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.
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 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.
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.
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.
The traces of Watts Island’s current inhabitants