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Timeless Smith Island

Off the Beaten Path 

Few people outside of the mid-Atlantic know about Smith Island—for that matter, few enough people living in the area know about it either. Smith Island, located in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, is a timeless place, a throwback to earlier and simpler times, steeped in history, wildlife, wild lands, and the charm and spirit of days long past. Perhaps it was best said by famous Chesapeake Bay author Tom Horton, who for several years was a Smith Islander himself, in his book An Island Out of Time: “[t]he bay never essayed truer, nor flowered more gloriously, than in its creation of Smith Island and Smith Islanders. . . . [P]laces like the island are art—made all the more artful for contriving nothing, for simply being.”  

New Dawn

The world around Smith Island accelerates, at an increasingly rapid pace—like the expansion of the Universe itself—but Smith Island, and Smith Islanders, never seem to change. Severed from the mainland by a ten mile water crossing, Smith Island still moves to the age old rhythms of the tides and seasons. Sundered from the mainland not just by inconvenient geography, Smith Islanders have their own unique culture, way of life, and dialect—all of which are destined to disappear beneath a flood of Biblical proportions. The culprit, this time, is not the sudden wrath of God, but rather something creeping, insidious, and inexorable: sea level rise resulting from global warming. Smith Island’s fate will likely be sealed within the next few decades, to become the Atlantis of the Chesapeake, submerged and lost forever beneath the rising tide. 


In 1608, Captain John Smith was the first European to see the Smith Island group, calling the archipelago the “Russell Isles” in honor of the physician who saved him from a stingray’s poisonous barb. It was another Smith, however, who lent his name to the island: Henry Smith of Jamestown, who was granted 1,000 acres on the island in 1679. First used by English settlers to graze livestock, by the mid-1800s oystering and crabbing became the basis of the island’s economy. The marked decline of the native oyster population throughout the Chesapeake Bay due to pollution, harvesting and disease has greatly reduced oystering, and the island’s way of life is now primarily dependent on the crab harvest. Once boasting a population of over 800 during its heyday, Smith Island now has 240 year round residents, spread between the three small hamlets of Ewell, Rhodes Point and Tylerton. The first Methodist camp meeting was held on Smith Island in 1887, and the church now plays a significant role in island life today, fulfilling many functions that would otherwise be the responsibility of local government. 

Morning Catch

Every year I lead a photo workshop on Smith Island, bringing eight students to the island for three days of photographing the island’s wildlife, landscapes, people, and buildings. Each year brings new discoveries, and a new sense of wonder about this magical place. Although Smith Island’s days may be numbered, there is something timeless—something eternal—about the island and its people. Smith Island’s spirit will live on long after it is gone. 

To see more of my Smith Island images, visit my Timeless Smith Island gallery online. 

Crab Shack

—Ian Plant              

Chasing the Light: Essential Tips for Taking Great Landscape Photos: A 62-page downloadable PDF eBook filled with informative text, stunning full-color images, and plenty of insights and inspiration.          

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