Cruising the shoreline for colonial mansions
along Virginia's Northern Neck becomes a
fascinating exercise in uncertainty. [August 2007]
By Jody Argo Schroath
Photograph by Starke Jett
It's tough being skipper. We weren't even out of the Yeocomico, our home river, and already the mutiny potential had risen to a code yellow—if I have my colors right. Call me Long John Silver—I wasn't worried.
"I thought you said we were going someplacenewthis weekend," my first mate and husband Rick muttered darkly.
I swung us onto a tight starboard tack then hauled in the sheets hard to increase our heel and decrease our draft so we could cut the Birthday Cake short and skid over the shoal waters between the marker and Lynch Point. "Ha!" I said, ignoring the fact that it was also high tide, which rendered my theatrics largely unnecessary.
Easing the boat into a ladylike reach, I began shadowing the Virginia coastline of the Potomac from a polite distance. I then sat back, stretched my legs out across the cockpit, and pulled a throw cushion between me and the coaming. It was time to share the ship's sailing orders with the crew. "Wearegoing someplace new," I said, "we're going to Historyland!"
"I thought that was a highway."
Well, yes, it is a highway—Virginia Route 3 is known variously as Historyland Highway, King's Highway, Mary Ball Road and Rappahannock Drive—and that's only as far as the Rappahannock River. But Historyland is also the Disneyesque name that some unknown person (or possibly government committee) in the century past gave to the Northern Neck of Virginia. The Northern Neck, originally conceived as all the land between the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers up to their headwaters, is now the designation for the much smaller area—roughly 100 miles by 20 miles—tucked between those two rivers from the Bay on the east to Fredericksburg on the west. This is the area that gave birth to three presidents, the only brothers to sign the Declaration of Independence, a fistful of the nation's most influential families, as well as that ultimate gentleman soldier of the Confederacy, General Robert E. Lee. In fact, for colonial American history, you could say that Jamestown has nothing on the Northern Neck, except maybe a better publicist.
My plan for the first leg of our three-day cruise was to follow the Potomac's Virginia coastline from Sandy Point, just west of the mouth of the Yeocomico, 25 nautical miles upriver to Colonial Beach, ducking into the Lower Machodoc (pronounced Ma-SHO-duck) and Nomini Creek, looking for traces of famous or forgotten colonial homes along the way. On the second day, we would visit the Northern Neck's most famous landmarks: Washington's birthplace on Popes Creek and Lee's boyhood home, Stratford Hall. We would have to resort to land transportation for that portion of the trip, since access by water to either had ceased to be possible from sometime in the middle of the last century. Happily, there are ways to arrange transportation for boaters staying at Colonial Beach marinas and Cole's Point Plantation, so we'd be able to have our cruise and be tourists, too. The third day would be spent returning to Go . . . and finishing up all the ham and cheese sandwiches.
In many ways, the Northern Neck's glory days ended with the Revolutionary War. By then tobacco had already worn out its welcome, ruining the land and bringing to an end the area's short period of high prosperity (for the chosen few, that is). In the 200 years that followed, residents of the Northern Neck struggled with the vagaries of fishing and the eco-nomy to keep life going, while the old plantation homes became fewer and farther between.
My grand plan was to spot as many of these old estates as possible. Finding them, however, would be more of a challenge than you might think—since the closest thing to a guidebook for that sort of thing (Touring Historyland, The Authentic Guide Book of the Historic Northern Neck of Virginia, The Land of George Washington and Robert E. Lee, H. Ragland Eubank) was written in 1934 and its accompanying map was designed for people with the eyesight of a falcon. In addition, addresses are rarely given. (Who wants tourists piling out of touring cars at tea time?) But surely we would be able to spot these manses from the water, I reasoned. Water, after all, was the single thread that kept those early residents of the Northern Neck connected. It was their Interstate and their UPS.
