I. The Tidewater
“(this) belt lies between the sea shore and the head of tidewater. The tides extend as far up as Georgetown, ten miles above Alexandria, and up to Fredericksburg, Petersburg and Weldon…In this belt the winters are mild, snow seldom lies on the ground (for more than) a week at a time, and in summer a large portion of it is refreshed by the sea breezes, which, as the land becomes cleared, extend farther and farther inland, reaching in very hot weather to the foot of the Blue Ridge.” – Physical Survey of Virginia, 1877
The Colonial Parkway (pgs 1, 2) spans the James River Peninsula between the James and York Rivers. Carefully laid out to avoid seeing modern development (even back then in the 1930’s!) featuring scenic pull-offs, river vistas, historical markers, marsh and tall forest; it links Jamestown Island, the first permanent English settlement in the New World, with Colonial Williamsburg and lastly, Yorktown, where Lord Cornwallis threw in the towel in 1781. Spanish mariners explored and mapped these waters decades prior to Jamestown.
“Our Fathers and Brothers disembarked in a great and beautiful port, and men who have sailed a great deal and have seen it say it is the best and largest port in the world. So, if I remember rightly, the pilot remarked to me. It is called the Bay of the Mother of God (Bahia de Santa Maria*), and in it there are many deepwater ports, each better than the next.” –Brother Carerra, 1524 *Chesapeake Bay
Route 5, a mostly forested scenic byway that parallels the James River for 50 miles between Williamsburg and Richmond.
Much of the forest on the James River Peninsula today is comprised of mixed pine and various broadleaf species, a thick jungle in summer, but early colonists marveled at a virgin, old growth, hardwood forest with “goodly tall trees”; so tall it was said that a man could ride thru the woods on horseback unhindered by low branches or underbrush.
Boat launch site and nice place for catching an August sunset, end of Cappahosic Road on the north bank of the Pamaunk Flu (York River). “Here was Cappahosic, where a ferry was established early in the eighteenth century. On the old charts, this Indian district lay between Werowocomoco and Timber Neck Creek. Powhatan is said to have offered it to Capt. John Smith for “two great guns and a grindstone”. –Virginia historical marker.
Jamestown Island Drive, a single lane, one-way, 5-mile loop road that winds thru lush tidal backwaters, tall pine groves, and marshes. Along the way are many wayside historical markers that detail the tragic but eventually successful story of the Jamestown Settlement.
“…walking into the Woods…we espied a pathway…Wee traced along some foure miles… the ground all flowing over with faire flowers of sundry colours and kindes, as though it had been in any Garden or Orchard in England.” – Observations by George Percy, 1607
Many of the first roads in Virginia, as elsewhere in the New World, were laid out over narrow Indian pathways and game trails. Native Americans lashed logs and grasses together to serve as rough footbridges over streams and muddy ground; eventually these were replaced with sturdier, more permanent wooden bridges by the colonists as overland travel increased.
Yorktown Tour Road, a mostly one-way loop road that weaves in and out of thick forest, grassy clearings, and makes several stream crossings. It follows the defensive line held by the French and Continental armies during the siege and battle of Yorktown in the autumn of 1781.
Sunset Drive ends at the banks of the Rappahannock River near Weems, Lancaster County
“Into this Bay do issue so many large, pleasant and commodious Rivers, as I verily believe no space of ground of equal dimensions in the whole world can boast of the like: The most eminent of these are, James River, York, Rapa-han-nock, Poto-mack, Potuxen, and Choptank; the four last retain their Indian names.” – Thomas Glover, 1676
Now a bucolic trace, this narrow dirt lane once bustled with commercial activity centuries ago. Many of the oldest plantations along the middle and southern Atlantic coastline were located on the banks of major navigable rivers. Farm lanes like the one above led to fields cut out of the forest and were known as “tobacco rolling roads” for the wooden barrels of tobacco that were rolled to nearby wharfs. Colonists “paved” some of these early roads with oyster shells, found in middens along the beaches and mudflats of rivers and “criks”.
Miles of arrow-straight causeways and canals constructed 250 years ago mainly by slaves, lead deep into the interior of this large area of wetlands and semitropical forest. Before and during the Civil War, many of their brave ancestors, including women, children and the elderly, sought refuge here from the oppression of slavery. Their primitive camps, concealed by thickets and swamps, served as an important link in the Underground Railroad network.
