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.

Visitor Center

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.

Saltwater Intrusion 4

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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The Life of a Roadside Historical Marker

By Nancy Kurtz, Marker and Monuments Programs

The marker you pass on your journey, embossed with the Great Seal of Maryland, could have been born in the early 1930s, cast in iron and displayed along a narrow roadway in the days when the family car and the road trip were new ideas and local citizens wanted to inform travelers of the people, places and events important in their history.

The Maryland Historical Trust (MHT) and Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) jointly manage the state roadside historical marker program.  The State Roads Commission began the program in 1933 in cooperation with the Maryland Historical Society.  The program was transferred to the Maryland Historical Trust in 1985, with new standards, criteria and placement guidelines added in 2001, including the requirement for markers to commemorate topics that carry statewide significance.  MHT reviews and approves new marker applications.  SHA installs and maintains the markers, and now funds all new and replacement markers.

RM-733h THE BANK ROAD old

The Bank Road marker, when it was young

When either agency is notified of a marker problem, SHA staff pick up the marker and start the refurbishing, repair or replacement process.  A tag is installed on the pole to notify the public of its whereabouts.  If you should notice a sudden unexplained disappearance, a marker on the ground or other problem, please contact Nancy Kurtz at 410-697-9561nancy.kurtz@maryland.gov, or send in a problem report found on the MHT marker website:  http://mht.maryland.gov/documents/pdf/research/MarkerReport.pdf.

With over 800 markers installed since the 1930s, maintenance is ongoing. Markers requiring repair or refurbishing are sent off-site for the work, usually in groups of two or more.  Sandblasting and welding repairs can take three to four weeks.  Repainting can take four to six weeks.  Reinstallation is dependent on weather and work schedule, and usually grouped geographically, so can take two to three months after repainting.  The best time estimate for the whole process would be approximately six months, but can vary according to these factors.

One important aspect of reinstalling a marker is safety.  Roadways, traffic volumes and speed have changed through the years and do not always allow reinstallation in the original location.  Where possible, the markers are placed near a side road to allow drivers to pull off the highway.

RM-733 THE BANK ROAD refurbished

The Bank Road marker, refurbished

The early markers are historic in their own right.  Although some show the scars of damage and repair, we strive to keep them on the roadways well into the future.  The history of the marker program, thematic tours, application procedures, photographs and maps are found on the MHT website, including a keyword search for travelers who pass a marker at today’s highway speeds. To learn more, please visit:  http://mht.maryland.gov/historicalmarkers/Search.aspx

 

A Fond Farewell to Roz Racanello

By Maryland Historical Trust Staff

Not long after the State of Maryland certified the Southern Maryland Heritage Area in July 2003, Roslyn “Roz” Racanello saw a job ad for an Executive Director of a new heritage preservation and tourism organization serving Charles, Calvert and St. Mary’s Counties. She wasn’t sure what a “Heritage Area” was exactly, but she thought her background in the arts, marketing and communications, planning and partnership building, and fundraising and advocacy might be a good fit. Having recently moved to Maryland from the New York City region, she had worked largely in the private sector doing creative and design work with world renowned firms such as Time-Warner, Readers Digest, and the New York Stock Exchange. The Steering Committee recognized Roz’s skills and hired her to build Maryland’s sixth Heritage Area from the ground up.

Roz & Mayor Bojokles

Roz Racanello with North Beach Mayor Bojokles in 2010

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National Scenic Byways Program Announces FY 2011 Grant Intention Solicitation

The National Scenic Byways Program announces the soliciation of grant intent to apply forms for FY 2011 funding, to be submitted by 2 p.m. on January 12, 2011. Guidance and other important materials are available on the Byways Online website at http://www.bywaysonline.org/grants/ . Continue reading

Celebrate the Charles Street National Scenic Byway Designation

On October 25, 2010, the City of Baltimore will hold a celebration of the National Scenic Byway Designation of Historic Charles Street. Charles Street is one of the oldest thoroughfares in America, and is the backbone around which Baltimore grew. Charles Street also features the first monument erected in memory of George Washington, completed in 1824. Continue reading