Well, I was in trouble from the start. As we skirted the pound nets that trail into the Potomac from Sandy Point, I handed over the tiller and picked up the binoculars to scan the shore. Sandy Point had been the site of several colonial homes, including Water View (now washed into the water) and Hominy Hall (now gone but for a few locust trees—as of 1934, anyway), but also of Sandy Point, the childhood home of Mary Ball Washington (George's mother), and Spence's Point, 18th-century seat of the Spence family and 20th-century home of writer John Dos Passos. The latter home, I knew, still presided over the river somewhere hereabouts—I had actually tracked it down a couple of years ago on land. But could I spot it now? No! I scanned and I scrutinized the line of houses that populated the shoreline. This was going to be tougher than I thought. Then, not at all where I thought it should be, I spotted a big brick house tucked in among some sizable trees along the shore. Could that be it? Well, it looked pretty old . . . Dos Passos's father, a highly successful New York lawyer, had bought up thousands of acres, including 19 miles of Potomac shoreline and a half-dozen historic homes, during the 1920s when Northern Neck property was as cheap as dirt. His son settled there with his second wife in 1949 and stayed until his death in 1970, writing every morning in a room on the top floor of this building . . . well, maybe this building.
I could see that exactness was not going to be the hallmark of this adventure. Fortunately, one of my favorite plantations, Peckatone, was just ahead . . . somewhere around here. The original manor house at Peckatone had stood massive and severely plain—by some accounts—at the edge of the Potomac River between Sandy Point and Coles Point. For 200 years it was the seat of the Corbin family and their descendants. But in 1886, 20 years after it had been sold out of the family, it burned. In the 1930s, bricks from the ruins were used in the restoration of Stratford Hall. Soon after that, the site of the old home disappeared entirely under the waters of the Potomac.
So much for the manor house; it was its residents who made the tale. One of them, Hannah Lee Corbin, was the oldest daughter and third child of Hannah Ludwell Lee and Thomas Lee (her siblings included Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee, those fraternal signers of the Declaration of Independence I mentioned earlier). Hannah Lee was raised at Stratford Hall, where she studied with her brothers and read extensively in her father's library. In 1748, she married Gawin Corbin and moved to his home, Peckatone. They had one daughter, Martha, before Gawin died in 1759. The death of a spouse in those days was hardly unusual—survivors were likely to marry three or four times, all within the same dozen families, so you could end up marrying your own grandfather if you weren't careful. Gawin Corbin's will, however, was diabolical for the time. If Hannah were to remarry, it said, she would lose everything, including Peckatone. So she didn't marry; she took charge of the plantation and its businesses—and did it so successfully that her brothers often came to her for advice. In addition, she became an advocate of women's suffrage—the first in America—and a member of the Northern Neck's upstart Baptist church. Eventually, she fell in love with the local doctor, but couldn't marry him, of course, or she would lose everything. He moved in (pretty juicy stuff for the 18th century, huh?). Did the Lee family raise a fuss? No, they seem to have gone along, visiting and receiving Sis, in just the same old way—even though pretty soon there were a couple of extra youngsters to
Hannah and Gawin's daughter, Martha Corbin, married George Turberville, of the Hickory Hill Turbervilles, and the couple settled at Peckatone. According to the legend, Martha soon became the distress of the Turbervilles, beating the slave personnel regularly and confining unruly overseers in dungeons. She also made a habit of riding out at night in her coach and four, armed with pistols and making herself generally unpopular in the 'hood. One night, she, the coach, the horses and presumably the pistols got caught up in a windstorm of some variety and were never seen again. The house thereafter was considered haunted.
Well, by the time I had finished entertaining the crew with that jolly story, I realized that I had neglected to look for any remnants of old Peckatone itself and that we were now passing the entrance to Coles Point Plantation. Coles Point was named for "jovial" and "irascible" early settler Richard Cole—apparently the John Falstaff of the Northern Neck—who is generally quoted as calling the Council of Virginia "a companie of caterpiller fellows," which must have been a lot funnier if you were there. Cole stretched the bounds of good taste—to say nothing of good sense—even farther when he called George Washington's great-grandfather something that even Don Imus wouldn't say.
