Peter K. Bailey - September 2006
Poplar Island Reborn
Peter k. Bailey
From Talbot’s first settlement in 1632 – to almost total disappearance beneath the Chesapeake Bay in the 1990’s – to a rebirth which returns Poplar Island to its mid-1800’s size of about 1140 acres. Truly a colorful history belongs to our own Poplar Island.
Having lived on Poplar Island as a child, the island holds a very special place in my heart. Our family left the islands in the late summer of 1951, minus my father who had recently passed away. I was a couple months shy of 10 years old, and although I had physically left the islands, it took a long time to get Poplar Island out of my mind. In 1996, when Poplar Island had all but vanished, I published a book of my memories growing up there and going to school by boat.
In recording this unique experience for my family, I decided that a brief history of the islands would make the book a lot more interesting. So, before I talk about the island’s rebirth, I would like to summarize a few highlights of Poplar’s colorful history.
Poplar Island was discovered by William Claiborne in 1626 and named Popeley’s Island, after a friend, Lieutenant Richard Popeley. In 1637, Talbot County’s first plantation was thriving with at least ten residences and extensive crops. That summer, plantation owner, Richard Thompson, returned from a fur trading expedition to find his family and servants murdered and all buildings burned, supposedly by Nanticoke Indians.
During the British invasion of the Chesapeake Bay, the British occupied Poplar Island in 1813-14.
By the mid 1800’s, Bay waters had eroded Poplar Island into three separate land masses, which were named Poplar, Jefferson and Coaches Islands. Over the years, the three islands have been collectively referred to as Poplar Island, or Poplar Islands. In the 1880’s, the three islands of the Poplar Islands group had a population of 70 to 100 people. There was a sawmill, a general store, a post office, and a combination schoolhouse/church. The residents made their living through farming and the harvesting of seafood. The school was closed in 1918, and all permanent residents had returned to the mainland by 1920.
A fascinating part of Poplar Island’s history began in 1931 when a few prominent Democratic Congressmen started the Jefferson Islands Club. They tried to buy all three islands, but were successful in purchasing only Poplar and Jefferson.
The Jefferson Islands Club was very exclusive, with membership by invitation only. In 1936, Missouri Senator Harry S. Truman declined membership, writing the club president that he simply “couldn’t afford to join.”
There were many distinguished members, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt, eventually President Harry S. Truman, several Governors, Senators, Congressmen, and prestigious businessmen, including the chairman of General Electric and August A. Busch, Jr.
Probably the most famous party was held on September 22nd and 23rd, 1945, just after VJ Day. The guest list was a Who’s Who of American statesmen, war heroes, and businessmen. Liquid refreshment included three hundred cases of Mt. Vernon rye, one hundred cases of Vat 69 scotch, fifteen cases of bourbon, and five hundred cases of Budweiser.
The end of an era came not six months later on March 5th, 1946, on a cold clear night when the Jefferson Islands Club burned to the ground.
Early in 1948, my father, George Kennedy Bailey, purchased Poplar and Jefferson Islands from the Jefferson Islands Club. We were living on a farm on the upper Bay just north of the Sassafras River. That spring my mother would pick us up after school on Fridays and we would travel to the islands for the weekend. We lived in two cottages on Jefferson while the new lodge was being constructed.
My father incorporated the only thing left from the old lodge into our new home, the concrete front porch that included a ramp for President Roosevelt’s wheelchair. After school was over in June, 1948, we started a new life, moving to the islands permanently.
I was the youngest of four children, not yet seven years old. For me, this was paradise. There were so many neat things to do and new places to explore. I couldn’t wait to get out of bed in the morning. When September came and it was time to go back to school we had to leave home 1½ to 2 hours before school started to take one of our boats over to the mainland.
Our family of 6 were the only permanent residents of the island, however, during hunting and fishing season we often had guests in the lodge part of the house. This provided us with the opportunity to meet and enjoy new people and feel not quite so isolated. I have so many fond memories, and as the youngest child, I was pretty much isolated from the hardships associated with my father’s illness, which the older family members had to face.
After my father’s death in July 1951, my mother was not able to sell the islands until 1953. Since that time, and prior to the current ownership by the sate of Maryland, there were six different owners. The thirteen bedroom lodge my parents built burned in 1959, and was replaced with a much smaller lodge that remains on Jefferson Island to this day.
In the postlude of my book I wrote: As incredible as it might seem, the State of Maryland is undertaking the largest attempt ever made to put material dredge from shipping lanes to a “beneficial use.” The State will soon begin building dikes at Poplar Island as the first step in a $458 million project that calls for 38 million cubic yards of sediment to be used to build a 1,100 acre complex of uplands and marshes. Some of Poplar’s very own soil, that washed away into Chesapeake shipping lanes will return and be part of a new habitat for birds, fish, shellfish and other Bay creatures. If this plan, indeed, becomes reality, Poplar Island will live on to the delight of many more generations.
Well, the project did become a reality. Polar Island has been reborn. The real driving force behind the Poplar Island Restoration Project, obviously, was to find a place to deposit dredge spoils from Chesapeake Bay’s shipping channels. The big difference in this project is the quality of the end product and the incorporation of a first-class wildlife habitat.
The Port of Baltimore is absolutely critical to Maryland’s economy, and continuous dredging of shipping channels leading to the Port is necessary to keep the Port open. As of 2002, the Port of Baltimore’s activities contributed some $1.4 billion to Maryland’s economy, and directly generated $140 million in tax revenues. The Port provides jobs to more than 18,000 people, and more than 126,000 Maryland jobs are associated with cargo and vessel activity at the Port.
After years of planning, construction on the Poplar Island Environmental Restoration Project started in 1998. Beginning with a cluster of law, marshy knolls and tidal mud flats, engineers first constructed more than 35,000 feet of containment dikes using sand, rock and stone. Within the dikes, clean dredged material was pumped and allowed to properly drain to maximize the island’s placement activity, which is about 33 million cubic yards of material over the 16 year life of the project.
The island is divided into six large cells on the western side of the facility – about 570 acres – and contains the majority of the dredged material. This will become the upland habitat. The eastern four cells – also about 570 acres – will be filled to an elevation that will support wetland vegetation.
Shortly after the first dredged material was placed on the island in the spring of 2001, ospreys, egrets, terns, herons, eagles and other wildfowl began to call the newly created island home. Over time, other important ecological changes will occur. As the wetlands mature, they will serve as a natural filter to improve water quality and as valuable habitat for birds, crabs, small fish and shellfish. Extensive engineering work has gone into the wetland development because this effort contributes significantly to the restoration goals for the Chesapeake Bay.
As one who has an indelible mark on my heart, uniquely placed there by Poplar and Jefferson Islands, the restoration of Poplar Islands brings a somewhat strange feeling of peace and comfort. I know my father and mother would be amazed and would cherish the new wildlife habitat.
Free tours and programs are conducted Monday through Friday year-round. To schedule a group, tours and programs need a minimum of 8 people and up to 24. Poplar Island tours last 3 to 3½ hours and cover the beneficial use of dredged material for environmental restoration and the creation of wildlife habitats.
For more information, or to schedule a program, please call 410-770-6503.