A jazzed up waterfront "village" and a spiffy new transient
marina offer boaters a chance to get up close and personal
with the town that ended a war and began a nation. [June 2006]
By Paul Clancy
Photograph by Starke Jett
There were six of us aboard Ode to Joy, crowded but cozy, as we slipped my mooring in Norfolk on a cool May morning and raised the sails. The smart northwesterly breeze that followed an earlier downpour promised to carry us up the Chesapeake, and our anticipation was running as strong as the tides in this part of the world. We were about to see, and take part in, a bit of re-created history.
My wife Barb and I, along with our buddies—Dottie and Gene Seward from Portsmouth, and Chris and Doug Farbrother from Reston—were taking my 30-foot sloop to Yorktown, a once-thriving tobacco port that, on one momentous morning in October 1781, gave the American colonies the victory that won the Revolutionary War. But the interesting thing about Yorktown this day was not so much the great battle but the attention to something that preceded it, the town's 18th-century waterfront. There would be a formal opening of Riverwalk Landing, the restored waterfront that would again turn Yorktown's face to the sea.
We sailed close-hauled across Hampton Roads and into the Bay. This was a reunion of sorts for us. We had all chartered a boat together in the British Virgin Islands the year before, and we were looking forward to sharing the weekend. Here on the lower Chesapeake an entirely different kind of adventure beckoned, this time snug harbors called, plus a brush with Bay history. To top it off, we'd have music, fireworks, good food and, best of all, a chance for good friends to rejoice about being on the water together again.
Before it was a fulcrum of history, "York Town" was a busy port, created in 1691 by the colonial legislature as one of several convenient places from which to export tobacco and bring in all the stuff needed for the new settlements at Jamestown and Williamsburg. Fifty acres of land on the York River were purchased with 10,000 pounds of tobacco, then subdivided into lots. The better homes were built on a lovely bluff overlooking the river, while the waterfront, "York under the hill," became crowded with all the claptrap of a working waterfront: wharves, warehouses, small stores, inns and taverns. One contemporary critic of the watering holes was aghast at the "unbounded licentiousness" that appeared to taint the town.
At the peak of its prosperity (around 1740), Yorktown had several hundred buildings and almost 2,000 residents, rivaling the size of then-capital Williamsburg. The under-the-hill crowd included seamen, shopkeepers and indentured servants. As tobacco left the piers, clothing, wine, jewelry, swords, firearms and slaves arrived. Beginning in 1750, as tobacco prices fell, the town began a slow decline. Then the double whammy of war (Cornwallis's British troops attracted a steady eight-day bombardment of the town before he finally surrendered) and a devastating waterfront fire in 1814 sent it into a long swoon from which it never fully recovered. Until now, perhaps.
Taking a page from its past, York County has again turned its face to the water, but this time envisioning a prosperity that flows not from trade but from tourists. Tearing down the assemblage of dilapidated shops and warehouses that made up Yorktown's down-at-the-heels wharf-side community, it created a small village of waterfront restaurants and shops in about a dozen clustered Colonial style buildings reminiscent of Williamsburg. The one carry-over structure is the old freight shed, built in 1935 as a terminal for Baltimore steamships and serving as a post office after 1952. Newly restored, the building now houses exhibits on town history. Brick walkways, including one that runs along the waterfront, make the village a great place to stroll. And though there were a few grumbles about turning a once-eclectic waterfront that had included a lumberyard, hardware store and Greek restaurant into a homogenous collection of "shoppes," no one complained that it might bring crowds of visitors to the town or that it might add perspective to the greater Yorktown saga.
County planners also had to contend with the shoreline damage left behind by Hurricane Isabel as they worked to install floating piers, one for about 40 medium-size transient boats and another for regional cruise boats. For the first time in years, recreational boaters would have safe access to Yorktown and its attractions, and, arriving on our boat, we'd be among the first to take advantage of this happy circumstance.
