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The Last House on Holland Island

photo courtesy Jay Fleming Photography

Built in 1888, this Victorian home from a different era has braved the elements and fought shoreline erosion on Holland Island in Chesapeake Bay for well over a century. Despite former resident and owner Stephen White’s best efforts to save the house and protect the island, the waters would overcome both and erase them from the map.

So what happened to Holland Island, and why did one man try to save it?

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Early days of Holland Island

Early History

HI-15Originally settled in the 1600’s, Holland Island was named for the first owner of the property, colonist Daniel Holland. For nearly two hundred years life would be largely uneventful for the small island, with little more than a small colony settlement occupying her shores.

In the 1850s a small fishing and farming boom in the Chesapeake area brought many to the island. By 1890 there would be a large watermen community, and by 1910 the island would house nearly 360 residents, making Holland the most populated island in Chesapeake Bay.

At its peak, Holland Island was a thriving community. It had nearly 70 structures including homes and shops, a school, post office, several general stores, and a church. The island also had it’s own doctor, a community center, and even a baseball team that would travel by boat for away games.

Nearly 90 vessels would call Holland Island home, chasing their fortunes in catching fish, trapping crab, and dredging for oysters.

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Holland Island on October 18, 1953

Geography & Erosion

HI-mapA unique feature to the islands in Chesapeake Bay is the composition of mud and silt rather than rock; this makes Holland Island more susceptible to shoreline erosion from exposure to crashing waves.

The lack of a rock foundation has seen the land slowly disappear for thousands of years, the result of post-glacial rebound from the Earth’s crust being pushed up and down from movement of ice-age glaciers long ago.

This combined with the melting polar cap has seen the Earth’s oceans rise, further accelerating the erosion process for the islands of Chesapeake Bay.

Holland Island started to noticeably lose shoreline in 1914. The residents tried desperately to save their island by importing stones to build walls and in some cases sinking boats in an attempt to slow the erosion, but all attempts failed.

This would force most residents of Holland to tear down their homes and relocate to the mainland. Some would stay and take their chances, but a tropical storm in 1918 was the final straw for the last family who would leave when the church was damaged from the rain and high winds.

A few stragglers would stay behind to reap what they could from the fishing seasons, but this ended when the church finally closed in 1922.

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Google map view versus satellite view demonstrates erosion

Holland Island Preservation

HI-Stephen-WhiteHolland Island would sit abandoned and neglected until 1995 when Stephen White (right), a Methodist minister and former waterman who grew up on the island, would purchase it for $70,000 and try to preserve its legacy by creating the Holland Island Preservation Foundation.

For 15 years Mr. White spent time and money attempting to stave off the water, but he had little success.

Stephen built breakwaters out of wood, but the waves devoured them. He and his wife feverishly laid sandbags only to watch them split open in the hot summer sun and dissolve in the high tides. They carried 23 tons of rocks to the island and dropped them at the shoreline, to no avail.

They brought an excavating machine and a small bulldozer to dig makeshift levees and replace shoreline, but the silt would not stand up to the waves. As a last resort Stephen even sunk a barge just off the house to break the waves, but the water could not be stopped.

White estimated he spent nearly $150,000 in his efforts to save the island, and he figured the island shrank by about 20 acres during his fifteen years of ownership.

Left: satellite view of the old house before collapse. Orange rectangle NW of house is sunken barge meant to act as a breaker. Right: the only remaining trace of man on the main island.

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Shrinking Island

photo courtesy Jay Fleming Photography

courtesy Jay Fleming

Government officials take the situation seriously but many factors conspire against them saving Holland Island. Fighting erosion is very costly; nearby Poplar Island had over $660 million invested into the project by the Army Corps of Engineers – and they were still losing the battle.

If the failing efforts at Poplar Island weren’t enough of a deterrent for public funding of Holland, the economic crisis of 2008 was the nail in the coffin. Compounding the issue is the majority of the land around Chesapeake Bay is privately-owned – including Holland Island – and thus unlikely to receive public funds for projects.