After that we proceeded to give Ragged Point—site of many a shipwreck and formerly a lighthouse—a respectfully wide berth. As the wind was persistently light and the sun increasingly hot, I thought it would be appropriate to tell Rick my favorite Ragged Point story, which is about a four-masted schooner that went aground here, before there was a light, on July 4, 1908. In an effort to float the schooner free by making it lighter, the crew threw overboard hundreds of tons of ice it had been transporting south out of Kennebec, Maine. Within hours, the blocks of ice began making landfall, much to the surprise and delight of all the Independence Day picnickers up and down the Potomac. For the next several weeks, there was more than enough ice for everyone. Two years later, with the full support of New England legislators, Ragged Point Light went into operation.
Rounding the Coles Point peninsula, we took advantage of a freshening breeze to tack into Lower Machodoc Creek. The Lee family's first home in this area, Matholic, had burned to the ground one night in 1729, the fire set by what are usually described as "disgruntled indentured servants"—who were subsequently caught, or not caught, and hanged, or not, depending on which account you're reading. In any event, the Lees moved back to a nearby ridge and built Mount Pleasant. That Mount Pleasant no longer exists, but in its place sits a fine Victorian style home built in 1886. In addition to Mount Pleasant, the Lees also built in this area Chantilly, Lee Hall, Menokin and Stratford Hall—they were prolific, wealthy, industrious, public-spirited and highly architectural. The site of Matholic was ever after called Burnt House Field and became a Lee family burial site. (If you are wandering about the area by car some day, turn off Coles Point Road onto Mount Pleasant Road and follow it until just about the point you think someone may come after you with a shotgun for trespassing and there you'll find an old brick pillbox-looking affair, which encompasses the graves of any number of Lees. You're at Burnt House Field.)
Also along the Lower Machodoc were at one time the Narrows, belonging to the Allerton family who were Puritans from Plymouth, oddly enough; and on the opposite shore, Tidwells, home of the Rochester family, who later decamped and founded a city in New York that they named after themselves.
We scrutinized the shoreline as we ghosted up the creek, and maybe we saw some old houses and maybe we didn't. If there is one lesson I brought home from this trip, it's that an old house looks a lot like a new house built in an old style, and an old house remodeled can look like anything at all. Also, nothing is where you think it's going to be. But, really, that's all part of the game, isn't it? I suppose we can't expect all people with historic homes to post big numbers on their breakwaters that correspond to numbers on a nice waterproof ADC map.
We left the Machodoc and worked our way past the property once known as Kingcopsico, at the entrance to Nomini Bay. This was once the home of Anne Washington, only sister of Lawrence Washington, George's grandfather. Later the area became known for its fine beaches and summer cottages. Now it is the privately owned King Copsico Farm, which is one of the stops on the Westmoreland County portion of Virginia's Historic Garden Week every April. Nomini Bay is a nice broad wedge of water with no facilities to speak of that leads by a very narrow channel into Nomini Creek. The bay and creek were the site of many fine Colonial homes, many of which fell victim to the British—who bombarded everything they could see from the water while trying to teach us a lesson in 1814, including the homes of Corbin Washington and his more famous brother Bushrod: Walnut Farm and Bushfield. Corbin and Bushrod were the sons of George Washington's half-brother, John Augustine Washington, and it was Bushrod who inherited Mount Vernon and all the first presidential papers. Bushrod also sat on the U.S. Supreme Court for more than thirty years and was very well thought of all around. Though Bushfield was burned by the British, it was later restored and still sits, very dignified, overlooking Nomini Creek—where, I am proud to say, we found it just where it was supposed to be.
