Watts Island; A Hermit’s Paradise Lost

What could possibly compel you to live alone on a remote island for the better part of three decades? For Charles Hardenberg, it was the very water that is now washing the last traces of him into the Chesapeake Bay.

Hardenberg was far from the stereotypical unsociable, cynical hermit. He was a Princeton-educated lawyer from a respected Jersey City, New Jersey family. In 1910, he moved onto a small pair of islands in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay on a bet he couldn’t stay there alone for ten years.

Hardenberg      Watts Island

Charles Hardenberg (Tuscaloosa Times 8/15/30) and Watts Island today as seen from Google Maps. Here is a link to Watts on Google Maps.

Hardenberg lived first on Watts Island, a skinny, mile-long sliver of land halfway in between Virginia’s Eastern Shore and Tangier Island. Several years later he moved into a deserted light keeper’s house on Watts Island’s much smaller, three-acre companion a few hundred yards south, Little Watts Island.

Hardenberg first came to the islands at the urging of friends and family who noticed the steep toll city life had on his health. His brother, a physician, bought Watts Island and later Little Watts. After the ten years were up he tried to move back to the city, but the call of his islands was too strong a draw. He missed the tides, the seasons, the crashing of waves just feet from his doorstep. Before long he was back on Little Watts, alone, content.

Watts Island   Watts Island 2 Watts Island 3

Watts Island from the Chesapeake Bay

For Hardenberg, Watts and Little Watts were paradise. He had no radio, got no newspapers, had little contact with the outside world. Solitaire was his favorite pastime. He ate canned goods, dried figs and, of course, freshly-caught seafood. “My little Eden,” he called it. He would stock up on provisions on once-yearly visits to the mainland. A census enumerator who noted his existence as the sole inhabitant of Little Watts Island in 1930 listed his occupation as “none.” The only concern Hardenberg ever expressed was about stormy weather that threw the sea into a frenzy and took chunks of his island home.

He tried marriage once, but the union lasted only two years. After the Hurricane of 1933, Hardenberg and his wife took shelter on the mainland to let the water recede, the sediment settle. Hardenberg soon went back to Little Watts, sans wife.

An illness forced Hardenberg from his beloved islands for good. He died at his brother’s home in New Jersey in 1937. He had spent nearly thirty years living alone in the middle of the Bay.

 Watts Island 6      Watts Island 7

Watts Island 5

Scenes from Watts Island

While an illness claimed Hardenberg, encroaching seas claimed his home. Seven years after he died a terrific storm washed over Little Watts Island and the automated lighthouse he lived beside for most of that time crumbled into the water. Little Watts Island soon vanished into the sea. Today a lighted buoy is all that marks the spot where Charles Hardenberg spent most of his life.

Watts Island is fast surrendering, too, and will soon be another victim of rising seas. Hardenberg lived here for several years before taking up residence on Little Watts. Generations of families before Hardenberg made respectable livings on this sliver of land as well. Today Watts Island is part of Martin National Wildlife Refuge and is off limits to all except those on official business.

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Erosion at Watts Island today

No matter for those looking for Watts Island’s disappearing history, though; all trace of human habitation is gone other than dense mats of English ivy that blanket the interior. The island is an important bird sanctuary and their presence and signs are everywhere. Small mammals are present, too. A healthy population of tiger beetles inhabits the sandy beaches.

Especially noticeable is the active erosion occurring at Watts Island’s fringes. Toppled trees lie at water’s edge and where a light wind kicks up any appreciable waves, whole portions of Watts’s fragile upland face slough into the Bay at the constant onslaught. Two sandy humps south of Watts are now detached from the island. Only several months ago they were part of Watts proper.

Watts Island is a good example of how rising seas take with them not only the land that stands in their way but the memory of the people, plants and animals that brought those places to life.

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Watts Island 11

The traces of Watts Island’s current inhabitants

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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8 Responses to Watts Island; A Hermit’s Paradise Lost

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  2. Vicki Oyston says:

    Fascinating article on Watts Island, found whilst looking at the geography and wild life of that area.
    Interest was first sparked by reading a book by Patricia Cornwell which included a description of Tangier Island

    • Ben Swenson says:

      Thanks for reading and for the comment, Vicki. A couple other good reads I’d recommend if you like Chesapeake Bay island-themed works: Beautiful Swimmers by William Warner, a non-fiction look at watermen and their relationship to the landscape (it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1977); also, Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson is a young adult novel, but I re-read it as an adult and her description of the culture of the bay really stuck with me. It takes place on the fictional “Rass Island” which is based on Tangier I think. Thanks again.


  3. Walter says:

    Any idea how Watts Island was named?

  4. Darrin Lowery says:

    The first patent for Watts Island (a.k.a. Gabriell’s Island) was issued to Nicholas Waddelowe in 1652 for 400 acres of land. Today, Watts encompasses only ~29 acres of surviving upland and tidal marsh, which calculates to slightly more than one acre of erosion per year since the initial patent. In 1657, Waddelowe and his wife assigned their interest in the island to Robert Kinge, John Watts, Gilbert Henderson, and Robert Blake. Evidently, John Watts’ name replaced the earlier title designation associated with the island. By 1662, Walter Taylor received a patent for the entire 400 acres of “Gabriell’s or Watts Island”. In 1672, Taylor left “Watts Island” to his son John. John Taylor patented an additional 34 acres of land at the lower end of the island called “Little Watts Island”. It was this smaller island that became the location of the lighthouse in 1832. In 1672, Little Watts Island was bigger in acreage than the current main island is today. In 1847, the main island encapsulated slightly more than 150 acres of land. At that time, it contained three agriculturally-tilled upland ridges protected by a broad tidal marsh. Of these, the easternmost ridge included a residence, two associated outbuildings, and an orchard. The last vestige of eastern upland ridge washed away in 2009. The central ridge, which survives today, also contained an orchard in 1847. Three smaller forested hummocks were positioned southwest of the central ridge and adjacent to two creeks that extended through a broad marsh into the interior of the island. The remaining tilled ridge was located on the southern-end of Watts Island.

    By 1702, Little Watts had been reduced in size to about 24 acres, which translates into a net loss of 10 acres over a thirty-year period or about one-third of an acre of erosion per year. In 1847, Little Watts Island consisted largely of tidal marsh surrounded by a man-made breakwater to protect the lighthouse and the keeper’s house. A small pier or wharf was also located on the northeast side of the island. By 1923, Little Watts Island encompassed only 3 acres of land. By 1950, the land originally defined as Little Watts Island surrendered to erosion.

    As the protective veneer of tidal marsh is eroded from the north and west sides of Watts Island, the surviving upland ridge should disappear rapidly. The vestiges of Watts Island should succumb to erosion within the next decade or by 2025.

  5. Donald says:

    Good read.

  6. Kevin says:

    Are there plans for a restoration project? This island will have suffered severe erosion in a decade.

    • Ben Swenson says:

      Kevin, there are no restoration plans that I know of but on Watts Island’s nearby neighbor Tangier Island, many people are thinking if ways to save that vanishing land.

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