One hundred years ago, when Harper’s Magazine writer J.W. Church wanted to visit Tangier Island, he presented a letter asking for transport to a Crisfield oysterman.
The oysterman agreed to have one of his captains ferry the writer and his photographer to Capt. Peter Crockett’s island store, but counseled caution. Tangiermen, the Crisfielder said, “sure are a strange lot.”
The island instantly enchanted the journalists. It reminded them of Holland, with well-kept cottages lining narrow streets and a vast harbor. They loved the captain’s store and trying to decipher the Tangiermen’s accent, which is reminiscent of Cornish English mixed with a Southern twang. They enjoyed talking with the children, who came of age in a one-room schoolhouse. They marveled at an island with so little high ground that most families buried their dead in their front yards, next to children’s toys and gardens.
Visitors will have an easier time arriving today, but will find Tangier Island just as charming. It is a beautiful place, and all the more so when you realize how fragile and threatened it is. Just 12 miles from Crisfield, MD, and 14 from Reedville, VA, Tangier has lost land and people since Church’s visit. This island once included eight villages and 1,200 residents; three villages and 450 people remain, and they are all on the main island. Today, Tangier Island is one mile wide and three miles long. Marsh intersperses the few open fields, and yards take on water at high tide.
When Church wrote his article, Tangier island licensed 91 oyster tongers, 62 dredgers, 3 patent tongers, 75 crab netters and 40 crab scrapers. In 2007, 35 boats remained in the crab fleet, and 20 in the oyster fleet.
Young men often leave the island for work on the mainland. Some captain tugboats and must leave their families for weeks. Between the tightening restrictions on commercial crabbing and the rising costs of fuel, bait and equipment, it’s getting harder to make a living on the water. In 2013, not one student in the graduating class stayed on the island to work the water.
Tourism isn’t going to supplant crabbing soon, but Tangier likes its visitors and knows it needs them. Islanders wave hello, offer helpful suggestions and keep the ice cream shops open late.
The island is popular with day-trippers, but an afternoon isn’t enough time to slow into the island rhythms and take in Tangier. We decided to stay two nights, relax and unplug. The latter is essential. You can plug in, but you probably won’t get a signal.
American Indians lived on Tangier Island for centuries before John Smith “discovered” the cluster of islands in 1608 and named them Russell Isles, after the doctor on board his shallop. In 1707, a man named Post traded two overcoats to a local Indian chief for the islands. To settle them, Post brought three families and livestock from England. The livestock are long gone, but the descendants of those families remain. On Tangier Island, it’s hard to find someone not named Crockett, Pruitt or Parks. There are plenty of Eskridges, too, though they came a bit later, as well as Dises/Dizes, Marshalls and Charnocks.
The island had a major moment in the War of 1812. The British had a base here with a camp for 12,000 troops. Tangierman Joshua Thomas, a Methodist minister who was known as the “parson of the islands,” took the British to task as they headed for Baltimore. Thomas said they would lose in Baltimore and make widows and orphans of their wives and children. His prophecy came true, and the survivors passed back through Tangier to tell him so.
In 1821, a hurricane destroyed the fort where the British had encamped during the war. Subsequent storms have destroyed other parts of Tangier. A seawall built in 1989 has protected the island, and residents have been promised another one to gird the land from more onslaughts.
As a destination, Tangier Island remains mysterious. When I told people I would be visiting, I got three reactions: people had never heard of it; had never been but always wanted to go; or assumed it was near Morocco. The truth is that it’s easy to get there, if slightly confusing. Visitors arrive from three ports: Crisfield, Reedville and Onancock, VA.
Crisfield is the only port offering year-round service. The mail boat, the Courtney Thomas, leaves at 12:30 p.m. each day from the dock at the end of Crisfield’s main street. We shared the back deck with air conditioners, packages, diapers, a vacuum cleaner, bags from Wal-Mart, and empty boxes for soft crabs that would be filled the next day with crabs and shipped on the return trip to markets in New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore.
My few friends who had visited Tangier told me I wouldn’t need a golf cart, but I found it useful in the 100-degree heat. You can rent a bicycle or a golf cart at Four Brothers, in the center of town. With a two-minute lesson from proprietor Tommy Eskridge, you’ll be driving a golf cart like a resident.
Visitors can rent kayaks in Crisfield and bring them on the ferries for a small fee. The island has several water trails.
