Great Fox Island was a shrinking landmark in Tangier Sound, but its inevitable demise was sped up significantly by a large fire that broke out Friday night.
The lodge building that sat on the small island was mostly surrounded by water, with little dry land visible. On the evening of Friday, Feb. 9, word spread that the lodge was engulfed in flames. Because no one was on the island, it burned without any fire crews intervening. When it was over, the building was nothing but rubble and a mangled roof.
Built in 1927 as a rod-and-gun club, the 12-bedroom lodge was donated to CBF in the winter of 1976 by the club’s members. For more than 40 years following, CBF used it as a residential environmental center.
The historic hunting lodge had been large enough to accommodate nearly two dozen people, according to Shawn Ridgley, formerly of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “It was truly off the grid,” he says, with a manually-powered water pump and solar power for limited electricity.
Chesapeake Bay Magazine reported in 2019 that the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) was ending its unique education programs on the island because the island was disappearing, rendering it unsafe for students in the future.
“There has been a dramatic loss of the protective salt marshes surrounding the center,” CBF said in their 2019 announcement. “The marshes and shallow-water grass beds were one of the main reasons Fox was such a powerful space to connect students and teachers to the Bay, and they helped reduce the impact of wind and waves on the center.”
CBF said that more than 70 percent of the island’s land area has washed away in the past 50 years. “You could literally fish right out of your window,” Ridgley recalls.
When the Bay Foundation made the decision to leave in 2019, it was sold to a private owner who used it for its original purpose as a hunting lodge and retreat, Ridgley tells us.
Boaters used the lodge as a navigational tool. People living in Smith and Tangier islands, as well as the Eastern Shore, remember it as a beacon of sorts.
“It stood the test of Mother Nature and time. It had seen many a storm and stood tall,” reflects Missy Evans of Smith Island.
Evans remembers that the Chesapeake Bay Foundation would invite the island’s women for an overnight trip each year, often to Fox Island. It’s a core memory for Evans. “The solitude and quiet surroundings were what most of us needed, and of course being together with each other… Some of the ladies have passed on, but pictures and memories will stay.”
The cause of the fire hasn’t been determined.