April 22, 2018

SlackWater’s Circumstantial Evidence Part I

Circumstantial Evidence SlackWater

The SlackWater Center at St. Mary’s College of Maryland is a consortium of students, faculty, and community members documenting and interpreting the region’s changing landscapes. Oral histories are at the core of the center, which encourages students to explore the region through historical documents, images, literature, and scientific and environmental evidence. Some of this work has been published in the print journal SlackWater, some of which is online, and some published here. The work below was first published in Volume IV Crassostrea virginica in spring 2004.slackwater logo

By Anne Grulich

If you’re coming to the Island by bicycle, you should stop on the bridge. It’s the only rise in the watery landscape, and it affords a panoramic view of weather and river rolling in from Virginia. This brief span of concrete and steel is also the last terra firma until the return leg of the ride. Overhead, tangled masses of fishing lines, leaders, and lead weights dangle from the power lines. Below them, signs warn against fishing and stopping, against diving and swimming from the bridge. But there’s no sign that warns, “Beware of Time,” at this gateway to an island where time becomes as porous as the sands and silts that constitute it. In this liminal land amid three rivers, things are slightly out of sync. This is a remnant spit of marsh and beach, barely visible within the rising, brackish waters of the great Chesapeake estuary – a Brigadoon of sorts, appearing and disappearing as sea levels rise and fall again through the ages.

St. George Island is located on Southern Maryland’s western shore, about seventy miles south of Washington, D.C., at the confluence of the Potomac River, St. George Creek, and the St. Mary’s River. Shaped like a crab claw, it is three miles long and a quarter wide at its broadest point. In some stretches it’s barely five-hundred feet across. On the southern end, between the pincers of the claw, Island Creek crawls inward to the heart of the island’s marshland and scrub pines.

The first thing you notice on the descent from the bridge is the wooden pilings parallel to it, evidence of a former bridge seeming to run from nowhere to nowhere. Further south sits a house that was moved by a horse from land that succumbed to erosion a century ago. In storms, the Island’s historic houses stand up to their knees in brackish water, while modern homes raise their skirts on stilts and let the water run beneath them. A 200-year-0ld iron cannonball oxidizes in a pool house; an iron ladle is pulled from its upright burial among the roots of an apple tree; century-old bottles wash up in the tide line. Well heads are too high; properties are too low. People live to be 100 here. Basaltic bluestone riprap from subway blasting 100 miles north was barged in to slow the onslaught of the rising Potomac. Indians left rose quartzite points behind. Mastodons, sharks, and whales left their teeth in the sands.

For almost a decade I had ridden my bicycle to the Island each week. I call that time, “before.” That was before the

SlackWater St. George Island

Copies of this Slackwater Volume IV are available at http://www.smcmbooks.com/.

eons collided one fall in a store up the road, before I’d ever heard of swamp root remedies, ever seen an iron cannon ball decay, or knew anything about the “glint” or the schlamm. That was before I met the Island collectors.


One Island resident and proprietor of a local store is a mild man overcoming chronic pain. In better days he roamed the shorelines collecting fossils and stone tools. Today, he perches and shifts trying to accommodate his own skeleton, which has become a burden to him as he recounts his jaunts of forty years and explains a portion of his collection. He puts the gleaming black mastodon molar in my hand. On the floor a stone axe head lies separated from the notched stone blades that had encircled it in burial. A hundred quartzite arrowheads and sharks teeth sprawl in disarray on felt. Somehow, it all wound up together here, at my feet. Here is circumstantial evidence of the Island’s submersion and reappearance as Pleistocene glaciers advanced and retreated for two million years. Here is evidence of the Miocene in Charcharodon shark teeth and a complete Chespapecten fossil bivalve three to five million years old. Here are the Woodland period Yaocomaco and Piscataway Indians several thousand years before the present. Here are the very earliest chapters of the story of St. George Island.

This man collects to relieve stress. He browses the shorelines, especially in the autumn and winter when the water is clear. He uses a plain white PVC bucket, removes its opaque bottom and installs a Plexiglas one, attaches some PVC pipes, and works with a sieve so it’s “like a glass bottom boat.” “That way it’s all perfectly clear,” he explains.