In 1999 the Maryland governor did appoint a task force to study the erosion issues effecting Chesapeake Bay. In 2000 the task force released the report which revealed much about the environmental conditions effecting the bay, including the following:

The State of Maryland loses approximately 260 acres of tidal shoreline due to erosion each year, resulting in a loss of public and private property, historic and cultural sites, recreational beaches, productive farmland and forested areas.”

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Above: Slowly getting worse. Holland Island in 2003

Erosion has attacked Holland Island quickly in the last century. In the 90-year period from 1915 to 2005, the island saw its size cut in half from 160 acres to 80. What was once a 5-mile long island has been reduced to a swampy marsh that sits underwater at high tide.

The only residents of the island today are birds, including brown pelicans, herons, and terns. a 1995 survey would count over 600 nesting pairs of heron in Holland’s trees. However in September of 2003 Hurricane Isabel would hit Holland Island destroying 60% of the remaining trees and decimating the avian population.

(Click thumbnails to enlarge)

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Final Days

In mid-2010 Stephen White fell ill with hemolytic anemia. In declining health and realizing he had done all he could, Mr. White acknowledged the fight was too great and sold Holland Island to local venture capitalist group Concorde Foundation.

The foundation commissioned a photographer to take aerial pictures during a survey of the island in the fall of 2010. It would turn out to be the last known pictures taken of the house before it would collapse.

(Click Thumbnails to enlarge)

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“Final Days” aerial pictures courtesy of Michael F. Young

Collapse

In mid-October of 2010, the house would finally succumb to the elements and fall into a one-story heap. After 125 years of braving the elements, the Victorian home could stand no more.

Over the next several months the water would re-claim the wreckage; a year later Holland Island was gone.

By 2012 the island had completely eroded. As of the date of this post, Google Maps is still using pre-2011 satellite images allowing us to examine what was left of the house and Holland Island before they disappeared.

Left to right: on it’s last legs, the house – now missing walls from water damage – finally collapses

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Holland Island today

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Cover photo courtesy Jay Fleming Photography

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  1. April 8, 2013 at 19:45

    think you should change your blog name to Always-interesting.com !

    • April 8, 2013 at 19:54

      Ha, thank you Henri. I appreciate it.

    • Scott
      April 9, 2013 at 11:47

      I second that!

      • Caroline in San Jose
        August 10, 2013 at 23:45

        Third!

  2. April 8, 2013 at 21:21

    Amazing post ! I agree with Henri !

  3. Cameron
    April 9, 2013 at 13:05

    One of the few blogs that I always check as soon as I see a new article has been posted. Thanks for the great story!

  4. Nick Willis
    April 9, 2013 at 14:43

    I don’t know of any other website more interesting than this one! Really first class stuff!

  5. April 9, 2013 at 18:15

    Thank you everyone, I really appreciate it!

  6. April 10, 2013 at 16:30

    I agree with all of the above! I get so much email, it’s not even funny anymore and I only look at the ones that I absolutely don’t want to miss. Sometimes (Always!) Interesting is one the few emails I open every time.

  7. gre
    April 11, 2013 at 07:10

    Your posts are the highlight of my workday! Keep up the good work!

  8. April 11, 2013 at 14:06

    An amazing story – great post! VERY interesting ;-)

  9. lucirose
    April 13, 2013 at 04:41

    Thanks so much for this amazing history lesson, I will share it with my kids!
    Such beauty lost, thank goodness it’s documented otherwise it would be as if it never existed. Thanks again.

  10. RK
    April 15, 2013 at 07:34

    Fantastic as always. I don’t know how you get all your research info from where you are. I have tried to find the same depth of info you have found to no avail! Check my email I sent you on Ft. Carroll and Poplar Island!

  11. Jay
    April 16, 2013 at 05:19

    Great story as usual. Keep up the good work!

  12. Carolyn
    April 26, 2013 at 09:48

    Thank you! We were just talking about Holland Island as the house appeared on a list of the most beautiful abandoned places I received via email. Upon doing some further research, I was delighted to find such a wealth of information and photos to share.

  13. Theresa
    May 7, 2013 at 08:30

    This is an amazing article!! Thank you so much for posting it. I found the story so sad!

