Smith Island United to consider offer to nominate the island to the National Register

The following memo was sent to Eddie Somers, president of Smith Island United, by Elizabeth Hughes, deputy director of the Maryland Historical Trust. It was discussed at SIU’s August meeting in Tylerton and with no negative comments received from members, and the leadership is asking for an affirmative vote at the membership meeting 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 8 at the Ewell community center.

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During my visit to Smith Island earlier this year, I heard people talk about their appreciation of the history and significance of Smith Island and the need to document the stories of the place. I also heard that folks are not interested in requiring that the historic character of the island be preserved through regulation. With all that in mind, the Maryland Historical Trust (MHT) is committed to providing funding for survey and documentation of Smith Island’s historic properties and to work with your organization to determine how that documentation might best be used to support residents’ goals and priorities.

This past spring, the Somerset County Historical Trust submitted a request for a National Park Service Hurricane Sandy grant to hire an architectural historian to conduct historic sites survey and documentation activities in the City of Crisfield, on Smith Island, and in the “Down the Neck” area of Somerset County. The National Park Service approved this request and MHT will soon issue a press release publicly announcing that and other Hurricane Sandy grant awards.

We will want to work with Smith Island residents throughout the historic sites survey and documentation project and discuss how to best approach national recognition of Smith Island’s historic significance. The most common way to do that is listing of the island on the National Register of Historic Places. As you probably know, National Register designation places NO restrictions on what property owners can do to their property — they can burn it down, sell it, paint it purple, etc. National Register listing is largely honorific, although it does provide access to certain financial incentives for those property owners who wish to maintain the historic character of their buildings [e.g. rehabilitation tax credits]. It also requires state and federal agencies to consider the impact of their actions on historic properties.

Notably, Tangier Island is in the process of being nominated to the National Register of Historic Places now.

We all realize that Smith Island is not interested in regulation. From my point of view, a positive outcome of this survey and documentation project would be national recognition of the Island’s historic significance and use of that recognition to bolster heritage tourism activities and access to funds to support enhancement of island properties and interpretation of the Smith Island story. However, this may or may not be what Island residents see as a positive outcome. Once the survey and documentation project is completed, there will need to be a discussion about whether or not nomination to the National Register is desirable. It is an option for residents to consider — but not a requirement. Please let me know how we can best work with Smith Island United on this issue.

I also wanted to follow up with you regarding the presence of archeological resources on the Island and the War of 1812 burial site. I am wondering whether there would be an interest among collectors there for a team of our archeologists to come out to do an artifact identification day or something similar. We are not interested in acquiring collections but we are interested in sharing information. I am sure that our staff could learn a lot from what the Islanders have found.

Oral history collection also appeared to be a need during our visit. I am less sure about how to approach that issue. Funding sources for that sort of work are difficult to identify, despite the fact that there is great need.

— Elizabeth Hughes is deputy director of the Maryland Historical Trust.

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