For the Baltimore boating community, Hart-Miller Island needs no introduction.
Each weekend, hundreds of boats gather near the beach of the 1,100-acre Chesapeake Bay island near the mouth of Middle River. They tie rafts to their boats and float or swim in the often calm waters or lounge on the sandy beach.
But until this spring, visitors could not venture past that sandy beach and a few primitive campsites. Hart-Miller Island was an active restoration site — a collection of rapidly eroding islands that were rebuilt into one island using 100 million cubic yards of sediments dredged from the Baltimore Harbor.
The public beach opened as Hart-Miller Island State Park in 1981, but the rest of the island has been a work in progress and remained closed. Now, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources has opened almost 300 additional acres on the southern portion of the island for public exploration. From 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Thursdays through Mondays, May through September, boaters will be able to disembark and see the restored island ecosystem. The northern section, which is approximately 800 acres, remains off-limits, but state officials that hope it, too, will be open in about five years.
For now, visitors to the south end can explore 8 miles of trails by foot or on bicycles rented from the visitor center. There’s currently no charge. At the summit of a 1.8-mile gravel trail loop, you’ll find unparalleled views of the Chesapeake Bay. From one spot, Ranger Bob Iman noted, he can see four counties: Kent, Anne Arundel, Queen Anne’s and Baltimore.
Hart-Miller Island is great for birding and has been named an Important Bird Area by the Audubon Society. On my visit, I saw egrets, eagles and ospreys.
Vegetation changes from cattails in the lower areas to loblolly pines in the higher elevations. From several spots, visitors can see the Chesapeake Bay Bridge as well as the nearby Baltimore County communities of Bowley’s Quarters and Middle River.
“We’re excited to be on the ground level of developing a new state park,” said Ranger Dean Hughes, assistant manager of Gunpowder Falls, North Point and Hart-Miller Island state parks. “Right now, we’re getting a gauge of how popular it is going to be, and it has already exceeded our expectations.”
Iman and Hughes are encouraging the public to have a voice in the kind of park they would like to see there and have made a point to check in all visitors and and talk about their experiences. The overwhelming sentiment is that Hart-Miller needs better access — currently, visitors can only arrive by their own private boat.
The state may not be in a position to run such a shuttle, Hughes said, but a private contractor could. If that happened, it would benefit the restaurants at Miller’s Island in eastern Baltimore County, which overlooks Hart-Miller. Rowboat Willie’s has a two-story deck with terrific views. Dock of the Bay has plenty of outdoor seating, a friendly chef and outstanding crab dip.
From the outset, the restoration of Hart-Miller Island included plans for a state park. But the road to public access and recreation at Hart-Miller was as bumpy as the gravel serpentines on the island.
The Port of Baltimore, one of the busiest in the nation, requires constant dredging to keep its channels from filling in with sediment and to accommodate ever-larger ships. For decades, port contractors dredged the sediment and dumped it in the Bay’s open water. But in 1975, the Maryland General Assembly prohibited this practice. What to do with it, then?
The Maryland Port Administration proposed a solution: Use the dredged sediment to rebuild eroded islands. They could transform the dredged sediment into solid ground, buffer the shoreline from further erosion and protect land from storms. They could also restore habitat and create vegetation; the birds would return, the fish would swim back, the turtles would re-emerge and all of the creatures that crave edge habitat being lost to development would have a new place to go.
Many people in Eastern Baltimore County didn’t see it that way. They thought the dredged sediment could contaminate their water supplies, poison the Chesapeake with toxins and create an eyesore. They fought the plans for more than a decade, taking the arguments all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. But when the court declined to hear the arguments, the Hart-Miller project was officially in business. The site received 2 million cubic feet of dredged material every year between 1984 and 2009.
Originally three islands — Hart and Miller, plus Pleasure Island, which was the site of the New Bay Shore Amusement Park until the 1940s — the land masses were rapidly eroding when the project began. Today, from the air, Hart-Miller Island looks like a giant shoe print, a construction site appealing to our inner engineers and architects.
“It’s a big island. You can’t miss the thing,” Iman said. “You can even see it from space.”
The visitor center has a short explanation of the project, and it might be expanded as the park develops. Already, visitors come from all over the world to see a successful blend of dredged material management and environmental restoration.
Iman, who has been working on the island since the late 1980s, said it took a lot of trial-and-error to see which vegetation would take. The island has tall loblollies, he said, because one year the weather conditions were right and the roots took to the soil.
In part because of the Hart-Miller story, some communities ask for dredge islands instead of fighting them. Tilghman residents welcomed the creation of Poplar Island, which will eventually include 1,715 acres of dredge material and protect the Bay Hundred Peninsula from erosion. Residents of Dorchester County, particularly Taylor’s Island, are clamoring for a similar project at James Island to help protect their shoreline.
Perhaps the best get-away-from-it-all deal is the camping at Hart-Miller. It’s first come, first serve. For $6, collected in the evening, campers get a table, a grill, a lantern post and a tent site — not to mention the view and now a varied terrain to explore.
For information about Hart-Miller Island State Park, call 410-592-2897 or visit dnr.maryland.gov/publiclands and look for Hart-Miller Island under “Find a State Park.”