  14. May 11, 2013 at 06:50

    Very interesting. Thanks for sharing this with us. Greetings from Scandinavia.

  15. June 20, 2013 at 03:40

    Thanks, this was fascinating!

  16. Kerrds2001@aol.com
    June 27, 2013 at 12:06

    I really enjoyed this. Excellent photos to go with your well written piece.

  17. July 1, 2013 at 06:21

    What a fantastic story and photos. I just found your site and will be visiting it frequently!

  18. Lily
    July 1, 2013 at 08:39

    amazing story; very well written and your research so thorough! I hope you’ll write a digitized book about this and other *interesting* topics :)

  19. Nabil Shehadeh
    July 16, 2013 at 00:03

    Really sad … your way of storytelling was fantastic.
    Greetings from a Lebanese living in Saudi Arabia

  20. Christopher Blake
    July 16, 2013 at 15:53

    I have been perusing this site for much of the day. All of what I have seen and read is fascinating. Whoever is responsible is fantastic. You are a very precise writer. The topics are beyond description in their level of interest. I would never have thought that I could have felt emotions just by watching a house and an island be taken by erosion. Certainly not a house and island to which I had no connection until now. This page is a work of genius. Thank you. Have a great day and keep up the extraordinary effort.

    • July 16, 2013 at 23:07

      Wow, thank you for the feedback Christopher! Your comment means a lot to me, thanks for taking the time to post it. Much appreciated. :)

  21. Crawford
    August 10, 2013 at 10:06

    Thanks for the website. My ancestors are from Holland Island.

  22. Kristen
    October 18, 2013 at 06:08

    As an amateur genealogist, I wonder if anyone documented the cemeteries before they were submerged?

  23. Sharon
    October 21, 2013 at 12:03

    Very interesting article…would love more on other sites like this.

  24. Katie Shea
    October 26, 2013 at 20:32

    I heard about Holland Island only recently, while doing genealogy research. My grandmother was a Holland, and I have documents showing my Holland family on the Eastern Shore back to the 1600s. I hope to find out if Daniel Holland was a relative!

  25. robert
    November 8, 2013 at 08:33

    did anyone get the headstones off the island??/

  26. krakowski
    November 30, 2013 at 02:05

    nous aussi on a une maison HOLLANDE en FRANCE et elle est en train de sombre aussi

  27. Ignacio
    December 6, 2013 at 15:21

    I am impressed by the story, I truly learned something today, greeting from Tijuana, Mexico

  28. Vicki
    December 26, 2013 at 22:49

    This is so interesting and so well written. I’m from the Eastern Shore and I know of other Chesapeake islands but not this one. I’m so glad I stumbled on to your site.

  29. December 27, 2013 at 05:47

    I love this article! The pictures are great too. Thanks for writing about this interesting piece of history :)

  30. Linda
    December 31, 2013 at 18:03

    I too have been following this story and was saddened when the last house gave up the fight. Feels like an old friend who won’t be back. Thanks for the memories!

  31. January 2, 2014 at 16:39

    Very sad to see the island devoured by the waves. But I guess that truly symbolizes the circle of life.

  32. kim bathon
    January 5, 2014 at 02:19

    I’m watching a program on my Mpt channel. I pretty much grew up in the summers below St.Marys. We always camped at Point Lookout before the state park took over. Plenty of fish and crabs- not to mention beautiful beautiful sunrises and sunsets! I still go back to camp at the State Park. I have gotten involved moreso with lighthouses and have a strong interest in saving them. But I have to say that I have very much enjoyed your article on Holland Island! I am deeply saddened by the sinking of the island. Erosion had been an ongoing problem no matter how much is spent to stop it. I also have been to Smith Island, where the ending will probably be the same as Holland Island. From what I understand, we will always battle erosion and in alot of instances- the water will win. We do our best to delay, but it gives a very severe “kickback”. My heart sinks and I hope that more will be and can be done to proudly show off our waterways. Our country deserves that! I also hope that we continue to find the resourses to educate our children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren on the splender of the Chesapeake!
    Thank you for your work and articles! Let me assure you that it is very much appreciated! Please keep it up! I have signed up for the newsletters and look forward to reading them!

    re can ben and will be done in them future. My generation has truely been blest with the fruits of the Chesapeake. I fear that in this world today, our kids and grandkids are pretty much shielded from alot of reality of

  33. January 6, 2014 at 08:12

    You know, I’ll confess I’m a terrible reader. I don’t mean to read your pieces, but I find I can’t help myself. I’m supposed to be working honestly!

