It may look like nothing but big-port muscle and sinew,
but don't let that throw you; there's charm aplenty, if you
know where to look, in good ol' New Port Newce. [November 2009]
By Paul Clancy
Photographs by Jay Paul
As soon as you enter Hampton Roads, the city begins to reveal itself. It's sprawling, muscular and--from the water, at least--somewhat forbidding: a commercial fishing basin, a giant shipyard, an open-air coal pier, a fleet of reserve ships aging on the waterfront. Somewhere--ahh, there--between gray behemoths, are a few downtown office buildings, a narrow park and the barely visible top of a victory arch.
But don't be put off. Newport News does have accessible marinas, a few lovely spots for dropping anchor, inviting beaches, a vibrant fishing industry, a gorgeous performing arts center and one of the world's finest maritime museums. And it's all reachable by water, with a little extra effort--okay, maybe a lot.
There's history here, as deep as the water just off the shoreline, and it begins with a name. It may well be, as some contend, that Newport News Point--the point of land that marks the end of Hampton Roads and the beginning of the James River--got its name from the good news that Captain Christopher Newport, leader of the Jamestown expedition, had returned with supplies. But I prefer a more likely theory, that one William Newce, a knighted Irishman, arrived shortly after the 1607 settlement and established a seaport that came to be known as New Port Newce.
It was just off this point of land, two-and-a-half centuries later, that two ungainly ironclad warships, the U.S.S. Monitor and C.S.S. Virginia (nee U.S.S. Merrimack) battled to a draw on a fog-shrouded morning in March 1862, marking the beginning of the end of wooden fighting ships. Every time I pass this way I think of that battle, and how so many naval ships, "ironclads" all, are now built just over there, on that near shore, practically within hailing distance; Also not far from here, perhaps the distance of a cannonball's flight, are the hoary remains of the Monitor itself, resting in a world-class museum.
I'm traveling by sailboat--my Tartan 30, Ode to Joy--from my mooring on the Lafayette River in Norfolk, hoping to take a closer look at what makes Newport News compelling, especially by water. Newport News, a linear city that's at least 20 miles long but only two to four miles wide for most of that length, parades slowly by as I pick up a gentle northerly breeze, put Middle Ground Light astern, slip past the Monitor-Merrimac Bridge-Tunnel and enter the James. To my dismay, there's no ideal place for a cruising sailor to tie up--not in the Small Boat Harbor that is home to a commercial fishing fleet (more on that later), not downtown, not along the beach, and certainly not along the industrial waterfront. I feel like I'll have to keep going to Williamsburg or Jamestown. But I won't give up yet; there is a way to see this town. I keep moving.
At the coal pier, the ship Energy Enterprise out of New Orleans, and a barge from Baltimore are poised under a gantry taking on black coal that is piled in tall mounds on land (regularly sprayed with water to keep down the soot). Not too inviting here. The city's dominant feature, stretching for miles along the waterfront, is the giant Northrop Grumman Newport News shipyard. It was founded by railroad baron Collis Huntington more than a hundred years ago to service the ships that unloaded at his docks.
The Newport News Drydock and Shipbuilding Co., as it was known then, began turning out military ships by the scores during the war years, becoming the largest individually owned yard in America, until Northrop Grumman bought it not long ago. At one of the piers, towering 20 stories above the water and looking about as big as a reclining Empire State Building, broods the newly commissioned aircraft carrier George H. W. Bush, undergoing post-shakedown maintenance and repair.
Security is tight as a tick here. You don't even want to think about docking or losing headway. Nice doggy. Don't worry. I'm just passing. At 3:30 p.m., a siren wails. A shift change, I hope. Miles farther and there's still no place to stop, but that's about to change. Just before the James River Bridge I come to the city-owned Leeward Municipal Marina. I'm fond of Leeward. It was where I found my first boat, a sweet little swing-keel Spirit 23, which I bought there and sailed home. Tucked in next to the bridge, the marina is surrounded by a white cement breakwater. I had stopped here by car a few days earlier to see if I could go anywhere on foot. And to my delight, I could. Just up from the marina a stoplight allowed me to safely walk across the approach to the James River Bridge. And right there on the western side of the bridge was a sandy oasis, Huntington Park. On that day it was teeming with beachgoers: families with blankets, umbrellas and coolers, lifeguards and swimmers. Just beyond a refreshment stand I found a ramp, where half a dozen boats were being coaxed off trailers into the water. One could easily anchor out and dinghy in or tie up at the small pier that accommodates ramp users, even go for a swim at the beach.
