Gary Crawford - December 2010


Wading to Sharp's Island
Gary Crawford


If I’d heard it once, I’d heard it twenty times – and from twenty different residents. “My grandmother said that when she was a little girl they could walk over from Tilghman’s Island to Sharp’s Island at low tide.”
Sharp’s Island is now quite gone, of course, eroded away entirely by the inexorable currents of the Bay – emulsifying the clay soils, undercutting the banks, turning all into a slurry and carrying it away south with help from the occasional hurricane or winter storm.
Sharp’s Island Light is still there, leaning to the north 15 degrees, as if straining to get its feet out of the mud so it can continue its march up the Bay. The light marks the shoal off Black Walnut Point that southbound vessels must clear before turning into the Choptank and northbound vessels must steer west of to avoid getting into False Channel. The old caisson-style lighthouse stands southwest of Black Walnut Point, about three miles off. Actually, this is the third Sharp’s Island Light, and it never stood on the island itself.
History note: the first lighthouse was built on a few acres of cleared land at the northwest corner of Sharp’s Island in 1838. It was quickly undercut by the Bay, however, and the U.S. Lighthouse Service had to move it back from the shore. Erosion continued and by the Civil War, the house became unstable and the light was extinguished.
The second lighthouse was constructed in 1866, an octagonal screw-pile affair like the lighthouses at Thomas Point and Hooper’s Strait. It was planted firmly on the bottom a few hundred yards off the northwest corner of the much-reduced Sharp’s Island.
This second lighthouse only lasted ten winters, however, until 1881 when the Bay froze over and the ice sliced it off neatly. The two lighthouse keepers, Butler and Tarr, went for a harrowing 16-hour voyage up the Bay until the wreckage came ashore on Tilghman’s Island and grounded in Paw Paw cove. They weren’t harmed by the ordeal, however, and managed to save both the Fresnel lens and the library.
The rusty caisson lighthouse we know and love today – especially now that it sits at such a jaunty angle – was towed out from Oxford on a barge, sunk at the designated spot, filled with concrete and constructed in place. The location was the same as the previous one, which (and this is the point of all this) is a full three miles off from Tilghman’s Island.
So, when I hear the stories about wading out there at low tide and I begin rolling my eyes, old-timers are quick to explain. “I know what you’re thinking – it’s too far out. But you have no idea how much our island has eroded. See, there used to be a huge farm out on the west side of Black Walnut Point. It’s true! I used to play in the haystacks out there.”
“Yes, I know there’s been a lot of erosion on the west side,” I reply. “But a quarter-mile of erosion, even a half-mile, doesn’t get us close enough to Sharp’s Island to be able to walk all the way across, does it?”
They nod and smile, shaking their heads with a certain sympathy. Then, with a little gleam in the eye, they deliver the coup de grâce. “Ah! But now you’re forgetting that Sharp’s, too, was eroding. Look, she’s gone completely! So in the old days, the two shorelines were close enough so that on days when the tide was real low, my grandmother could hike up her skirts and wade over. Now, what do you think of that?”
Well, I think it’s a scowful of chum, of course, but I smile and nod. Yes, we seem to agree, things were different in the old days.
Please understand me. I want to believe this story. I really do. I’m fascinated by Sharp’s, that mysterious island-that-was. But here’s the problem. The old maps simply do not support the wading tale.
Here is a map by Griffiths. It is 215 years old. Critics may notice that the size and shape of Tilghman’s Island is all wrong and Sharp’s Island seems to have a little companion islet to the east.
But it’s the distances we are looking at. Look at the gap between Tilghman’s Island and Sharp’s Island. The distance between Black Walnut Point to Sharp’s is about the same as to Cook’s Point in Dorchester – and that happens to be about right. Sorry, but it appears that Sharp’s Island was three miles offshore even as far back as 1795, way before any grandmothers of living residents.
Now, Tilghman families go way back, of course. Some are among the very first settlers in the province of Mary-Land. The Kinnamons arrived in the 1640s, for example, and a Larrimore was one of the first in the Bay Hundred, as we shall see. So, maybe it was a GGGG-grandmother who waded out to Sharp’s. The story is true; it’s just the timing that’s wrong.
But here’s the problem with that. The settlement of Tilghman’s Island didn’t begin until the 1830s. Before that it was a family farm, owned by a family in Claiborne. The only people who might have been wading out in the shallows before then would have been the slaves or their overseers. So, for the story about grandma to be true, it had to have been in the 19th century.
Could the 1795 map be wrong? Besides, it only shows distances, not depths. Maybe the gap between Sharp’s and Tilghman’s was just a few feet deep at extremely low tides.
