Where three rivers and a great time converge.
by Jody Argo Schroath
illustration by Richard C. Goertemiller
What about those times when you find a place on the Bay you really want to visit, but you don't have the time it takes to get there by boat? It's a tough problem, but I recently came up with what I consider a great solution: wrestle the sailing dinghy onto the top of the station wagon, pack a road map and a chart, and head on down the road. (Those of you with boats on trailers know what I'm saying here.)
Where did I want to go? West Point, Va., a sleepy little town full of history, charm and-betcha didn't know this-an enormous cardboard-container factory. The town sits smack at the point where the winding Mattaponi and Pamunkey rivers meet to form the short straight York. Most major rivers just start life with a trickle somewhere up in one mountain hollow or another, but not the York-it just springs up full-blown at West Point. "Three rivers, two bridges, one great place!" is how the town describes itself.
I soon found another boating challenge about West Point-a complete absence of marine services. Once you get beyond the mouth of the York, there are none. Zip, zero, nothing. You can't buy fuel. You can't get a transient slip. You can't get boat work done. Need something? You're up the creek. But if you are well stocked and have the time, you can sail or motor the 30 miles up the York river to West Point, drop anchor at Glass Point Landing and dinghy ashore. And some day I'm going to do that. But not this time. This time I just started with Glass Point Landing and the dinghy-which I managed to topple off the car and onto my head, before persuading it to sit right side up somewhere in the vicinity of the water. I rigged it for sailing, slipped a lifejacket onto Skippy, my able-bodied sea dog, and shoved off to commune with the confluence.
Glass Island Landing is on the Mattaponi River side of town, just upriver from one of the two spanking new bridges on Virginia Route 33 that cross the Mattaponi and the Pamunkey and split West Point into two parts. Both of the new bridges replaced old swing bridges; the bridge over the Mattaponi is a fixed span with a vertical clearance of 55 feet, while the one over the Pamunkey is a bascule bridge with a closed height of 55 feet, as well. Height was no problem for my seven-foot mast, though, and we zipped along the shoreline, tacking whenever the sea dog shifted his weight to watch an osprey or a gull. Heading down the Mattaponi toward the York, we zigzagged among the old pilings that were all that remained of the town's more vigorous seafaring past. After the Civil War, the town became a thriving port and a popular tourist destination. Here, around these old pilings, were the town's oyster houses, wharfs and ferry landing. A little farther downriver, where the two rivers become one, we reached the spot where the 200-room Terminal Hotel once attracted hordes of vacationers with its boardwalk, amusement park, skating rink and dance pavilions. Now as we rounded the point, we passed a street of pleasant homes along the point. Just in the center, though, a narrow swath of grass and a small beach formed the pocket-size Beach Park. Instead of hundreds of holiday-makers enjoying the Terminal Hotel, half-a-dozen residents now splashed in the water or dozed in lawn chairs.
We sailed along the point past the park and soon came to the Pamunkey River, where we turned right. And, my, what a difference one starboard turn can make! Nearly at once the tree-shaded streets that formed a methodical grid of pleasant homes were replaced by Rocky Mountain ranges of harvested trees, tended by a network of railroad tracks and rutted dead-end roads. Up the river we went. Now the mountains of trees became foothills of chipped wood. We worked our way busily under the Pamunkey River bridge and alongside a towering smokestacked factory (the aforementioned cardboard box factory, which was presumably turning said trees into said boxes). It was a fascinating trip for a little sailing dinghy. I felt like Little Toot the Tugboat, dwarfed by the factory and the bridge and the tons upon tons of timber. The Smurfit-Stone Containerboard Mill Division occupies the entire length of West Point's Pamunkey shoreline. And then suddenly the river makes a 90-degree turn south as it works its way through Eltham Marsh and Sweet Hall Marsh, then nearly encircles the Pamunkey Indian Reservation.
And here was yet another wonderful trip I had no time to take-all the way up the Pamunkey (and the Mattaponi, for that matter). Instead, the ship's dog and I came about, and I aimed the dinghy back approximately the way we had come. When we reached Glass Island Landing, which is really little more than a launch ramp, with a small parking area and a fishing dock, we decamped for a walk through town and something to eat.
West Point has a historic walking tour and brochures with a map are available at the Town Hall, which is on 6th Street. The streets are numbered starting with 1st Street at Beach Park, and the main street that runs perpendicular is conveniently named Main Street, so it's pretty easy to find your way around. The only impediment to pedestrians is busy Route 33, but the old and interesting part of town is principally on the point side of the highway, so you probably won't have to cross it more than once. I walked down Main Street to Beach Point and then back up on the Mattaponi side of town, past churches, shops, Victorian and Gothic Revival houses . . . but no restaurants. Finally, in a small plaza with a hardware store facing Route 33, I found a trio of familiar fast-food restaurants-Subway, McDonald's and Pizza Hut. Across the street was a Hardee's. Well, Little Toot tugboat captains have to eatsomewhere.
It was time to wrestle the dinghy back onto the top of the car, pack up the dog and head for home. While this may not have been the kind of cruise you'd brag about at the club, it was just as satisfying in a different kind of way. I had gotten to visit a brand-new place. I had picked a day with perfect wind and weather. I had done it with a remarkable lack of time and trouble. And best of all, I had spent a great day on the Bay. It was definitely a convergence of good things.
Visiting West Point, Va.
It sounds like a nice place to visit, you say, but how do you stay there? On the hook, is the one and only answer, at least for the next couple of years. Since there are no marinas anywhere near West Point, you'll have to drop anchor and take the dinghy ashore. The best location for this is Glass Island Landing, located on the Mattaponi River (that's the one to the right, coming off the York), just upriver from the bridge. It's not big, but it does have a fishing pier, which could take a few dinghies, and a boat ramp, which could be used for pulling the dinghy out of the water. Look at the bright side: You won't be jostling for room in the anchorage. There is hope. A plan is working its way through the system for a marina, restaurant and a few condominiums on the site of the old 7th Street wharf. But don't stow that anchor yet.
From Glass Island Landing, it's a short walk across busy Route 33 into West Point proper. Restaurants are limited to those in the plaza facing Route 33 and another across the street. But West Point's streets are shady and ever so quiet, so you'll be able to stroll peacefully along past houses, churches and shops, arriving in about 15 minutes at Beach Park, where the three rivers come together.