If we had been cruising in an amphibious landing craft rather than a full-keel sailboat, we might have been able to catch a glimpse of the modern-day version of Nomini Hall, which in the late 18th century was the home of Robert Carter III, grandson of Robert Carter I—who is generally called "King" Carter. Carter III is generally called Councillor Carter (a) because he was a councillor of Virginia and (b) to distinguish him from Robert Carters I and II. The life at Nomini Hall was very nice indeed and can best be appreciated by reading the journal kept by Philip Vickers Fithian, a Princeton graduate who came to the hall to tutor the Carter III children (all VII of them).The Journal and Letters of Philip Vickers Fithian, A Plantation Tutor of The Old Dominion, 1773–1774, edited by Hunter Dickinson Farish, 1965, is available through bookstores (including Stratford's) and libraries. Councillor Carter is interesting not only as a specimen of powerful colonial landowner, but because later in life he resigned all his positions, returned to Nomini, became a Swedenborg Christian, and freed nearly 500 of his slaves—a few at a time so as not to annoy his neighbors too much. But they did get annoyed, so he moved to Baltimore. What is perhaps most impressive about Nomini Hall today is the double row of yellow poplars leading up to the house. These date from 1750 and can be seen, as can the house, from Nomini Hall Road, several miles south of Virginia Route 202—and possibly from an amphibious landing craft.
After motoring back up Nomini Creek, we worked our way carefully into Currioman Bay, while I explained that near here had sat Chantilly, Currioman and Chatham plantations. But we were both concentrating more on not running aground than old-house hunting, so we soon eased ourselves back out the way we had come in since the bay's northwest exit carries only two feet of water.
Back in the Potomac, we hoisted sail again and aimed for the cliffs, which we could see stretching improbably upriver for nearly as far as we could see—about nine miles. The cliffs come with three names: Nomini Cliffs are the first going from east to west and are succeeded by Stratford Cliffs—the first Lee manor house here was called the Clifts—and finally Horsehead Cliffs—now part of Westmoreland State Park. Rising as much as 150 feet above the river, the cliffs are as crumbly as they are beautiful. Great sections of them break off and slide into the Potomac at the slightest provocation, so landing and climbing around them is strictly forbidden.
The beaches in this area are treasure troves of prehistoric sharks' teeth and the small knobby bones of long extinct fish and mammals. Westmoreland Park welcomes neophyte Indiana Joneses and here, unlike at Tut's tomb, you can keep what you find. The park was established during the Great Depression by the federal Works Progress Administration from land once part of the Stratford estate. Camping, kayaking and hiking here will give you a break from the colonial, but if your boat draws more than a couple of feet, you'll have to drop the hook and dinghy in to the dock.
We didn't. We had a date with a dock of our own in Colonial Beach. We did, however, take a good long look at the old landing place at Stratford. Here vessels of all sizes and designs had stopped to deliver or load tobacco for shipment to England. The Lees had arranged to have the landing designated an official weighing and inspection station so that ships could leave from here with no additional stops. Just upriver were formerly landing docks for a later variety of visitor. It was here that then-Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt landed in the presidential yacht to visit Stratford Hall, when it was still privately owned.
Roosevelt thought so much of Stratford that he returned many times and later wrote the introduction to the first Stratford guidebook. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, too, drove herself and a group of congres-sional wives down from Washington to visit. Some years later, after the estate had been purchased by the Stratford Foundation, board member Jesse Ball duPont regularly came here for meetings aboard her yacht, motoring up from her own colonial mansion, Ditchley, on the Rappahannock side of the Northern Neck. Often the board would adjourn for lunch aboard. But by the 1960s the foundation tired of rebuilding the docks each year after they had been destroyed by storms, and so from then on boats were no longer welcome at Stratford.
Thinking wistfully how much nicer it would be to dock here than take a bus, we contented ourselves with a glimpse of Stratford Hall's chimneys and then skittered past Westmoreland Park, where we watched a dozen bone-hunters bent low over the sand and shallows.
Two presidents to go.
Between Westmoreland Park and Pope's Creek, the wind picked up sharply, as did the seas—a summer's late afternoon on the Potomac at its most typical . . . and irrational, since there was nary a squall or thunderstorm in sight. We took a reef and hung on for the ride. The entrance to Pope's Creek is nearly impossible to find in good weather, even if you are just floating by on a rubber raft, so it was clearly out of the question on this present occasion. We didn't even try. An empty flat-bottomed boat at flood tide might get in and see Washington's birthplace from the water, but we most assuredly would not. We'd save that, too, for the land tour.