This is one of the earliest charts that shows details of water depths between the two islands. It was published during the Civil War, in 1862. Note that the stories about massive erosion are true, for the shoals of the two islands reach out to each other, closing the three-mile gap considerably. Some of those shoals are pretty shallow, too. A patch about halfway out around the buoy is marked at just 3½ feet.
But look, too, at the depths just south of the buoy – soundings of 16, 14 and 17½. And deep water isn’t some narrow channel that at extreme low tide could be bridged by a few planks. This map shows at least 500 yards of deep water between the islands.
I’m sorry, folks. Even at the lowest of tides, no one in 1862 could have walked to Sharp’s. And conditions weren’t much different 30 years earlier when the very first oystermen and farmers began buying land and moving to Tilghman’s Island.
So does this mean that this wading story, after all, is just make-believe, a tall tale? Others have wondered about this. In The History of Talbot County Maryland, 1661-1861, Oswald Tilghman wrote: Although the earliest maps show a large stretch of water between Tilghman and Sharpes Islands, many of the residents recount the tales told by their forebears of a generation or two ago concerning the proximity and even the connection of the two islands.
He knows it can’t be true, but (like me) he takes the reports seriously. He goes on to say: It may be interesting in this connection to point out the fact that during the 63 years from 1847 to 1910 the average annual widening of the intervening water area was 0.01 miles as the islands in 1910 were 3.38 miles apart...
Well, now. We finally have some measurements, some data! Tilghman continues: “The time of their separation, if this rate of widening has prevailed continuously, would be about 340 years ago or about 1570. This is a hundred years earlier than the date of the oldest map, that of Herman, which shows a considerable stretch of intervening water.”
In other words, if this estimate is correct, then wading between the islands would have been possible a mere century before Seth Foster settled on Great Choptank Island in 1659. The stories about the grandparents of current residents tripping through the mudflats simply cannot be true, not even for the great-great-grandparents. But such crossings were not always impossible.
It’s just the timing that’s wrong. If only we could examine the historical records of our First Nation predecessors, the people we now refer to as the Indians of the Late Woodland Period. After all, Sharp’s Island existed as an island for only a few centuries – from, say, 1500, when it was still connected to Bay Hundred, and 1956, when it disappeared. So perhaps the Indians waded between the islands during the 1500s.
Unfortunately, they kept no records. Sadly, the only way we could possibly know about Indians wading across to Sharp’s is if one of them were to have told one of the early European settlers about it and he wrote it down and that record survived.
Astonishingly, as it turns out, something of the sort did happen. The communication link stretching back over 450 years is tenuous, but it is does exist. I came upon a reference to the wading tale quite unexpectedly.
It seems that in the early years of the 19th century, there was a young doctor living in our area. Dr. John Barnett moved from Philadelphia to St. Michaels, took rooms in St. Mary’s Square, and set himself up in practice. Happily, he decided to keep a journal of the events of his life as he traveled around ministering to his patients. The journal for 1804-5 survived quite miraculously, in private hands. Whether there were journals for other years we do not know. It came into the possession of my colleague Jim Dawson, of Unicorn Books in Trappe. He edited and published Barnett’s journal a few years ago and I bought a copy.
One day the good doctor was called to the home of Richard Larrimore, in the Bay Hundred. There he met Richard’s grandfather, one Alexander Larrimore. As old men tend to do, he enjoyed telling the young doctor about the old days. He said that his grandfather (also named Alexander Larrimore) was one of the first three Europeans to settle in the Bay Hundred. Dr. Barnett, perhaps doing some quick math in his head, was impressed. (Let’s see. Mr. Alexander looks to be about 72 now, in 1805, which would make his grandfather about 135 years old by now, meaning he would have been born in, um, about 1670. Wow!)
Having gotten Barnett’s full attention, Mr. Larrimore now told him something he thought would really surprise him – and it did. “My grandfather told me that he heard a story from the Indians,” he said. “They used to be able to walk to Sharp’s Island!” Barnett was suitably impressed, for he wrote the remark down in his journal, noting “This is most surprising, for today Sharp’s Island stands three miles off shore.”
Well, there it is. That’s pretty solid evidence that the Indians did walk between the islands – back when the islands were more nearly conjoined, as we know they were, sometime in the not-too-distant past. Perhaps in the 1500s? Oral histories can go way back.
We also know how and why the current Islanders still tell the story. Who cares if we’ve lost sight, across the mists of time, of who actually did the wading? It has been handed down, as Mr. Larrimore did to Doctor Barnett, ever since they first heard the tale. After all, it has always been such a great story.
And now I’ve passed the tale on to you. Keep it going!