October 2nd we arrived on smith island, the last human inhabited island in Chesapeake Bay that is not connected to the mainland. The island has a rich history and culture that we explored in depth during our short stay there. After a 12 mile ride from Crisfield to Smith, we set foot on to a very unique place.
Around 8000 acres of land make up the formation of small islands known as Smith Island. Of the 8000, only 900 acres are habitable because much of the island is marsh and wetlands. People live there because in the late 19th century an era of prosperity in watermen culture on the Chesapeake led to the developing of islands like Hoopers island, Holland island, and Smith island to name a few. In the island’s most bustling time of 1910, the population was 806. Today that number has dropped to around 200 people and is dwindling as folks are having less success in the seafood industry due to lower annual harvests caused by overfishing, and large weather events. Smith island has one of the most religious communities in Maryland. The faith placed in god to keep their way of life intact is strong but more people leave the island because of the natural decline that keeps the local economy afloat. Where is God? Is the question the good people of Smith Island are beginning to ponder. If the Lord wanted them to have enough to get by, wouldn’t he meet the demand with a bountiful supply? The influence of religion on Smith island is the glue that holds the community together, but when faith is in question, it won’t be long before the bow breaks and things fall apart.
While on smith, we attended a Wednesday evening revival at one of the island’s three Churches and it really showed how big of a role religion plays in the lives of the people of Smith island. The idea of manifest destiny and God given rights applies to the watermen of the Chesapeake. They believe that God put oyster, crabs, and other bountiful seafood in the bay for them to take and use as they pleased. When harvests are low, they believe that God will hook it up for the next year. In the packed church, the majority of people there were over 50. Not surprisingly, most watermen on the island are middle aged and older. The demographic of watermen is not being sustained by the next generation because the work isn’t as profitable as it used to be. Watermen are still getting the same price for a bushel of crabs, but the price for equipment and gasoline has increased, so there is less incentive to do the work necessary to scrape by.
We discussed sea level rise prior to our trip to Smith island, and found that sea level rise isn’t the major problem faced there concerning land loss. The island experiences erosion land loss because boat wakes create waves in the canals of the island that over time degrade the shoreline and the technique of scraping sub aquatic vegetation to get crabs tears up the grasses that slow water before it reaches the land.
Besides oystering and crabbing, a major industry on Smith island is the production and exportation of Maryland’s state desert, the famous Smith Island Cake. Some of the gang and I went to the bakery and saw how the magic of the 9 layer white cake with chocolate frosting was made, and in doing so got a free 6 layer cake. Although it wasn’t the full 9, it was so incredibly delicious. The Smith island cake company has shipped cake to all 50 states and its understandable because the cake is so good.
For now the community is stable and religion is still a crucial part of life because it is the good Lords will that they are on the Island n the first place. Smith Island is populated by kind hearted people who are all part of a tightly knit community. Everywhere we went on the island we were welcomed with open arms and smiling faces. I enjoyed our visit because it was really interesting to see how a society disconnected from the mainland worked and lived in harmony on a historic island where their children could grow and they could live peacefully.