Fisherman Island, Real Estate from Thin Air

What happens when real estate appears more or less out of thin air? Turns out the answer’s not all that difficult to find out.

Fisherman Island is at the southern tip of the Delmarva Peninsula.   The most remarkable thing about touring this refuge is that you’re standing in a spot that was water not too long ago.   Not thousands of years like much of the Atlantic Ocean’s adjacent lands, more like two hundred.   Geologically, the blink of an eye.   In theory, a determined nor’easter or hurricane could make quick work of what’s there now.

My wife and I recently took a rare opportunity to tour Fisherman Island National Wildlife Refuge (note “Fisherman” not “Fisherman’s” as it’s often incorrectly written).   Volunteers with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), which owns the island, guide one tour a week–Saturday mornings in fall and winter. Otherwise Fisherman is off limits to the public.

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              Fisherman Island, new real estate                                          An overgrown road

What you get on the island is a rare glimpse that few other folks have the opportunity or inclination to see. Motorists zip over Fisherman at 60 mph on U.S. Route 13, likely without thinking much of the terrain beneath them.   What’s there, though, is a good example of rapid succession, what happens when plants, animals and people suddenly find themselves with new land.   Put the island in about as strategic a spot as anywhere–kissing the mouth of a teeming estuary, falling southward off a funnel of land–and you have a rare commodity indeed.

Legend holds that the island began life as a submerged shoal until a vessel carrying linen cloth wrecked there in the 18th century.   Locals salvaged the cloth, but the beached craft stayed and began collecting sand tossed there by the elements.   A government land transaction in 1918 referred to “Fishermans Island or Linen Bar” at the mouth of the Chesapeake.

Whether or not that legend is true will probably never be known, but what’s certain is that Fisherman is demonstrably growing–the only major Virginia barrier island to be accreting rather than shedding acreage. That same transaction that called Fisherman “Linen Bar” claimed the island was “225 acres, more or less.” Today, Fisherman is approaching 2,000 acres.

Oddly enough, though, as it picks up acreage, Fisherman, like virtually all other barrier islands, is a quite fluid as it changes from year-to-year.   One of our tour guides stood beside a dowel hammered deep into the sand of the island six years ago by USFWS workers.   The brass plate at the top, once flush with the ground, came up to her shoulders.

The island’s name suggests people used it, but other than a couple sites where fishing shacks may have existed, the new ground seems not to have encountered a significant human presence until the military realized how ideally suited Fisherman was for doing something the service does well: blowing things up. In this case, enemy ships with enough gall to try and enter the Chesapeake Bay.

The portly President William Taft thought Fisherman could be part of a impenetrable complex of coastal defenses at the mouth of the Chesapeake.   There were plans to have Fisherman guarding a man-made fortress in the middle of the water, a “practical Gibraltar” Taft thought the new stronghold would be.

By World War I, Fisherman was fortified.   By World War II, the island and Fort John Custis on the adjacent mainland was a sprawling complex of concrete bunkers, lookout towers and, of course, large guns, manned by trigger-happy soldiers ready for an Axis incursion that never really came.

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                                     Bunker                                                            Footprints of the military

If my tour guide’s to be believed, it’s probably just as well that Fisherman Island’s combat readiness was never put to the test; the gun emplacements tended to shift on the sandy substrate each time they fired, making accurate shots a little iffy.

The military abandoned Fisherman when coastal forts became obsolete, but the island remained useful thanks to its strategic placement.   It’s the tip of the Eastern Shore, so Fisherman naturally became the northern terminus for the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel that spanned the bay’s mouth in 1964.

The military turned over the land to the Department of the Interior in 1973, but dismantling all of the structures there was evidently never a high priority; the fortified footprints very much remain.

Today concrete pads, bunkers, tangled piles of debris litter the landscape.   Rotting pilings descend into the bay.   A thick braid of rusted metal, a few feet across at least, slide into the water.   This coil might have been what would have detonated the minefield across the mouth of the Chesapeake during World War II.  The tour guide wasn’t sure.

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              Would this have detonated a minefield?                             Old military structure

But even with all these eerie reminders that the island was abandoned, Fisherman remains a vibrant place.  Why?  The island has been, since it first appeared two centuries ago, prime real estate.

Hardscrabble plants and animals have found life worth living there.   Tracks of reclusive animals–deer, foxes and diamondback terrapins–descend into dense thickets of wax myrtle, sassafras and holly, plants that reach wildly every which direction, jaggedly angled from the winds that buffet this island nonstop.

All these creatures want to be here.   The island’s nutrient-poor sand is no deterrent to them.   Much of Fisherman is salt marsh, washed by tides twice a day, blanketed by lush mats of spartina grass.   These wet mats are very near the bottom of the food chain that ends in a seafood dinner.

And then there are, of course, the birds.   By the thousands.  Tens of thousands.   Tree swallows, herons, osprey all stirred as the dozen of us snaked along the rugged island paths.   Rare shorebirds nest here in the spring and summer, which is why there are no tours then.

Piping plovers, and the beaches they live on, were once almost loved to death.   Their feathers made pretty hats.  The sandy shores where they nest fetch a handsome sum for developers. There are only 8,000 adult plovers around today.   Fisherman’s first plover nest in recent memory was spotted only in 2008.

The plovers tend their delicate nests, oblivious that their reappearance there is part of the rich history of an island that so many creatures have found useful in the brief time it has existed.

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         Hardscrabble plants eke out a decent living                  Birds flock by the tens of thousands

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About Ben Swenson

Ben lives in Williamsburg, Virginia. He is writing a book on places of historic value that have been forgotten and are being reclaimed by nature. Abandoned Country is a companion blog to that project. You can contact him at benswenson@cox.net
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