning and wa­ter­spouts and the bay it­self surg­ing white­capped over the roads. On calm days, clouds of mos­qui­toes and bit­ing flies rise from the wet­lands like mist.

Yet for more than 240 years, Vir­ginia’s Tang­ier Is­land has been home to a set­tle­ment un­like any in the United States, and a hardy and stub­born peo­ple who would live nowhere else.

In the vast sea of styles that com­prise Amer­i­can cul­ture, Tang­ier is an is­land both lit­eral and metaphor­i­cal. Here is an out­post that has been so iso­lated for so long that its 460 res­i­dents have their own style of speech, a brogue of old words, strange rhythms and Cor­nish lilt—an ac­cent so odd that a con­ver­sa­tion be­tween na­tives is all but in­de­ci­pher­able to the un­tuned ear. It’s com­pli­cated by the is­lan­ders’ habit of say­ing ex­actly the op­po­site of what they mean.

The is­land is a near-theoc­racy of old school Chris­tians who al­low no trade in al­co­hol or lottery tick­ets, who for years barred Harry Pot­ter nov­els from the school li­brary, and who de­nied a Kevin Cost­ner movie per­mis­sion to film here over de­cid­edly PG-13 scenes of sex and beer-drink­ing.

They man­age with­out such main­land essen­tials as cell phones— sig­nals die half­way through the 45-minute mail boat run from Cr­is­field, Mary­land—and cars: The is­land’s few roads are lit­tle wider than side­walks, and most of its peo­ple get around by golf cart or scooter.

They go with­out a doc­tor in res­i­dence, too. The near­est emer­gency room is 30 min­utes away by heli­copter—as­sum­ing the weather is fair enough to fly.

Not least among their dis­tinc­tions, all is­land-born Tang­ier­men are kin to the oth­ers, and of­ten in mul­ti­ple ways. This is an is­land of cousins, a sin­gle ex­tended fam­ily.

How such a place came to be, let alone per­sists to­day, is ex­plained in another sin­gu­lar trait: Tang­ier sits in the mid­dle of a great fish­ery—that of the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay blue crab, whose sum­mer­time mi­gra­tions take it past the is­land by the hun­dreds of mil­lions.

No mat­ter how chal­leng­ing is­land life might be, or how lone­some, or how strange by the stan­dards of the coun­try at large, Tang­ier has this: Its vir­tu­ally am­phibi­ous wa­ter­men catch more of the small but com­bat­ive crea­ture than most any­one else, and the is­land lays right­ful claim to be­ing the soft­shell crab cap­i­tal of the world.

But now loom the end times. Nine gen­er­a­tions into its hu­man habi­ta­tion, con­trary, con­ser­va­tive and deeply re­li­gious Tang­ier faces ex­is­ten­tial threats that could force its aban­don­ment in the com­ing years.

Morn­ings start early here. Long be­fore sunup, and of­ten closer to mid­night, lights flick on in homes strung along three low ridges of sandy loam that rise al­most im­per­cep­ti­bly from the sur­round­ing marsh. Cof­fee is made, break­fasts wolfed down and wa­ter­men ven­ture through the dark to the docks.

When Joseph Crock­ett, the first Tangi- er­man, landed here in 1778, he did so to farm. It wasn’t long be­fore is­lan­ders saw that a far richer har­vest lay off­shore, and in the years since, Crock­ett’s descen­dants have earned rep­u­ta­tions as crusty, in­de­pen­dent and daunt­less fish­er­men, will­ing to take on all man­ner of weather to haul their catch aboard.

And so they mo­tor by skiff into a har­bor lined with crab shanties—work­sheds on stilts, poised a few feet over the drink, along­side which they park their larger, low-slung work­boats, most of them named for their wives or chil­dren. And from there, of­ten alone, they chug in the predawn dark to their pots.

Those chas­ing peel­ers, or crabs soon to molt into soft­shells, stick close to Tang­ier’s crum­bling shore. Some­times their traps come up with tree roots tan­gled in the wire mesh, a re­minder that they’re fish­ing from bot­tom that was high and dry not long ago.

Mod­ern Tang­ier is about a mile wide by three long, about 70 per­cent of it un­in­hab­ited wet­lands. In 1850 it was three times big­ger, and even within the mem­ory of older crab­bers it has shrunk so much that at least two of its once-peo­pled knobs of high ground have been swal­lowed by the bay.

One, Oys­ter Creek, was on Tang­ier’s west side, where the peaty shore is wide open to wind-driven waves all year round. “I re­mem­ber when houses were there, at Oys­ter Creek,” said Leon McMann, who, at 87, is the is­land’s old­est ac­tive waterman. “You had to walk over a bridge to get there. There was

a big bunch of trees there, and the houses be­yond. After you got to where the houses were, you had to walk a long ways to get to the wa­ter.”

Ex­cept you can’t walk there to­day. Oys­ter Creek is un­der a fathom of wa­ter at low tide. A nav­i­ga­tion bea­con 150 yards from shore marks the spot.

Equally dra­matic change is un­der­way in the bay’s great ex­panse of open wa­ter, where the wa­ter­men who fish up hard crabs—the sta­ple of back­yard crab boils and restau­rant feasts, and the source for crab cakes im­i­tated around the world—set their pots in long rows.

The bay is ris­ing, as are tidal waters around the world. But here the phe­nom­e­non is com­pounded by a byprod­uct of the last ice age: Tang­ier and the main­land sur­round­ing the Ch­e­sa­peake are sub­sid­ing at the same time, a one-two punch that makes rel­a­tive sea level rise in the na­tion’s largest es­tu­ary among the high­est on Earth.

