A news report I read recently quoted a local calling Deal Island, Maryland a dying community. That image was a potent siren call. I had no choice but to investigate, particularly since Deal Island is an icon of Bay culture, and losing it would be a significant blow to a 400-year-old heritage.
Deal Island dangles mid-Bay off Maryland’s Eastern Shore a stone’s throw from the Virginia state line. You have to want to go to Deal Island; it is 15 miles west of the Shore’s north-south artery, U.S. Route 13, through dense woods and the broad, flat marshes of a state wildlife management area.
Isolation drew people here long ago, including the Chesapeake’s shiftier characters, pirates and the like, which is why the adjacent communities of Deal Island and Dames Quarter are buttery adaptations of the original names Devil’s Island and Damned Quarter. (Two more communities that comprise Greater Deal Island are Chance and Wenona).
The other asset that brought settlers to this remote stretch was the saltwater lapping Deal Island’s shores. The approach to Deal Island shows just how closely the communities here are tied to the Chesapeake: timeworn signs offer bait and seafood; neat stacks of idle crab pots fill front yards, waiting for the right season. The bridge to Deal Island proper overlooks a harbor that glimmers with activity, relevance.
My first impression was anything but that of a dying community. I visited early in the morning and found an island stirring with familiar routines. Locals gathered for breakfast and conversation in an inauspicious down home diner. Commuters zipped off east to their jobs, to the larger towns.
No doubt many residents would disagree that Deal Island is dying. There’s little evidence of decline in the well-kept residences. A respectable methodist church gleams white, hemmed in by a handsome cemetery. And all about there are signs of a deep connection to the Bay, lines of well-used workboats tied up at wharves, waterside shedding houses ready for soft crab season. This is the community identity so lacking from modern strip mall cities the world over.
Shedding house St. John’s United Methodist Church
Beneath all Deal Island’s vibrance, though, lie subtle clues that better days have come and gone. There’s a handful more vacant homes than you’d wish to see in a community with such a sense of place. A number of boarded windows started as some temporary fix but became permanent.
The Old Deal Island Bank is idle, boarded, wanting some repurpose. The charming early-20th century structure housed a bank that tanked with the Crash of ’29. The building languished for some time and was once a machine shop, but has fallen once again into disrepair and obscurity.
John Wesley United Methodist, too, exhibits some greater past that’s been forgotten, neglected. The church was once a cornerstone of the African American community on the island, but declining membership caused it to be shuttered, and a decade of neglect shows in the glassless windows, the cracked and waterlogged cemetery vaults. A restoration effort appears not to have picked up much steam.
There’s no doubt that Deal Island is an old and well-loved community, but that it’s slipping away somehow. According to William B. Cronin in The Disappearing Islands of the Chesapeake, Deal Island once held a tomato cannery and a hotel, both lost to the ages. Gone, too, are the enterprises that once sustained the watermen’s community here, a oyster shucking house on nearby Little Deal Island and a sail loft, kept in business by the iconic Chesapeake skipjack.
Even though you can now count Deal Island’s skipjacks on once hand (there were once hundreds that worked the bay), the sailboats remain a source of pride for the community; every Labor Day weekend Deal Island hosts skipjack races.
Deal Island is losing people and ground. The population dropped from 578 to 471 in the first decade of the 21st century. All the while, Deal Island has been shedding land at about six-and-a-half acres a year, and the rising seas threaten to take ever more, raising the possibility that the Bay culture here will be consumed one day by the very water that created it.