The wind inched around to the north before we'd quite made the mouth of the York River, and we got slightly drenched before raising the Bimini. We had to motor a short distance until we could pick up the entrance markers for the York and turn west, letting our sails fill again. Luckily, we caught the powerful flood tide; the last part of the trip was a sweet romp. Off to starboard, I pointed out the mysterious and beautiful Guinea Marshes and Big Island, where descendants of British loyalists were said to have lived for generations (trading with "guineas") and the equally alluring Godwin Islands on the port side. From this point the prominent smokestacks of the Dominion Power Company dominated the south riverbank. All the while, the Coleman Bridge—right next to the new landing—crept into view. The Victory Monument high on the hill above the river pinpointed the town. We saw an older fishing pier jutting out from the Yorktown shoreline, then the double piers of the Yorktown marina came into view. This is the way to approach Yorktown, I thought about a dozen times as the little village with its hopeful new docks revealed itself.
We threw lines to Dennis Nate, manager of the new marina, and his dock crew, and parked near a Coast Guard cutter and Serenity, a two-masted schooner out of Cape Charles that was offering sailing tours as part of the day's festivities. Our accommodations that night would be on the sparse side because water and electricity weren't hooked up yet, but it was a privilege to be one of the first to step onto the wide, floating concrete piers.
We arrived after the speeches and ribbon cutting, but in plenty of time for the lineup of afternoon events. The York River Symphony Orchestra was already playing on the new performance stage and the Fifes and Drums of York Town and the U.S. Navy Band were ready to follow. Hundreds of visitors sat on folding chairs spread across the lawn opposite. Right next to the stage, parents and children frolicked at the beach. (The newly restored beach is marked by a series of small bays, each girded with riprap.) And shoppers, ourselves included, poured in and out of brand new retail shops—an ice cream-and-coffee place, a women's clothing store, an accessory boutique, a couple of home furnishing and gift shops, a historic knickknack store, and a jeweler: Viccellio Goldsmith. It was not so much the simple, elegant pieces in the jeweler's window that attracted our attention, but the fact that Hank Viccellio himself was inside, bent over one of his creations. He was making a mold for a gold pendant, gently grinding an edge like a dentist might shape a crown. Viccellio has spent more than 30 years "at the bench," he told us, part of it as a "kind of a hippie craftsman."
"I got into jewelry in 1973 while hitchhiking through Albuquerque. A guy who picked me up said, 'Are you looking for a job? You want to be a silversmith?' I said, 'Sure.' " Viccellio smiled, almost apologetically. "That's all I've ever done."
Awhile back, he opened a shop in one of the historic buildings "on the hill," in Yorktown's traditional tourist village, but it lacked the tourist potential of the new waterfront and, today at least, he wasn't disappointed. In the old shop, he said, "If I got ten or twelve people in a day, I thought I was doing great, but in truth I'd have two or three. Now I often have ten or twelve in here at one time." One of the obvious attractions is his "Yorktown bracelet" that celebrates the town's maritime heritage with a twisted rope of gold cemented to the top of a silver bracelet.
Across the street from the jeweler, Sherry Rougeau, manager of Claire Murray, a shop specializing in woven crafts, was designing a "Yorktown sampler," a needlepoint pillow that she and five local women will produce in time for the 225th anniversary of George Washington's Yorktown victory in October. Four days of activities are planned. "My dad would be proud," she said. "He taught history for thirty-three years."
We had tried to make early dinner reservations at Nick's Riverwalk Restaurant, a swanky offshoot of the highly prized River's Inn, across the river on Sarah Creek, and Berrett's in Williamsburg. The name pays homage to Nick's Seafood Pavilion, a local landmark for decades before it was closed and then destroyed by Isabel. Alas, the new eatery wasn't quite ready to open, but owner Tom Austin asked if we would join other "Guinea pigs" for a kind of shakedown cruise for the cooks and waitstaff. I won't go into detail, but suffice it to say there was a fair amount of, um, licentious dining. (I had something called San Francisco Cioppino, a melange of shrimp, scallops, mussels and clams in tomato broth.) Austin wouldn't charge us for the food, so we made up for it with what we hoped were jaw-dropping tips, and headed back out into the beautiful evening. If the food to come is as good as the food we were served, Nick's Riverwalk will be a welcome addition to waterfront dining on the Bay.
