Documenting Tangier’s Watermen: Student Project Headed for Library of Congress

November 28, 2023 By Eric Williamson, Eric Williamson,

Tangier Island, home to about 300 residents, is sinking into the Chesapeake Bay and, if estimates hold, the island will be uninhabitable by 2051.

Much has been documented about the water levels and the inhabitants’ skepticism about climate change and sea-level rise, but much less focus has been on the crabbing that drives the island’s economy.

Earlier this month, a pair of University of Virginia students documenting the work of the watermen and the locations of their crab shanties on the water won a National Park Service competition. 

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Someone removing a crab from a crab pot

Mayor James Eskridge removes a crab pot from Cod Harbor at the southern tip of Tangier Island. The female blue crab’s orange sponge indicates that she is pregnant with thousands of eggs. Eskridge returns her to the bay to ensure a healthy population of blue crabs for the future. (Photo by Lincoln Lewis)

This year’s theme was “working landscapes.” Softshell blue crabs have been the main haul for watermen on the island since the 1900s. Over time, the island has lost 60% of its land area. The project documents the island’s unique waterman culture, including their structures and equipment and how they transport their catch to market. 

Andy Packwood, a third-year undergraduate student in the School of Architecture, and Lincoln Lewis, a second-year doctoral student in the school’s Constructed Environment program, worked together on the project that garnered first place in the Historic American Landscapes Survey Challenge for 2023.

As part of their win, the work is headed for the Historic American Landscapes Survey permanent collection at the Library of Congress.

“We thought a tidal landscape facing extreme pressures due to climate change would be most worthwhile to document,” Lewis said. “The residents prefer not to use the term ‘climate change,’ but rather ‘erosion.’” 

Lincoln and Andy

Lincoln Lewis, a second-year doctoral student in the Architecture School’s Constructed Environment program, and Andy Packwood, a third-year undergraduate student in the school, worked together on the project. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

The research, which included a full set of measured drawings, was supported by the UVA Environmental Institute. Lewis serves there as an Environmental Futures Fellow.

Media Contact

Eric Williamson

Communications Manager School of Engineering and Applied Science