Solomons Island — Two Square Miles Packed With Centuries of History

Joseph Gross, right, and Alton Kersey fill oyster cans at J.C. Lore & Sons Oyster House, ca. 1950.

This waterfront community has seen its share of changes. From its early years as a busy oystering, fishing and marine center to its noted place in U.S. naval history, today it’s home to world-renowned Chesapeake Bay fisheries research and one of the region’s most popular and beautiful tourist destinations.
Writer: Mikaela Clark
Photos Courtesy of Calvert Marine Museum, unless otherwise noted.

There is a lot of history packed in the two square miles we’ve come to know as Solomons Island.
Though Solomons’ history is often told starting with John Smith’s expedition into the Chesapeake Bay in the early 1600s, the island’s history traces much further back. Over 9,000 years ago, Native Americans inhabited the island, sustained by fertile soil, rich ocean waters and relative safety.
John Smith’s earliest known map of the area, dated 1608, notes the land was populated by Quomacac Indians. Historians have found evidence of Patuxent, Wascucuo and Opanient tribes nearby. Once Maryland attracted colonists, the landscape began its transition from primarily woodland and bay into the small, bustling community we know today
Earliest maps, including one by Augustine Herman in 1670, lead historians to believe that the land that is now Solomons Island was part of the Greater Eltonhead Manor land patented from Lord Baltimore to Edward Eltonhead in 1653; although some believe that due to inaccuracies in early map drawings, the land may have been patented to the Ashcom family in a grant that included Point Patience.
It wasn’t until the late 18th century that maps depicted Solomons Island as an actual island.
Lord Baltimore granted land to colonists arriving with significant numbers of enslaved people. The land eventually transferred through a few owners, including Henry Sewel, Samuel Groome and Samuel Bourne, who renamed the island Bourne’s Island around 1680.

A BUSTLING ECONOMY
As the island changed ownership, the name changed a few more times — to Somervell’s Island from 1740 to 1814, then Sandy Island from 1827 until 1865.
In 1865, Isaac Solomon, an entrepreneur who had devised a method for canning oysters, bought 80 acres of Sandy Island for $6,000 to set up his oyster cannery. He advertised his new “Solomons Island” to watermen, inviting them to work for his cannery and lease his land for housing.
Solomon had big plans for the small island including his oyster packing house and cannery, a general store, a shipyard, chandlery for ship supplies and a marine railway — and he set to work developing his plans at a fury pace.

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum photo.

In 1870, Solomons Island gained official recognition with the establishment of its first post office. Isaac Solomon’s plans proved to be bigger than his business sense; by 1873 the Solomons Island  Cannery closed its doors. However, in its wake lay an island with a newly bustling economy buoyed by fisheries and shipyards — it was on Solomons Island that M.M. Davis & Sons Shipyard built the famous Manitou boat sailed by President John F. Kennedy.
In 1915, a road was built connecting Solomons to the county seat in Prince Frederick, and a steamboat ran from the island to Baltimore, providing residents with sources for entertainment, shopping and paving the way for the start of the tourist industry.
In the 1920s the island began to suffer the effects of the declining oyster and fish populations, which then impacted the shipyard trade. In 1925, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Studies opened on the island and has continued to conduct research on the surrounding waters to this day.

National Archives photo

WWII BROUGHT CHANGES
The Great Depression hit the island hard.
At the start of World War II, the island’s population was just 263 people, many struggling as their industries crumbled. The war brought new opportunities to the island. In 1942, Solomons Island was designated as the staging area for amphibious invasion training which prepared soldiers for events including D-Day and Guadalcanal — over 60,000 soldiers were trained in the Solomons waters. This influx of military personnel to the U.S. Naval Amphibious Training Base brought prosperity back to the island.
With the construction of the Governor Thomas Johnson Bridge in 1977, the once sheltered island became accessible to a much wider audience.
The island now caters to locals and out-of-towners in search of a delicious meal, getaway at one of the quaint bed and breakfasts, shopping opportunities, or the chance to breathe in that sweet salty Solomons Island air and sail off into the sunset. •