On Tang­ier, where no land tops five feet above the tides, few places clear three and most of the marsh fails to clear one, the re­sult­ing prog­no­sis is bleak. A 2015 study by three re­searchers associated with the U.S. Army Corps of Engi­neers con­cluded that the is­land is “run­ning out of time, and if no

ac­tion is taken, the ci­ti­zens of Tang­ier may be­come among the first cli­mate change refugees in the con­ti­nen­tal USA.”

Most sum­mer­time morn­ings, Tang­ier lays quiet, shade­less, broil­ing. More than 70 of its men are off crab­bing. Still oth­ers are ab­sent for weeks at a time aboard tug­boats. Min­utes elapse be­tween women pass­ing in the odd golf cart, off to the post of­fice or lone gro­cery store. Feral cats out­num­ber vis­i­ble hu­mans 20 to one.

Near noon, tour boats ar­rive from Onan­cock, on Vir­ginia’s Eastern Shore, and Reedville, on the western, along with Cr­is­field, at 12 miles away the clos­est port. Their pas­sen­gers spill into the nar­row lanes. When the boats are full, the is­land’s pop­u­la­tion al­most dou­bles.

Golf carts stretched to ac­com­mo­date sev­eral rows of seats wait to take the vis­i­tors on nar­rated trips around Tang­ier’s mea­ger road net­work. They roll down the Main Ridge, past un­adorned weath­er­board houses clus­tered in neigh­bor­hoods called Meat Soup and Black Dye—names so old and ob­scure that no liv­ing Tang­ier­man can ex­plain them. They cross the marsh on nar­row strips of asphalt and cruise the West Ridge, a mile-long strip of dry ground on which houses fit on only one side of the road.

The tour doesn’t take long. Af­ter­ward, day-trip­pers have just enough time for lunch at one of the town’s five restau­rants (four of them are sum­mer-only) and to buy sou­venirs (ball caps and T-shirts em­bla­zoned with crabs) be­fore the boats head back to the main­land, at about the time Tang­ier’s fleet re­turns with its day’s catch.

Late af­ter­noons and evenings, the is­lan­ders have the place to them­selves. Base­ball games muster on the di­a­mond near the K-12 school, the last in Vir­ginia. Kids can­non­ball off the fuel dock at the har­bor’s edge. Prayer groups meet. Old-timers chew over crabs and boats. A white-sand beach in­vites mile­long strolls, and of­fers views of sun­sets over the wa­ter.

When the flies aren’t bit­ing, it can seem an idyll. “How many places are there like this?” asked Bruce Gordy, re­tired from 36 years of teach­ing his fel­low is­lan­ders. “This is one of the few re­main­ing wa­ter­men’s com­mu­ni­ties on the bay. Oth­er­wise, [bay coun­try] is just one town after another of park­ing lots and asphalt and wine-tast­ing places and bou­tiques. Do we need any more?

“If the right folks can see our im­me­di­ate need, and get the right peo­ple work­ing on it, then we could be saved. I guess you first have to de­cide: Is it worth sav­ing?”

The con­sen­sus among Tang­ier­men, vis­i­tors and gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials is, of course, yes. It’s no easy task, how­ever. Res­cu­ing the town from na­ture’s in­ex­orable wear would re­quire heroic in­ter­ven­tion and equally heroic spend­ing—tens of mil­lions of dol­lars for even stop­gap mea­sures, and hun­dreds of

mil­lions, per­haps, for a last­ing solution.

For so few hu­man in­hab­i­tants, the price is far too dear for the Army Corps of Engi­neers, the agency that over­sees such projects. But one prospect re­mains in play: Re­build­ing the is­land to its 19th-cen­tury di­men­sions with dredge spoils from the Corps’ nav­i­ga­tion projects in the lower Ch­e­sa­peake.

It is such a long shot that the Corps calls it a con­cept, rather than a pro­posal or plan. It would take years, Con­gres­sional ap­proval and moun­tains of money. And the only rea­son it’s even on the ta­ble is that Tang­ier the town, though too small to merit such an ef­fort, stands in the midst of ex­tremely valu­able habi­tat for birds, mam­mals, in­sects and sea life.

Such habi­tat is in short sup­ply. So if Tang­ier is saved, it may well be for the ben­e­fit of wildlife— and the is­land’s hu­man in­hab­i­tants may get to keep their homes as a side ben­e­fit.

Is­lan­ders aren’t thrilled that they’re tak­ing a back seat to birds, but they’re hope­ful the con­cept will be­come a firm plan. And they cling to the faith that has seen them through storms and strife that in times past seemed sure to bring their end.

“I know that if it stays on the track it’s on now, we need a seawall—and quick,” said Duane Crock­ett, an elder at one of Tang­ier’s two churches. “But I also be­lieve that God has a pur­pose for us. We are here un­til He says oth­er­wise, and I be­lieve that one hun­dred years from to­day there’s go­ing to be a Tang­ier Is­land, and there’s go­ing to be peo­ple liv­ing on it.”

In the mean­time, breezes ruf­fle the marshes, mak­ing quiet mu­sic over the is­land’s wa­tery mid­dle. And all around its edges, the bay rolls in. Earl Swift re­cently re­leased a new book called

Ch­e­sa­peake Re­quiem, which fur­ther chron­i­cles his year liv­ing with the wa­ter­men of Tang­ier Is­land. You can learn more about his book at

BY EARL SWIFT PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY JAY FLEM­ING

Oys­ters and other fare from the sea have been the lifeblood of those on Tang­ier since it was set­tled.

The pop­u­la­tion on Tang­ier con­tin­ues to de­cline. Many young peo­ple flee for work on the main­land.

Crab fish­er­men bat­tle build­ing seas. Right: A re­cent rain­fall of­fers a glimpse of the is­land’s fu­ture with ris­ing sea lev­els.

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