Preserving Chesapeake Heritage: Navigating the Tubman Landscape amid Rising Tides

By Jessica Brannock, Communications Intern

In 2007, roughly 17 acres of wetlands within Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) were dedicated to create the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad (HTUR) State Park. These lands and waterways where Tubman lived and worked as a young woman, enslaved by the Brodess family, make up just a fraction of the 25,000 acres of land in Dorchester County dedicated to the HTUR National Monument. While the park’s Visitor Center offers exhibits on the life and heroism of Tubman, the true monument to her legacy is the landscape itself—and it’s disappearing.

Over the course of a decade, Tubman returned to this landscape 13 times and guided 70 slaves to freedom. Hiding in the marshes by day and traveling by foot and boat at night, Tubman and other freedom seekers relied on their knowledge of Chesapeake waterways, plant, and animal life to survive the journey north.

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Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center, LEED silver certified, and constructed on higher ground to protect the building against rising sea levels.

Today, much of the wildlife found in the brackish tidal marshes and hardwood forests of Blackwater NWR are typical of what Tubman encountered over 150 years ago. However, preserving these habitats and heritage is an ever-present challenge as wetlands throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed are threatened by environmental change.

Current water levels in Blackwater NWR are much higher than when Tubman navigated the rivers and marshes to freedom. Since the NWR’s establishment in 1933, over 5,000 acres of wetlands have been lost to sea level rise.

Marshes act as buffers between land and water, filtering out toxins and absorbing the forces of storms and tides, and Tubman would have been familiar with the tidal rhythms that flooded the wetlands with saltwater and ebbed back with the flow of freshwater tributaries. As sea levels rise, however, saltwater mingles more heavily with fresh, destroying salt-sensitive plant-life as marshlands erode and give way to flooding. By the end of the century, climate science predicts that sea levels will rise in the Bay region between 3 and 4 feet.

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Patches of bare forest and exposed tree roots, destroyed by saltwater intrusion are reminders of rising tides, and the imminent loss of habitat that follows.

The HTUR Visitor Center was constructed with the vulnerability of the landscape in mind. The building is sustainably designed to LEED silver standards and includes bioretention ponds, rain barrels, and vegetative roofs. Located near the Little Blackwater River, where Tubman worked checking muskrat traps as a child, the site was strategically elevated, placing the building on higher ground—a precautionary measure against the accelerating rate of sea level rise. With nearly 300 acres of marsh within the NWR lost each year, the wetlands could be fully submerged by 2050.

Actions can be taken to slow the loss and preserve the landscape so valuable for its habitat and history. In 2017, the Conservation Fund, U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Audubon Society partnered to raise 40 acres of marshland within the NWR. This thin-layering process spread 26,000 cubic yards of sediment dredged from the Blackwater River across the wetlands, raising the marshes by 4-6 inches. Along with large scale tree and marsh grass planting, these efforts will help reduce the pace of flooding over the next decade.

As tides rise, the landscapes that hold our heritage will continue to suffer losses to their environmental and historical resources. In the coming years, we must acknowledge environmental threats and face them head on, so that future generations may continue to experience and interpret the legacy of our national treasures.

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Watching Irma

By Nell Ziehl, Chief, Office of Planning, Education and Outreach

As Hurricane Irma bears down, threatening southern Florida, I keep returning to what is precious about that place for me. My family and many of my childhood friends live in Tampa and St. Petersburg, well within the vulnerable area recently highlighted by the Washington Post. I was born there, not too far from where my mother and my grandmother were born. The connection is live, and I’m worried about my people.

But what else persists? From my great-grandparents’ time, some buildings still stand. My grandmother’s house still stands, I think. Emotionally, I can’t separate the historic bungalow cottages from the live oaks or from the pelicans standing on the bay’s stone wall. The pink bricks that pave my sister’s street warm and glow in the sun — the fabric and the light are equally important. Every year, our family gathers at the beach in one of the few small-scale, family-run motels left, a few doors down from the Don CeSar, a towering remnant of Florida’s early resort industry. Although the Gulf itself draws us, still full of life and beauty, these places also matter – the human record of their construction, their imprint of time and place, the memories and attachments formed there.