“Everyone knows there were Indian villages all around here,” he says. When he and a friend used to plow local fields after a rain, all they had to do was “look for the glint” and the remains of stone tools and arrowheads were revealed. “Don’t look for the shape, look for the glint.” Since then, all that farmland has been sold for housing developments.

He discovered a score of broad, notched, polished stone blades and an axe head lying together across the Potomac where cliffs erode into a shallow bay. Here again the glint gave them away. “Things fall straight down out of the cliffs into the sand and are washed up into the first sand bar,” he explained. On St. George Island he’s found innumerable fossilized whale, shark, ray, and alligator teeth and claws, as well as multi-hued, well-worn, quartzite projectile points.

David and Reggie Morgan came to St. George Island from Tennessee in 1968 to teach biology at Esperanza Middle School. They purchased a home on 1.4 acres for $18,000. On Veterans Day [2003], we spoke about the legacy of that home as darkness was falling and a wood stove cozily burned so intently that no one noticed how light it wasn’t until someone turned on the lamp. They knew nothing of their home’s history when they purchased it. It is one of the oldest homes on the island, and the quintessential example of the porous nature of the elements on the island. This is the house that was moved by a horse.

The Morgans’ home, “Mother’s Cottage,” was orginially the home of Thomas B. Adams, Elizabeth Byrd, and their nine children. In 1855, for just under $1,500 Thomas Adams purchased 100 acres of the 1,000-acre island then owned by the Jesuits, who lived across the river at St. Ignatius Manor and grazed their livestock there. Adams and his four sons became the patriarchs of northern St. George Island, building a home and operating a hotel, steamboat landing, sawmill, store, and even building a chapel. The land circulated within generations of the family for nearly a century and a half until the last parcel was sold to a developer in 1994.

In 1901 this house was hitched to a horse and rescued from the encroaching Potomac. Solathia Potter and his horse, Fannie, moved the house from the west bank to the east overlooking St. George Creek where it sits today, nearly doubled in size. Adams’ old well, a good 400 feet out in the Potomac now, wasn’t capped for decades, and the story goes that watermen drew fresh, cool water from their working boats on steamy Southern Maryland days. Within living memory, the Potomac has gnawed away a broad swath of land supporting the Adams’ home, a school house, playing fields, a second hotel, and steamboat landings – properties confidently bought and sold with boundaries defined by enduring sweet gums and locust posts, duly recorded on deeds in perpetuity, and confidently tied, as writer Walter Kauffman puts it, “to the imaginary unmovable lines of longitude and latitude.” But boundaries and lines mean little to an island that shifts its shape with every passing storm.

One of the first things the Morgans did together when the family arrived in 1968 was to plant a cedar tree. This September the tree succumbed to Hurricane Isabel, so the Morgans mailed several sentimental cedar wafers to their children. They stayed in their home during Isabel, as they have for at least four other storms where they’ve had to deal with the schlamm. In her charming Munich accent, Reggie explained the schlamm to me as “what stays behind when the water leaves.” Barely two months after the storm surge nearly covered St. George Island completely, the Morgans had rid their house of the stinking, mucky schlamm which 30 inches of brackish water had left behind in their living rooms and kitchen. For at least a week they worked patiently without electricity and, therefore, without running water, bucket by bucket, bringing the brackish water outside back inside. “Salt water cleans better than fresh.”

We spoke more about living with the water on St. George. They had to extend the depth of their well an extra ten feet when it ran dry. Sump pumps on each side of the house channel water to the outside of their circular driveway. Periodic tidal flooding made it wise to switch to raised beds when gardening, and they discovered “tomatoes love salt water.” They lost about a foot a year of creek-side property to erosion before they installed revetment in 1983. Across the way, on the Potomac side, David recalled building little steps down to a beach when his children were young, and that the beach had trees back then. This is where the basaltic bluestone now sits, barged in to shore up a wooden bulkhead already failing to hold back the Potomac.

Next in Circumstantial Evidence Part II: All over St. George Island, height mediates the boundary between land and sea in clever ways.

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