Glenn L. Martin National Wildlife Refuge

by Jim Rapp

The Glenn L. Martin National Wildlife Refuge includes the northern half of Smith Island, and all of Watts Island, located between the Eastern Shore of Virginia and Tangier Island.

If you enjoy time outdoors on Delmarva, then you have probably explored one of our nine wonderful National Wildlife Refuges. Delaware has two, Maryland's Eastern Shore has three, and the little sliver of land between the Chesapeake and Atlantic on Virginia's Eastern Shore has four.

The National Wildlife Refuge System began in 1903 when President Theodore Roosevelt created the first "Federal Bird Reservation" at Pelican Island near Sebastian, Florida. The reservation was created to save bird populations that had been decimated by the feather trade. At that time, entire flocks of nesting herons and egrets were routinely slaughtered so that elegant breeding feathers could be sold and stuck on ladies hats for fashion. The protection of this tiny, three-acre island of mangroves and mud was the beginning for what would become our system of national wildlife refuges.

The first National Wildlife Refuge established on Delmarva was Blackwater, near Cambridge, Maryland, in 1933. Blackwater was followed by Bombay Hook near Dover, Delaware in 1937, and Chincoteague in 1943. Eastern Neck on Maryland's Upper Shore was established in 1962, then Prime Hook near Milton, Delaware, in 1963.

Two refuges on Virginia's Eastern Shore were added to the nationwide network in the 1970s: Fisherman Island at Delmarva's very southernmost point in 1973, and Wallops Island near the NASA facility in 1975. The last refuge added to the Delmarva landscape was the Eastern Shore of Virginia refuge in 1984.

One of our most interesting National Wildlife Refuges is also one that is closed to the general public, and impossible to reach by land, as it is located 11 miles west of Crisfield, Maryland, in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay. The Glenn L. Martin National Wildlife Refuge includes the northern half of Smith Island, and all of Watts Island, located between the Eastern Shore of Virginia and Tangier Island.

The wildlife refuge was first established in 1954 through a 2,569-acre donation from aviation pioneer and waterfowl enthusiast Glenn Luther Martin, one of the most interesting characters in Delmarva conservation history.

Glenn Martin was born in Macksburg, Iowa, in 1886, and later moved to Salina, Kansas, so that his father could run a wheat farm. As a young boy, he was fascinated by flight, in the form of geese and ducks migrating over the Midwestern prairies, and flying and fabricating kites, which he sold for 25 cents apiece in a little "factory" he made in his mother's kitchen.

Inspired by the Wright brothers' first airplane flight in 1903 -- the same year the Pelican Island refuge was established in Florida -- Glenn Martin tried his hand at building an airplane. After several failed attempts, Martin made his first successful short flight using an airplane made of silk and bamboo.

By the age of 26, Glenn Martin had made his way to California, and had become quite masterful at building aircraft. In 1912, he flew a self-built seaplane 68 miles from Newport Bay, California to Catalina Island and back. This broke the earlier English Channel record for over-water flight. That same year, he built a small airplane factory in an old church in Los Angeles. To fund his new enterprise, Martin performed stunt flights at local fairs, and even starred as a dashing pilot in an early Hollywood movie opposite legendary screen star Mary Pickford.

By age 30, Glenn Martin merged his company with the original Wright Brothers business and formed the Wright-Martin Aircraft Company. He soon left and founded the Glenn L. Martin Company, which moved to a site at Maryland's Middle River in 1928, bringing hundreds of aviation jobs to the state.

While his aviation business was booming, Glenn Martin never forgot about the early inspiration he drew from watching and hunting geese and ducks in the Midwest. He often told audiences that the sight of Canada geese whiffling down onto an autumn field was a far more breathtaking spectacle than an aircraft squadron doing barrel rolls overhead.

In the 1940s, Martin purchased farmland in Kent County, Maryland, and began to improve the habitat with ponds and fields for migrating geese. Around this time, Martin also purchased the marshes and sandy islands north of Smith Island. Martin's Kent County property was eventually sold to the Dupont Company and renamed Remington Farms, known today as Chesapeake Farms.

In 1954, Martin donated the 2,569 acres near Smith Island that would become the Glenn L. Martin National Wildlife Refuge. He died jus one year later in Baltimore on December 5, 1955.

Following his death, the Glenn L. Martin Company merged to become the Martin Marietta Corporation in 1961. Martin-Marietta merged with the Lockheed Corporation in 1995, forming the U.S. aerospace and defense contractor Lockheed Martin.

Today, the Glenn L. Martin National Wildlife Refuge totals 4,548 acres of Chesapeake wilderness. The marshes, creeks and ridges of the refuge provide an important winter home for migratory waterfowl, including Black Ducks, Northern Pintails, Long-tailed Ducks, and Tundra Swans. In the spring and summer, the refuge provides nesting habitat in the marsh and on the beaches and ridges for a variety of gulls, terns, herons, egrets, rails, and songbirds.

Peregrine falcons have raised young in a nesting tower installed in 1984. The Martin National Wildlife Refuge supports one of the largest colonies of nesting Brown Pelicans in the Chesapeake Bay. The refuge also supports populations of red fox, muskrat, otter, and diamondback terrapin. The waters and submerged aquatic grass beds around the refuge provide habitat for fish and blue crabs.

While most of us will never visit the Glenn L. Martin National Wildlife Refuge, we do benefit from the habitat it provides to our Chesapeake birds and wildlife. If you want to explore the waters near the refuge by boat or kayak, you can launch from the villages of Tylerton and Ewell on Smith Island. Check out the Smith Island water trails map on our website for more information.

If you go, take a moment to think about aviation pioneer and conservationist Glenn L. Martin and the great gift he provided to our National Wildlife Refuge system in 1954.

Did you know?
113 years after the establishment of Pelican Island, the National Wildlife Refuge system is a nationwide network of 560 nature preserves that range from Sebastian, Florida to Burns, Oregon. The refuges benefit all Americans by providing wildlife habitat and incredible outdoor experiences, and protecting clean air and safe drinking water resources for nearby communities.

National wildlife refuges provide habitat for more than 700 species of birds, 220 mammals, 250 reptiles and amphibians, and more than 1,000 species of fish, including more than 380 threatened or endangered species. Each year, millions of migrating birds use our refuges to rest and refuel while they fly thousands of miles between their summer and winter homes.

Americans love their refuges. More than 45 million people visit the National Wildlife Refuges each year to hunt and fish, watch and photograph wildlife, and hike, bike, and paddle on protected land and water.

The annual tourism spending generated by National Wildlife Refuges amounts to more than 2.4 billion dollars for local economies and supports nearly 35,000 U.S. jobs. For every $1 Congress appropriates to our Refuge System, an average of $4.87 is returned to local economies.