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The author’s family in St. Petersburg

At the same time, our cultural heritage includes a heritage of loss. We understand that hurricanes come and go and that buildings, piers and even roads are ephemeral. Left alone, the landscape will reconquer. And behaviors also persist. After generations of weathering storms, many locals do not evacuate, despite news that the storms are not the same. Even armed with better knowledge about water management and the importance of ecosystem restoration to protect inland areas (not to mention the biological habitat and tourism dollars), Florida continues to permit development in ways and in places that are unsustainable, potentially exacerbating disasters and jeopardizing recovery.

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The Don CeSar after a thunderstorm

As we move forward into an uncertain future, with climate change fueling rising tides and more dangerous storms, we must adapt in ways that take all of these elements into account. What is the spirit of the place? What should we protect? What *can* we protect? And what do we need to change?

Too often, our regulatory and philosophical frameworks force divisions between the “built environment” and the surrounding ecosystems, even though the full character of a place includes the architecture, infrastructure, streetscape, waterways, plants, animals – and the people who live there. Cultural heritage is cultural memory, and that includes traditional and historic ways of adapting to the natural environment, including storms. And when buildings collapse, when the tangible fails, the intangible remains valuable and can inform a more resilient future.

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A saw palmetto preserve

Preservationists sometimes focus on limiting rather than accommodating change. But we, more than many other professions, have the ability to understand the evolution of a community over time and to help manage change in ways that protect quality of life and respect the character of place. I pray that Irma passes by without much damage. But more storms will come, and how we respond and rebuild will determine what we can carry forward.

Preparing for Future Floods

By Nell Ziehl, Chief, Office of Planning, Education and Outreach

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Hoopers Island

As we turn from Ellicott City’s disaster response to recovery, and watch hurricanes threaten Florida and Hawaii, it’s hard not to think about all the places throughout Maryland that are prone to flooding. We built our earliest towns, cities, roads and rail lines along the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. As ports and fishing industries boomed, we developed more. And let’s be honest: we all love to live and play near water. Continue reading

2016 Cultural Resources Hazard Mitigation Planning Grants Awarded

With funding from the National Park Service Hurricane Sandy Disaster Relief Fund, the Maryland Historical Trust has awarded seven grants throughout the state to help protect historic places and archeological sites from future storms. These grants will be supported by the Trust’s Cultural Resources Hazard Mitigation Planning Program, which was created to assist local governments to better plan and prepare for the effects of coastal storms and other hazards that impact historic places and properties. The grant projects are described below.

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Early 20th century vernacular home common to Shady Side

Anne Arundel County Trust for Preservation, Inc., Phase I Hazard Mitigation Planning for Anne Arundel’s Cultural Resources: $32,000
Three areas in the county (Shady Side and Deale; Pasadena; and Maryland City, Laurel, and Jessup) face the highest risk to flooding and contain the most undocumented historic structures, as well as unsurveyed potential archeological resources. To remedy this, the Anne Arundel County Trust for Preservation will conduct a study to identify historic structures and archeological sites and evaluate the potential damages caused by flooding. Continue reading

Smith Island Looks to Its Future

By Jen Sparenberg, Hazard Mitigation Program Officer

Smith Island Historical Marker

Most Marylanders know Smith Island cake is Maryland’s official state dessert, but a few things about Smith Island folks likely don’t know are: it’s only accessible by water; it’s one of the oldest continually occupied colonial settlements; its isolation has preserved the culture and language patterns of its earliest colonists; the Island and surrounding bay marshes have been periodically inhabited since 10,800 BC, and that Smith Island is actually comprised of three different communities:  Ewell, Rhodes Point, and Tylerton. Continue reading

Welcome, Jennifer Sparenberg!

Jen Sparenberg

Jen Sparenberg

This week, the Maryland Historical Trust welcomed Jennifer Sparenberg, a Certified Floodplain Manager and a hazard mitigation planner, as MHT’s new Hazard Mitigation Program Officer.  In her work in the private sector, Jen wrote and contributed to numerous hazard mitigation plans for local governments and flood mitigation publications for FEMA’s Building Science Branch. Jen is an archeologist currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Historic Preservation at Goucher College, where she was awarded the Julia Rogers Research Prize in 2013.  Jen enjoys long walks on National Seashores and is always ready and willing to talk about hazard mitigation. Continue reading