  34. vincentoreilly
    January 10, 2014 at 08:58

    The metaphor of me and my doctors is obvious, but the sea is calm.

  35. mark ryan
    January 18, 2014 at 12:30

    a great story of a lost time.

  36. Genevieve van Oers
    January 23, 2014 at 09:24

    What a great story and images! Hard to believe and view the destruction of the waters on that last standing Victorian style home.

  37. January 27, 2014 at 05:47

    Such a sad story. All his determination for naught.

  38. February 10, 2014 at 09:54

    Thanks so much for the article. My mother was born and raised on this island. Her family moved their home to Cambridge, Many of the housed that were moved are still standing and in use.
    Thanks again for the history lesson
    Charlie

    • February 20, 2014 at 20:12

      Thanks Charlie, I’m glad to know I was able to offer something of value to you. :)

  39. Jay
    February 19, 2014 at 11:15

    Thank you for the article! The “last” house was my great-great grandfather W Grant Parks’ home. We visited the homestead several times before it succumbed to the Bay. Thanks again!

  40. Betsy Parks
    February 19, 2014 at 17:52

    My grandfather Irving Mace Parks told stories of life on the island. The article was very interesting.

  41. Caroline Lees
    February 20, 2014 at 16:21

    Check out Woodland Beach..along Delaware Bay in Delaware. Same thing happened there.. my grandparents jouse was swallowed up by the bay.

  42. James
    March 10, 2014 at 19:09

    Forgive me as I know this is an older story, but the island didn’t “sink”, nor did the water levels “rise” in the Bay that drastically. In a fairly local resident to the area(I live in Southern MD on the Western shore) so I do have local knowledge and insight. The island was lost due to erosion.

  43. Barbara Churan
    March 20, 2014 at 07:04

    My neighbor in Crisfield spent her summers in that house with her grandparents. It belonged to the Parks family. She told me numerous stories about her stay there. Wow, what a loss.

  44. TWOTIMETUNA
    March 21, 2014 at 03:13

    If anyone read the “Chesapeake” by Michener, they would know that was about the same thing: The history of an island in the Chesapeake that disappeared due to erosion.

  45. Stephen
    March 25, 2014 at 19:48

    I’m glad I don’t have any money with the Concorde Foundation. Why would any venture capitalists, or anyone for that matter, have paid money for the disappearing spit of land in 2010?

  46. Jonny B
    April 19, 2014 at 23:00

    Sorry, this had nothing to do with melting icecaps and rising sea levels. It was due to erosion. Interesting story.

  47. May 2, 2014 at 06:20

    A fascinating part of our history!!!

  48. Sandrine Matheu
    May 20, 2014 at 12:54

    Merci pour cette belle histoire, je vous découvre aujourd’hui, je suis fan. Dommage qu’ils n’ai pas pu déplacer cette maison, dernière “résistante”….

  49. kevin
    July 31, 2014 at 13:45

    So are there any islands left in the bay that one could kayak to and camp out for a night? I know there is Hart-Miller island but I’m looking for something uninhabited and so far every island I find on Google maps or old articles has since eroded away. Fvery fustrating!

  50. November 2, 2014 at 11:02

    This island is part of my family history.. My grandmother traced the family name of Holland back to the 12th Century and a man registered as John of Holland in immigration documents she found in England.. the first Holland that made it to “the New World” was ANOTHER John who was part of the Royal Survey Team that came to lay out the COLONY of Virginia.. He decided to stay and was granted a Family Charter for a 1/4 mile of shoreline “to extend as far inland as the land goes”.. The family’s fortunes waxed and waned for the next 150 years with the final original parcels being sold off between the end of the Civil War and the Great Depression…

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