“They weren’t going out there because they loved swamps. They were going out there because they were living in a very brutal and oppressive world of enslavement and colonialism.” –Archaeologist Dan Sayers
“Except by those log-roads, the swamp is scarcely passable in many parts, owing not only to the softness of the sponge, but to the obstruction caused by innumerable shrubs, vines, creepers, and briars, which often take entire possession of the surface, forming a dense brake or jungle.” – Frederick Law Olmstead, The Cotton Kingdom, 1861
In 1894 a young, twenty year old aspiring poet- at that time unknown, unemployed, deeply grieved at having been jilted by a young damsel, and with hardly a dime to his name- traveled from his home in New England to the Great Dismal Swamp supposedly for the express purpose of ending his life. Departing from a steamer at the Norfolk docks he inquired locally for directions and finally made it to a pathway that bordered one of the many canals that crisscross the swamp. But his luck was turning even as he splashed his way across one puddle or mudhole after another for unbeknownst to him at the time, a New York paper had decided to publish his first poem, “My Butterfly” and was sending him a check for a whopping $15. Whether he was intent on committing suicide or merely broken of spirit and heart, I dont think we’ll ever know as he never gave a definitive explanation to anyone. But he was clearly a broken man for the cupid’s arrow had hit its mark. Tired, dirty, and hungry, he chanced upon a group of duck hunters making their way south on the canal aboard a small boat. Grateful for a chance to be rescued he asked them if he could come join them, and got the ride of his life as they sailed south through the night towards Nags Head, North Carolina, firing off their guns and downing one bottle of liquid spirits after another. Young Robert Frost eventually made it back home and within a year had married the fair maiden who had once rejected him.
Stately homes look out on the Great Wicomico River, Fleeton. The pretty scenery belies the odorous smell of rotting fish emanating from the nearby Omega Protein fish plant. Not a criticism, just statement of fact. Lots of controversy with this company and their impact on the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem (look up “dead zones”).
Queens Creek Rd, Williamsburg
Rogers Store, Carsley, closed since 1952 but still standing and defying the passage of time. Once the Wal Mart of the local community it sold general merchandise, had a pharmacy, a radio assembly and repair shop, office of the Surry-Sussex Telephone Company, and served as post office, voting station and gathering place for the local rural community.
Watt Rogers was known as an entrepreneur who always sought to expand his business. To that end, he engaged in several business endeavors, including establishing a publishing company, lumber company. and chemical company that were run out of the Rogers’ Store building. Unfortunately, through study of the store records. it appears that none of these business ventures were as fruitful as Mr. Rogers’ had hoped. – description in the National Register of Historic Places
Nearby is another country store that also serves as a time-capsule for this rural area…
Nelson Bridge Rd, King William County.
On a commanding ridge in the background is Wyoming, a large, woodframe late colonial-era home (built 1800) overlooking fertile bottomlands still being farmed today along the Pamunkey River.
The house was built around 1800 for the Hoomes family, large landowners in the western Tidewater. Wyoming is a corruption of the Delaware Indian word, for “at” or “upon the plain.” Its choice as the property’s name may arise from its site or be an allusion to the Wyoming Valley of Pennsylvania where a Revolutionary battle was fought. –National Register of Historic Places
In May of 1864 a large part of the Union Army, numbering around 100,000 men even after the bloodbaths of The Wilderness, Spotslyvania Court House, and North Anna, came marching down this same road (towards camera position of photo above) to cross the Pamunkey River on a hastily made pontoon bridge a few hundred yards from this spot. “Butcher Grant” , as the northern press dubbed him,was now in charge of all Union armies but President Lincoln wasn’t about to replace him. Earlier in the war, after “Bloody Shiloh“, there had been lots of scuttlebutt to get Lincoln to fire him. “I can’t spare this man”, Lincoln supposedly said, “he fights”. This quote was quite likely invented long after the war, but it certainly reinforces how Lincoln truly felt about his top general. Photographer: Timothy H. O’Sullivan. Taken: May 1864. Caption: Mrs. Nelson’s Crossing, Va. Pontoon bridge across the Pamunkey, built by the 50th New York Engineers.
Lee’s Mill, Stratford Hall.
Completely authentic (and in use!) reconstruction of original 1740’s grist mill on this same site beside the Potomac River. Ocean-going ships were able to dock at a public wharf just a hundred yards away, bringing manufactured goods from England and elsewhere, while exporting tobacco, timber, and ground corn and wheat.
The Tides are scarce discernible, when the winds hold at North-west; but at other times they flow as they do in England, only they appear not so large; the reason whereof may be, because the Tide diffuseth it self into so many spacious Rivers; neither is it needful, in regard the Bay and Rivers are deep enough without the help of the Tide to receive the biggest Ship in the world; only it is helpful to bring in refills when the winds are small or opposite. –Thomas Glover, 1676
Bringing in the feed corn, late September, Westover Rd, Charles City County
Westover Plantation is one of the premier historic plantations along the James River and is open daily to the public. Just getting there on roads like the one in the above picture is a treat, especially for thousands of city-dwellers happy to leave the interstates, shopping centers and monotonous urban sprawl.
Shirley Plantation Rd, Charles City County.
Oldest continuously run, family-owned farm in America, dating back to the 1630’s, today Shirley Plantation it is a model of sustainable agriculture and historic preservation. Berkeley Plantation Rd, Charles City County
“1 Impr wee ordaine that the day of our ships arrivall at the place assigned for plantacon in the land of Virginia (Berkeley Plantation) shall be yearly and perputually keept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty god. ” – Instructions to Captain Woodleaf, Virginia Papers, 1619
Rt 5, Sherwood Forest Plantation
Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Port Royal