Before my trip, I’d read reviews complaining that the island offered little entertainment. Tangier isn’t Disney World; no one’s going to greet you with a song and a theme-park map. Nonetheless, it offers much to do if you know where to look. Keep in mind the island is dry, so leave alcohol at home. It’s also a Christian community; the crab and the cross share prominence on the water tower.
On our first day, we signed up for Mayor James “Ooker” Eskridge’s crab shanty tour. For $15 each (children are free), Eskridge took us in a boat to his shanty and showed us his peeler crabs. He explained the difference between males and females. Peeler crabs — the soft crabs that Marylanders and Virginians devour on sandwiches and platters — are the main catch for Tangiermen. The harbor is filled with shanties, and the men are up as early as 3 a.m. to tend to the crabs. Eskridge offers a longer tour for $25: He’ll take visitors into the Sound, show them a crab pot and explain how to catch the crabs.
In the evening, we revved up the cart and drove the length of the island to the airport, where small planes take off and land.
On our second day, we explored Tangier’s beautiful but isolated beach. Bird watchers won’t be disappointed. On a ride to lunch, we saw a snowy egret sunning in the marsh, several American oystercatchers and a flotilla of gulls.
You’ll want to devote a couple of hours to explore the history museum as well as view the 17-minute film on Tangier life, which features Mayor Eskridge and other familiar faces.
On our second evening, we again met Eskridge for a tour of the Uppards, once the high ground of the cluster of islands and where Tangier’s main town stood. It was abandoned decades ago; now, it’s home to power lines that supply neighboring Smith Island as well as detritus that washes up from the beach.
Eskridge and islander Denny Crockett give water tours upon request, but guests should be flexible. These men work hard and have several other jobs, and might not be able to offer tours at the agreed-upon time. Eskridge had to delay both our tours for a couple of hours. The first day he was hot from a 12-hour day; the second, he was helping his wife at her restaurant, the Fisherman’s Corner. We didn’t mind. It left more time for ice cream.
When J.W. Church departed 100 years ago, he pronounced the islanders a “quaint and sturdy clan…to whom life is serious, and the world beyond their island a vague speculation, and like all things vague and speculative, to be eyed with distrust. There is much dignity in their stern attitude toward life; much sweetness in the clean simplicity of their women and their homes, and the island is a treasure trove of rare delight to a lover of the quaint and quiet charms that Tangier may justly claim.”
Today, there is not much vague speculation about the outside world when the Wal-Mart is 90 minutes away. But there is no doubt about the dignity of the islanders’ hard work, the charms of their way of life or the sweet pleasure of a visit.
Getting to Tangier Island
From Crisfield: The mail boat, the Courtney Thomas, offers daily service, year-round, leaving Crisfield at 12:30 p.m. and Tangier at 8 a.m. The Steven Thomas also leaves Crisfield at 12:30 p.m. daily in season. Call 1-800-863-2338. Passengers can charter the Sharon Kay, a Chesapeake Bay dead-rise. Call 757-891-2440.
From Onancock: The Joyce Marie leaves daily at 10 a.m. from May 13 until Sept. 30. There is an evening boat at 5 p.m. Private charters are available. Call 757-891-2505.
From Reedville: The Chesapeake Breeze leaves Reedville at 10 a.m. Reservations required. Call 804-453-BOAT.
Four Brothers Crabhouse rents bikes and golf carts. Call 757-891-2999. Book Mayor Eskridge’s shanty tours through the Fisherman’s Corner Restaurant.
Where to eat
During summer, several restaurants are open. Four
Brothers and Spanky’s offer sandwiches, pizza and ice cream. Lorraine’s and the Fisherman’s Corner offer lunch and dinner, ranging from grilled cheese to soft-shells. Hilda Crockett’s offers a lunch and dinner buffet.
A word about Tangier’s language
Much has been made of the islanders’ accent. Many travel guides have described it as Elizabethan English, prompting some visitors to expect local watermen to break out in sonnets.
The accent is similar to the one heard all over the Eastern Shore, except that Tangiermen (and that includes women) often say the opposite of what they mean. If they see an attractive woman, they might say, “She ain’t pretty none.”
Islanders speak clearly to tourists, but if you catch them talking among themselves, it may be hard to discern the conversation. That’s because of the accent and also the subject matter; if they’re talking about the soft-crab run or about other islanders, you will have difficulty with the terminology.
Islanders don’t mind explaining where the accent comes from, but a few admitted exasperation when tourists gawk or ask them to say certain words.
If you’re curious about the accent and the language, check out the museum’s explanation of how Tangier Islanders phrase things.
Article originally published in the Bay Journal on June 1, 2015.