Issue: December 2010
BYPOINTS: History Happening

Chances are, nobody actually saw the house on Holland Island fall down. One minute it was there--a lonely, weather-beaten two-story frame house, appearing from a distance to be floating on the Bay itself--and the next minute it was on its knees, undermined at last by the waves, one corner of its roof nearly touching the ground. Or touching the water, depending on the tide. Nobody was surprised by this, of course; it was the inevitable fate of the last house standing on Holland Island, part of the drowning archipelago that reaches south from Bloodsworth Island, toward Smith Island and the Virginia state line. You can see pictures and read more about it on page 6, where it is the lead story in our Channel 9 section.

But the fact that it was inevitable doesn't make it any easier to accept now that it's finally happened. Longtime subscribers may remember our story on Holland Island back in 1997, Gene Meyer's excellent portrait of Steven White, the Methodist minister and former waterman who had bought the island and hoped to somehow save the century-old house and what was left of the island from the rising water. I certainly remember it, particularly the pang of sadness I felt at Gene's sensible assertion that the odds were very much against the quixotic reverend.

I also remember having seen the house with my own eyes some years before that article, on my way to Smith Island in the mid-1990s. So, this October, when I read in the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's daily blog that the house had finally fallen, I resolved to see it one last time, to see history happening. The photo with the article, taken by a CBF staffer just days after the event, showed the house reduced to a single story--the second story, that is, squatting on the crushed first story and leaning slightly to the south, with half of the roof splayed open at the peak.

Another article I read at the time said the remains of the house would not likely last the winter, so I didn't waste any time. I checked the weather forecast, put dibs on the 22-foot dual-console and cleared the next day's calendar. But the half-house, it turned out, didn't even last the month. By the time I got there on that gorgeous fall afternoon, less than two weeks after the collapse, all was gone. Granted, it was high tide, which may have been covering some of the remains. But there was no second story, no roof, very little evidence at all that a house had stood there. All that remained on the tiny island (no more than a quarter-acre) were the remnants of a dock, a few unidentifiable bits of scrap, and a sort of ghost's shadow--a darkish patch where the house had stood.

And, just offshore on the north side, half submerged, an excavating barge. Indeed, I might not have found the site at all if it hadn't been for this artifact of Reverend White's efforts, this derelict backhoe that has kept the house company for the last fifteen years. But I did find it, and because the tide was up I was able to inch in fairly close and get a good look--a good look at the shadow that had been a house for a hundred years, the ghost's shadow that showed where history happened.


Tim Sayles, Editor