Partnership JournalismApril 12, 2021

Historic Harriet Tubman Sites at Risk of Rising Seas on Eastern Shore

By Jodie Fleischer, Katie Leslie, Teneille Gibson, Steve Jones (NBC Washington) and John Upton, Kelly Van Baalen, Allison Kopicki (Climate Central)

NBC4 Washington Harriet Tubman Sites at Risk
A new study shows many of Maryland’s most significant sites from Harriet Tubman’s life are in jeopardy of chronic flooding as sea level rise threatens the Eastern Shore. The News4 I-Team’s Jodie Fleischer reports on the impact as archaeologists rush to unearth more of Tubman’s story before it’s washed away.

As a tour guide on the Eastern Shore’s Harriet Tubman Byway, Alex Green has an up-close view of historic landmarks associated with the iconic abolitionist.

Such as Long Wharf, now a park on the water’s edge of Cambridge, which once served as a hub for the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Stewart’s Canal, a seven-mile logging waterway dug by enslaved and free Black people. And the Bucktown General Store, where a young Tubman sustained a brutal head injury during her first act of defiance against an enslaver. 

“This is African American heritage and history in this area,” said Green, who calls this part of the world “Tubman Country.” “I’ve done tours where people just cry.”

But Green, who has lived in the region for decades, has noticed something changing on those historic sites as the years have passed. The water, he said, “is coming closer and closer.”

Green is well aware that rising seas are affecting communities like his. The seas are rising faster along the mid-Atlantic than in most parts of the world, with the sinking of land from natural forces conspiring with sea level rise from climate-changing pollution to push coastlines inland. 

That's not just threatening communities, roadways and buildings. In this section of coast, it’s threatening historical Tubman treasures.

The science and news group Climate Central used its coastal database to pinpoint risks from rising seas to some of this area’s most precious Tubman landmarks. The group published its findings on Tuesday, showing many of the most significant sites along Maryland's portion of the Tubman Byway are already experiencing or are in jeopardy of chronic flooding from sea level rise. 

Climate Central analyzed 45 sites along the byway, which stretches from Maryland to Delaware, and found 16 of the sites will experience significant flood risk by 2050; 25 of them face such threats by century's end. The report singles out 10 significant places around Dorchester County as likely to face occasional, frequent or chronic risk of flooding this century.

“It's entirely possible that some of the sites are going to be so badly flooded that they really won't be very accessible to the public anymore,” said Karen Florini, the non-profit's vice president for programs, adding: “The main message is that climate change is real, it is serious, there is scientific consensus and there are things to be done.” 

Though about a quarter of Long Wharf Park is already at chronic risk of flooding, the report projects 80 percent of the area will be at chronic risk by 2050.

The marshes at Stewart’s Canal are already experiencing chronic flooding, too. But it's going to get worse. Climate Central found much of the land around the canal will fall below the high tide line before 2050 and the road leading to it could be at chronic flood risk by the end of this century. 

The study also warns the historic Malone’s Methodist Episcopal Church — founded by free and enslaved Black people in the 1860s — and its nearby cemetery could see almost monthly flooding by 2050. The I-Team observed standing water underneath the church, even on a sunny day. 

“I'm hoping that when we talk about it and people hear us talk about it, they start to realize this is for real,” said Herschel Johnson, a local Tubman historian, of the risk of rising seas to the byway. 

Johnson said it’s not just a crucial part of American history at stake, but a key part of the local economy. He said Tubman, the most famous conductor on the Underground Railroad, helps fuel Dorchester County tourism as people seek to learn more about her history. 

“When people come here just to visit because of Harriet Tubman, they spend money at the restaurants, at the hotels,” he continued. “She's very important.”

The rising water is already posing challenges for archaeologists searching to uncover more of Tubman’s history. 

A team of archaeologists from the Maryland Department of Transportation have been searching federal wetlands since last fall for evidence of her father’s cabin. They’re also digging on nearby private land for the site they believe could be Tubman’s birthplace.

This area “was never very dry, but it has never been as wet as it has today,” said Julie Schablitsky, the chief archaeologist for MDOT’s State Highway Administration. “Because of that, we're in a bit of a race against time to try and rescue these sites.”

Schablitsky, whose team just finished a two week stint digging in the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, showed the I-Team a collection of nails, fasteners and brick indicative of an old home site — clues that the scientists could be getting closer to confirming the location of Ben Ross’s homestead. 

“Out of a thousand holes we've excavated, this location seems to be the most likely place for Ben Ross's cabin” Schablitsky said. 

Her team spent weeks sifting through the brackish muck to locate tiny bits of plates, cups, bowls and other housewares, which the scientists will now analyze in their laboratory. 

But rising water, she said, can complicate pinpointing the age of these items. 

“As we dig deeper, things usually get older,” she said. “So it's important that we don't have water coming up into our site because, once that happens, it literally muddies the picture.”

Schablitzsky said rising seas don’t just make it harder to identify artifacts, but harder to access the sites themselves. The current sites are located off of long dirt and gravel roads in flooded woodlands.

“We are in a bit of a rush against time because, even certain times of the year when I'm out here, I can't always access the site,” Schablitsky said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acquired the property last fall — part of an effort to preserve the land as well as its potential Tubman history, said Matt Whitbeck, supervisory wildlife biologist for the Chesapeake Marshlands National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

“We knew that there was a lot of potential for this area to have a high value for the Harriet Tubman story, and that added to the value of this property, in particular,” Whitbeck said. 

But he warned this area will eventually become an island as the seas rise. Data from the longest-operating tide gauge in the area, located on the opposite side of the Chesapeake, shows tides are already pushing roughly a foot higher than they did 80 years ago. 

“Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge is a bit of a poster child for the impacts of sea level rise and climate change,” Whitbeck told the News4 I-Team, adding the area has already seen over 5,000 acres of tidal marsh convert to open water.

As evidence of the change, he said visitors who travel the refuge’s Wildlife Drive can look to the south and see a vast area of open water. 

“It's beautiful. But if you understand that, in the ‘30s, when the refuge was established, that was all tidal marsh habitat that's been lost to sea level rise and subsidence,” he told the I-Team. “It's shocking.”

The encroaching saltwater kills the trees in this area where Tubman led people on their journey to freedom, turning lush landscapes into “ghost forests” of brittle, hollowed out trees.

Green, the tour guide, said people sometimes notice the skeletal trees dotting much of southern Dorchester County. He said he explains saltwater intrusion to them and how it has worsened over the past few decades. 

The trees help tell a greater story about what is at risk because of climate change, he said — a conversation he hopes will fuel more efforts to slow the damage and save what’s possible. 

“There's so much information that has been left out of history that we should try to preserve what we have here now,” Green said. 

To read the complete report, including flood risk analyses for all identified sites, please click here for a downloadable PDF.