SMITH ISLAND, MD. (WJZ) — Maryland has only one inhabited island with no bridge connecting it to the mainland — Smith Island.
People have been living on this tiny spit of land for almost 350 years, against all odds; fighting wind, tides, and erosion.
Now, the Army Corps of Engineers, the state and Somerset County are celebrating a multi-million dollar project aimed at “Saving Smith Island.”
Water is at the center of life on this island. Three tiny villages make up one small community living off the bounty of the water that surrounds them.
“It’s hard to beat…the people, the place, the uniqueness, it’s not for everybody, we know that,” said Eddie Somers, Smith Island United.
Few Marylanders ever do make the journey, over the Bay Bridge, all the way south to Crisfield, taking an hour’s ferry ride out into the Chesapeake — the only way to reach Smith Island.
But, a crowd of politicians, state workers – most for the first time – are taking the trip to celebrate with the people of this tiny archipelago.
“Their families have been here for centuries. This is a way of life. This is something we really out to preserve as part of Maryland’s heritage,” said Rep. Andy Harris (R-1st District).
“We’re here to celebrate the resilience of the community and we’re here in particular to celebrate a shoreline restoration project,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.)
That Army Corps of Engineers project, almost two years in the making, includes hundreds of feet of jetties that now open the channel for watermen, reconstructed shoreline and salt marshes.
“We’re creating four and a half acres of wetland as a benefit of this project that are being protected by breakwaters,” said Jeff Price, with Army Corps of Engineers.
Any Smith islander will tell you, the water that gives life can also make it hard to live. The Army Corps of Engineers said before it began its work, the island was eroding up to nine feet a year.
People who live there will say it regularly floods right up to their doorways.
“When I was a kid it hardly ever happened, now it’s all the time,” said Kim Evans, a Smith Islander.
Kim Evans grew up on Smith Island and said he wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Living here, a ton of freedom. Go mud larking, walking in the mud in our bare feet,” he said.
But he and others we talked to are worried about nature’s effect on the island’s future.
“Now I’ll say about 60 to 70 percent of the year we have high tides around here and I mean these roads are covered,” another islander said.
Abandoned structures dot the island, with only about 900 habitable acres left for the less than 200 souls who call it home.
“We’re not sinking. We’re eroding,” said Maxine Landon, an islander.
Maxine and the other ladies who cooked for the celebration, echo a word you’ll often hear on Smith Island: erosion.
People on the island said they’re fighting erosion. And there is erosion.
But some scientists see a larger problem.
Whatever the cause, on this day, Smith islanders are giving thanks for the latest effort to save their traditions and their way of life.
“What my family does, we crab. Some people think it’s dirty, they don’t want to do it. They get germs. Get sick. If you know what you’re doing, you won’t,” said 10-year-old Aiden Bradshaw.
Aiden loves to crab, and oyster. He and less than 10 other children attend the island’s only school.
The older students ferry to Crisfield every day. Smith Islanders are resilient.
“We are one big family is what we are because when one’s in trouble we are all in trouble and if somebody needs help we all help them,” Maxine said.
Some Smith islanders can trace their families back to the 1680s when John Tyler and John Evans were the first to arrive and stay.
WJZ’s Denise Koch, driving around Smith Island: “You have a store, a restaurant, and a church. And a gas station. And a gas station.”
And that’s about it. A small community determined to fight, adapt and remain.
“I go to bed comfortable every night knowing that I’m just as safe here as I am in a lot of other places. It doesn’t worry me,” Eddie said.
“A hundred men couldn’t get me off this island because this, is basically my life,” said Aiden.
Denise Koch: “And you love it?”
“Yes.” Aiden said.