TANGIER ISLAND, VA – A STEP BACK IN TIME

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A PLACE AND A WAY OF LIFE RECEDING IN THE FACE OF TIME AND TIDES

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Tangier Island consists of about 900 acres of which about 83 remain suitable for habitation; the rest is marsh.  It is located on Chesapeake Bay, a thirteen mile boat ride from Crisfield, MD on the Eastern Shore.  It was first charted by Captain John Smith in 1608, and my family and I followed him in 1973 by ferry, and again on our own boat a couple of times in the 80’s.

I came across a notice about a workshop guided by Irene Hinke-Sacilotto of Oprey Photo.Com, and I decided it was time to return.  My photography had been dragging thru fallow fields and I needed a restart.  A trip to the island would do it along with a return to pleasant memories.

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No one knows the source of the island’s name but the first recorded reference to it was about 1682. An 1800 census lists 79 inhabitants, most of them named Crockett.  Over the years they were joined by other families from southwest England including the Pruitts, Thomases, and Parks.  If you seek a wi-fi connection there you will encounter many of these names, and you will find them on above-ground burial vaults in their front yards.  Here is one such burial site, that of Lillie M. and John L. Crockett, and,yes, right on Main Street.

05

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On that first visit to the island in 1973 we stayed at Hilda Crockett’s Chesapeake House.  Meals were served family style on long tables laden with crab cakes and corn pudding.  There was no air conditioning so we stayed up late, reading on the front porch by the soft light of the Pepsi machine.  It’s been moved but not much else has changed.

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As we sat on the porch during the day we watched locals strolling up and down the main street (below), the ladies with their hair in curlers for Saturday night’s entertainment: the bingo games at the community center.  Yes, that’s the main town street, wide enough for two golf carts or one very occasional car.

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We also trudged out to the community center later that night to play Bingo.  We had to cross the tidal creeks that divided the island;  at that time the bridges consisted of pairs of 8″ x 10′ planks that wobbled up and down as we crossed them.  My late wife, Marty Lou, won a necklace at the Bingo game and we were the object of some stares for detracting from their Saturday night escape.  The planked bridges are a great improvement.

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In the 70’s the census reported a little over 800 residents; today it’s down to 700+.  Of these, something like 65 are still engaged in harvesting from the bay.  The original activity was live stock and farming but from about the 1840’s seafood became the focus, particularly with the advent of train service at Crisfield to haul their product to markets.

Those that still work the bay are out there early and, at times, in terrible weather.

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The main entrance to the harbor area is from the northeast, leading out to Tangier Sound.  It is lined on either side by fifty or more so-called crab shanties.  There are no streets leading to these shanties; they’re out there on pilings to provide a base for the waterman’s daily operations.  This particular shanty has been outfitted with trays to contain soft-shell crabs until they fully shed, or to keep shedders fresh for market..  Bay water is pumped over them, and you can see the netting to protect the crop against marauading seagulls.  Another shanty can be seen in the opening picture.

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Here we see one of the tidal creeks that break up the island into its three ridges, the village being on the center or “Main Ridge”.  The daytime-only, single runway and several homes are on the next ridge to the west where I stood for the below image.

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The island is halfway out of this world but, on the other hand, it’s been that way for a few hundred years.

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The calamities these days: the drastic reduction of the crab crop, and the erosion of the island.  In addition to the rising sea level from global warming the island is exposed to stormy seas.  On our last morning there we had to abandon sunrise photography because of the storm that had arisen during the night.  Here’s a view of the bay towards the northwest as the seas from winds of about 15 knots continued to pound the breakwater.

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It was great to revisit this old friend of a place.  I remembered a Memorial Day visit in the 80’s.  There was a gathering with a modest honor guard at the Methodist Church cemetery and someone read aloud the name of every Tangier-man who had served his country since the Spanish-American War.  As a name was recited a young girl would remove a rose from a basket she was carrying and place it on the cemetery grounds.

They have survived; they will be there for a long time to come.

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There is a gallery of these and more images from my weekend.  Please visit it by clicking here.

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18 Responses to “TANGIER ISLAND, VA – A STEP BACK IN TIME”

  1. Ken Curtis Says:

    An interesting description of your stop at the island and great photos.

    • Ralph Berglund Says:

      Thanks, Ken. You and your wife seem to travel around for your photography, and I’d recommend this as an interesting overnight trip for you (maybe two nights considering driving time to Crisfield, and the ferry schedules).

  2. Kathleen Says:

    Great pictures and a wonderful story Ralph!!! Thanks for sharing!!!

  3. Skip & Carl;a Vandegrift Says:

    Its been a while since we have been there and it is a step back in time. The dialect seemed to be a mix of cockney and Appalachian hillbilly. Quite interesting. I remember little – leagers going off to their game in a launch. Asking for crabs at the general store….”Don’t got any. but kin git ye sum.” Back in five from the packing house with FRESH crabs.
    We sailed the bay for 28 years and it is a bundle of memories.
    Skip & Carla Vandegrift

  4. eajackson Says:

    Wonderful morning coffee read and visual. I think it looks like a interesting weekend trip for Alan and I. Thank you for sharing these images and story.

  5. denisebushphoto Says:

    Excellent post Ralph! How lovely that a place like this still exists. Now you’ve left me with a craving for crab cakes!

    • Ralph Berglund Says:

      Thanks.
      BTW, you can have mine. After growing up at the seashore, no more seafood passes my lips. On my two nights there I had fresh caught, cheese steak, and fresh caught hamburger steak with onions and gravy. 😉

  6. Rich Lewis Says:

    Thanks for the tour of an island I never knew about. It looks like the perfect place to restart your creative photographic juices.

  7. Alan Wilder Says:

    Very nice post Ralph, I enjoyed shooting with you.

  8. Shelley Says:

    Uncle Ralph, What a wonderful picture journey that brings back many great memories. The picture you sent of Aunt Marty and my mom and dad on the boat too brought back good thoughts of our trips together. Thank you! Shelley

    • Ralph Berglund Says:

      I thought of all of us all weekend. Your Mother was leading us across the swamp that night and I can still hear her “I don’t believe it!” when she came to those two 8″ planks across the tidal creek, in the dark, on our way to the bingo game.

  9. MikeP Says:

    Whoa… kinda missed this one. Your post brought back vivid memories of my stay on Smith Island. Sad how the young continue to leave and all that is or will be are the old and die hard locals. Your seeing and recording of light really stands out in this post.


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