There's a fishing pier at Huntington Park that rests on remains of an older James River Bridge, with the Crab Shack Seafood Restaurant--it's good, I hear--perched over the water. Beyond the beach is an elaborate children's park called Fort Fun, and then, a not-so-fun place, I imagine, the Virginia War Museum. But what I was looking for and found was a footbridge crossing a small creek. Aha again! If I wanted to get to the Mariners' Museum by bicycle from the waterfront entrance to Newport News, following the inviting River Road beside the James, I could. This city is opening up a little at a time.
Back in the present, I'm under the James River Bridge and passing by this lovely beach, then several miles of waterfront mansions, as well as the park that surrounds the Mariners' Museum. An hour later, after spotting the entrance markers to Deep Creek, I drop my sails and motor in. On the port side is Menchville, where several deadrise workboats are moored. Ahead is Deep Creek Landing Marina and the Warwick Yacht Club, both bristling with yachts. To starboard is James River Marina, my destination today, and a place I'm looking forward to revisiting.
Owner Marty Moliken, whom I met eight years ago when writing about the James, is there to help with my lines. For the past 60 years, workboats had tied up at an ancient city pier next to the marina. Finally, this year, the old pier was removed as the city improved the bulkheads and dockage across the creek. Now Moliken has gotten the ball rolling for 40 new slips and a raw bar at the end of the old pier. If the building-permit gods smile on him, he says, it could all be up and running by next summer.
At this point, Barb arrives in the land yacht and begins to unload our bikes. We'd thought of bringing them across by boat. It's possible to stow them on deck, but they're not the fold-up types and, frankly, we didn't want the hassle of loading and unloading them. What I was trying to test out was my theory that we could fairly 'easily get to the Mariners' Museum from James River Marina--because you just can't visit Newport News without going to that gem of a museum. We'll test my theory about biking there in the morning. Now we test the food.
James River Marina owns what has long been a popular local restaurant. Originally named Herman's Harbor House, it's now called Slightly Up the Creek. We get a table on the front porch overlooking the creek, and while a fan whirs and the sun sets, we indulge in some very good shrimp and crabcakes. And--we couldn't resist--some astonishing caramel bread pudding. The western sky is dominated by sail-shaped clouds, with sunset in their bellies.
With bread pudding in our bellies, Barb and I bed down aboard Ode to Joy, falling asleep to the murmurs of conversation and the occasional peal of laughter from the night owls in nearby slips. We awake at dawn, dawdle over cereal and fruit, then pedal off toward the museum.
It's a nice ride, about three and a half miles through a cozy suburban neighborhood. We choose the long way this time because it leads down to the waterfront and to Museum Drive, which takes you through the heavily forested Mariners' Museum Park. Archer Huntington, stepson of shipyard founder Collis Huntington, turned his collection of maritime paintings and ship models into the museum, surrounding it with miles of parkland and nature trails, so it's fun to arrive this way.
We're lucky to be visiting the museum while it's showcasing a major exhibit, "Building Better Ships," that explores (until November 15) the museum's intimate ties to the shipbuilding company. It was Archer Huntington's fascination with maritime art that led to the museum's creation in the early 1930s. At the same time, he hired well known artist Thomas C. Skinner and furnished him with a studio at the shipyard. Skinner turned out dozens of near-life-size canvases of shipwrights plying their trade--laying out patterns in cavernous lofts, punching holes for rivets, pouring molds with red-hot steel, lining up at pay windows at weeks' end.
The shipyard also filmed those tradesmen, as an aid for training new workers, and those black and white films, recently restored, are now shown side-by-side with the paintings. A painting of workers laying out patterns, for instance, is echoed by similar filmed images. Scenes of workers pouring molten lead into a mold, bending white-hot steel strips into the shape of a prow, or turning a glowing propeller shaft are similarly juxtaposed. This may be, as museum curator Anna Holloway later told me, "the ultimate way of interpreting historic works of art, viewing the paintings and then seeing film footage of these things actually occurring."
Collis Huntington virtually created the modern city of Newport News by running his railroad there, then creating the shipyard. A small village sprang up nearby and was incorporated in 1896, the same year the shipyard opened. "It was my original intention to start a 'shipyard plant in the best location in the world," reads a quote from Huntington on one wall of the exhibit, "and I suc-ceeded in my purpose. It is right at the gateway to the sea." That gateway became a huge embarkation point during the world wars as hundreds of thousands of troops shipped off to Europe. They were welcomed home to the city's waterfront by a victory arch, built in the style of Paris's Arc de Triomphe.