By the time we reached Monroe Creek, somewhere near the birthplace and childhood home of James Monroe, the seas had subsided as mysteriously as a traffic jam in Nebraska, so our first day drew toward its close with a serene motor as far as Dickson Point. There we turned back to settle into our marina. There was no Monroe birthplace monument in sight, of course, because Monroe is one of the few presidents whose beginnings have gone largely unmemorialized, though there is an inconspicuous historical marker on Virginia Route 205, just south of Colonial Beach. That situation, happily, is about to change. After locating the site of the Monroe home several years ago, the James Monroe Foundation is moving ahead to rebuild the modest Monroe homestead and establish trails, nature preserves and other ecologically friendly features for the site, which has recently been threatened by encroachment from developers in rapidly growing Colonial Beach.
Half an hour later, after we had tied up at the dock and anointed ourselves with mosquito repellent against the setting sun, I handed out the grog and a bottle opener to the crew and sat back to assess. Tomorrow I'd turn over the tour to the professionals, but what about today? Had my historical house-hunting cruise been a success? In numbers of confirmed sightings, perhaps not, but in numbers of unsubstantiated sightings, we might give theNational Enquirera run for its money. I turned to my crew for an opinion. "Number of mutinies: zero," he offered.
Cruiser's Digest: Historyland, Va.
This Historyland cruise encompasses 25 nautical miles along Virginia's Potomac coastline from just west of the Yeocomico River to Colonial Beach. The distance allows for plenty of meandering into bays and creeks along the way.
All of the following marinas offer transient slips, electrical service and, unless otherwise noted, showers, pump-outs, haul-outs, repairs, marine supplies, ice and accept credit cards.
If you start the cruise at the Yeocomico end, there are a number of marinas that welcome transients. Kinsale Harbour Yacht Club and Marina (804-472-2514); restaurant and pool; no marine supplies, repairs or haul-outs. Krentz Marine Railway (804-529-6851); no pump-out or credit cards. Olverson's Lodge Creek Marina (800-529-5071;www.olversonsmarina.com); fuel, pool and internet; no marine supplies, repairs or haul-out. Port Kinsale Marina (804-472-2044,
www.portkinsale.com); fuel, Laundromat, restaurant and pool. White Point Marina (804-472-2977,
www.whitepointmarina.com); fuel, pool, tennis courts and internet. Another convenient starting (or ending) location is Cole's Point Plantation (804-472-3955,
www.colespoint.com), which also offers the possibility of ground transportation [see below]; fuel, Laundromat, restaurant, pool and walking trails. On the Colonial Beach end of the cruise on Monroe Creek, marinas include Colonial Beach Yacht Center at the entrance to Monroe Creek (804-224-7230,
www.colonialbeachyachtcenter.com); fuel and restaurant. Nightingale's Motel & Marina (804-224-7956); motel; no pump-out, ice, marine supplies, repairs or haul-out. Stanford Marine Railway (804-224-7644); no showers, pump-out, credit cards or ice. Winkie-Doodle Point Marina (804-224-9560); no ice, maine supplies, repairs or haul-out.
Cruisers will need ground transportation to visit sites such as Washington's birthplace and Stratford Hall. To secure arrangements, a call ahead is absolutely essential.
Car:Rental cars are available from Enterprise Car Rental (540-663-2244). They will pick you up at marinas in Colonial Beach and Coles Point for a trip to their rental office on U.S. Rte. 301 near Dahlgren, Va.
Van:Cole's Point Marina has a courtesy van that they will make available for guests who want to tour the local sites.
Bus:Heritage Tours in Heathsville, Va., will provide a bus and guided commentary for groups as small as six. The price depends on the number of participants and the number and location of stops. Owners Nan and George Becket say they will be happy to tailor the tour to your needs. (804-580-6336,
ggcweb.com/nnht). Colonial Beach Yacht Center will help groups arrange for buses.