There is a strip of beach a couple of hours’ trip off the Virgina coast where the Atlantic breaks heavily in storms and subsides to a ripple in calms. But neither rough water nor smooth makes any difference in what has been happening there for a quarter-century. Through a quiet and deadly action of the sea that no man can stop, the land has been, and is being, swallowed up. Hard white sand lies where once was forest shade. Waves march among heaps of bone-white tree trunks whose intricate root systems, preserved in their entirety by the salt, are festooned with sea grass.Share
A random sagging shanty or two testify to human occupation in the past. The human occupants of the present are a handful of Coast Guardsmen stationed at the channel that separates this island, Hog, from the one directly north, Parramore. The rest of the place belongs to the circling fish hawks above the mosquitoes thick as smoke in the marshes below. Except for one thing there is no hint that a proud and happy community of 250 men, women and children lately thrived here. That thing is the burying-ground of the citizens of Broadwater.
Like the pine forest, the little church around which the graves clustered, stood almost two miles from the beach within living memory. Near it were the half-a-hundred homes, sportman’s club, hotel and other building comprising the only village in America to flourish for a century and then be engulfed by the sea. There was a tall lighthouse, too. Its steel skeleton was firmly lodged on deep-laid concrete on the highest central point in the island. Today its barnacled foundations lie offshore out of reach of any strong swimmers. The shrinking coastline yearly increases the distance.
The encroaching sea was not satisfied to disperse the people and destroy the cultivated land. Now it has opened the vaults of the dead. The low land required shallow interment. The breakers easily washed away the earth, caved in the bricks and exposed many once-beloved remains to the sun. Then, as if ashamed of their work, they reclothed them in vestments of seaweed and sand. The tombstones fell. After a while all will be hidden under the carpet of the sea.
When these islanders, who lived from the sea, are finally returned to it in death, a cycle encompassing three centuries in Virginia history will have come to a close. The first settlement here was far older than the modern Broadwater. It was in 1672 that a group of 22 colonists and their families went to live on Machipongo Island, just a few miles above the entrance to Chesapeake Bay. What became of them is an impenetrable mystery. They disappeared so completely that no descendants are known.
Despite their fate, it remained the consensus that living on the island was good. The sea, the inlets and the marshes teemed with fish and fowl. As for flesh, the natural pastures were ideal for livestock, particularly hogs. There must have been an impressive number of these at one time to cause the romantic-sounding name Machipongo to be dropped in their favor. Not till the Revolution did the second colonization begin. This was the seed of the Broadwater of yesterday.
The people lived truly on the fat of the land. Oysters, clams, crabs and fish or a superiority unchallenged in the rest of the United States were staples. Vegetable gardens yielded two crops a year. The flight of wildfowl darkened the skies. Head-of-the-household income probably never quite touched $1,000 a year, but what of it? Aside from a few necessities like clothing and shelter, nothing required cash. (Read more.)