The museum's most compelling feature for me (hardly surprising, since I've written a book on the subject) is the'Monitor Center, dedicated to that historic clash of experimental ironclads, the Monitor and Virginia. This sprawling $30 million permanent exhibit presides over not only a full-scale exterior model of the Monitor, but also actual parts of it, plucked from the bottom of the Atlantic beginning in 1987 and now being preserved and displayed here. Indeed, one of the best parts of the Monitor Center--besides watching reenactments of the battles of Hampton Roads and the sinking later that year of the Monitor off Cape Hatteras--is being able to climb up to windows that look down into the Monitor conservation area. There are more than a thousand artifacts here, but the star of the show is undoubtedly the part of the Monitor that even a casual Civil War buff can identify--the massive iron gun turret, which now stews in a bath as 140 years of salt incursion is slowly leeched out of the metal. On days when the water is clear, or when it's merely being sprayed with a fine mist, you can see the dents caused by enemy cannon shot.
You can imagine what the Monitorgunners, working feverishly inside the turret, unable to see the enemy, must have experienced. One seaman "dropped over like a dead man" when a ball struck a few inches from his head. Another was flung over both guns from the blow.
The latest find is such a simple thing, an oil can that years of sedimentation and the marriage of metals have caused to be cemented to the engine's condenser. But it reminds you that there were men down in that engine room on New Year's Eve 1862, struggling to keep the steam engines running as water rose toward the fire grates. The Monitor went down in 240 feet of water off Cape Hatteras, with the loss of 16 crew. Even more poignant are the remnants of an officer's coat that were found draped over one of the two gun carriages. "This is probably what one of the crew took off to keep from being dragged down as he went into the water," Marcie Renner, the museum's chief conservator, told me during another visit. Pretty exciting stuff, slowly materializing after 147 years of submerged history.
On the bike ride back to the marina, we take a faster route, heading west toward Deep Creek, but this time past the modern and growing Christopher Newport University and the impressive I.M. Pei designed Ferguson Center for the Arts, one of the most highly regarded performing arts venues in the region. It's nice to know that you can stop at Deep Creek or Leeward and go, whether by bike or taxi, to a world-class museum or performing space.
One of the lesser known but more intriguing parts of the Newport News waterfront is the city's Small Boat Harbor. It can be glimpsed for about a nanosecond while driving over the Monitor-Merrimac Bridge-Tunnel, just off to the east. What you can see, mostly, is the top of fishing trawler rigs, so you'd be right in guessing it's a commercial fishing harbor. And not just for small boats. Pretty big stuff, really. Crabbers, clammers, scallop boats, pilot boats, Coast Guard boats and all the rest. And, all along Newport News Creek, which creates the harbor, are seafood packing plants.
We've got to drive to get there; it's at the other end of this sprawling town, but luckily we have the car. Harbormaster Doreen Kopacz, who grew up in the Willoughby section of Norfolk, greets me. We take a drive up one side of the creek and down the other. "This is one of thefew spots left that lets commercial people come in," she says. We loop under the bridge and park where Judy's Spirit, a 40-foot double rig clammer, is coming in. Charles Stanley Mason and his son, Charles Jr., are back from having done engine work on their boat. Mason, who sits on the pier next to his boat, has been clamming out of the Small Boat Harbor for 22 years, "and we're getting the best we've ever got for 'em."
What's so great about clamming? I ask the elder Charles. He shrugs. "I like to do what I like to do. You know what I mean?" It isn't easy, not in this era of tight regulations, but that observation gets only another shrug. "Nothing's like it used to be."
Charles Jr., a thin beard tracing the ridge of his jaw, enthusiastically shows me the clam rigs, each powered by a four-speed V-6 tractor-trailer motor. "It's the hardest job I ever had," he says, explaining how fast the clam scoop flies off the bottom. "You got to pay attention or you'll hurt yourself." Right now it doesn't look very promising for him to follow in his father's footsteps, he explains, what with the state tightly regulating the clam beds. "If they'd leave the grounds out there open," he says, "I'd keep doing it till I was as old as my dad."
Harbormaster Kopacz doesn't mind taking me around some more, so we continue the tour--soon stopping to watch another boat, Miss Leslie from Poquoson, Va., come in with about 30 bushels of blue crabs. Ken Diggs and his son--you guessed it, Ken Diggs Jr.--gripe like all fishermen do about regulations, but they wouldn't do anything else for a living. "It's all I ever did, it's crazy," says the younger Diggs. "It's like I'm the last cowboy."
There are a lot of last cowboys here, in the so-called Small Boat Harbor, one of the largest concentrations of seafood businesses of its kind on the Bay. Dozens of boats come in and unload while we watch. One of the fish packing plants has a retail outlet, and a nice lady--"What can I get for you, darlin'?"--sells me some very nice shrimp. Perfect for our dinner on board.
Barb and I spend another night aboard, this time anchored at a peaceful spot in Deep Creek, and leave shortly after first light. A fall-like northerly breeze catches our sails as we parade--and then, as the wind picks up, race past--the miles-long city and a shoreline fringed with history. It's been nice getting to know Newport News, New Port Newse, that mighty and mighty nice city along the James.