Feeling well fed and amply fortified for the festivities ahead, the six of us left Nick's and strolled along the brick walkway along the waterfront. How great is this? I thought as the Navy band headed toward its finale with a wide mix of patriotic tunes. Before long, they launched into "Stars and Stripes Forever," followed by an eruption of seemingly never-ending fireworks out on the river. And how fitting is it to have this cannonade light the night sky over Yorktown?
Our friends decided that, given the small, one-head boat, the better part of valor would be to rent rooms ashore, and they had made reservations at the Marl Inn, a Colonial style B&B surrounded by a picket fence up on "the hill." Barb and I stayed on the boat and gained an appreciation for the power of the York River tide as it raged through all night long, holding us well off the dock for half the night, then pushing us against the fenders the other half. Sunday morning, before joining our friends for breakfast, Barb and I rambled along the brick walkway, exploring the waterfront. With the trail stretching all the way from the state-run Yorktown Victory Center, under the Coleman Bridge, past the Yorktown Watermen's Museum and along the river, we could appreciate why they called it Riverwalk. It winds past a wide public beach, a couple of small bays and ends at a picnic area graced with sycamores.
The entire waterfront hasn't been remade. Across Water Street, beside the new parking deck that was built for Riverwalk, are older establishments like the Duke of York Motel, and a couple of local favorite restaurants—Waterstreet Landing and Yorktown Pub. Several streets lead uphill to the old village. But the amazing thing to us was that we could still see and feel the evidence of that incredible long-ago siege that helped bring about the end of the Revolutionary War. We saw a cave that had been dug into the hillside, supported by timbers shoved into the sandstone-like earth. A sign informed us that this is where many townspeople took shelter during the incessant bombardment of the town by colonial troops. I squinted as I looked inside and could sense the fear, almost hear the wail of children. I glanced around for my spouse, but she had disappeared. "Up here," she called. "This is cool!" Barb smiled at me from behind branches above the cave. A well worn path wound into a thicket of vines and bushes. The ground is rocklike, probably the shell-thick marl for which the B&B was named. Birds darted from branch to branch. A wildlife sanctuary, I thought, on top of a centuries-old human refuge.
Moving on, we reached a rough dirt road leading up the hill; another sign identified it as the old tobacco road from the village to the waterfront. Thousands of pounds of tobacco were loaded into hogsheads and rolled down the hill to the waiting ships. We climbed the slow, winding trail and came to one of the most amazing parts of this place: a grotto that had been dug into the hillside behind Cornwallis's headquarters. As the siege began, apparently he and his staff hunkered down under the hill while hundreds of their unprotected soldiers were dying. I was reminded that, before the new village was built, archaeologists found the bones of a soldier and horse buried on the waterfront. What a nightmare it must have been! Chills chased us the rest of the way up the hill. Our path led ultimately to the National Park Visitors Center, and we walked along some of the reconstructed redoubts where redcoats and patriots fought hand-to-hand. Off in the distance we could see the river where the British fleet was trapped.
History buffs will recall that the most important battle of the Revolution was won not on the fields of Yorktown but on the sea. By the French. General Rochambeau had convinced the French fleet lying at anchor in the West Indies to sail north and blockade the Chesapeake, cutting off the supply route for Cornwallis at Yorktown. When the French fleet arrived, slamming shut the entrance to the Bay, it defeated an armada of British ships and sent them limping back to New York. Meanwhile, Washington had marched south to Virginia to block Cornwallis's escape by land. The British were trapped.
You can stand near the Visitors Center and look out over the old battlefield, studded with flags to indicate where American and French troops had set up their line and methodically rolled up their big siege guns. Imagine the British helplessly watching this. On the afternoon of October 9, all was ready and the bombardment began. It went on for eight days, around the clock, relentlessly shattering the British defenses. Corn- wallis and his men made a desperate attempt to flee across the York to Glouc-ester, but were driven back by a storm. How he must have cringed, there in his bunker under the hill, when he realized it was all over.
The bombardment was still in progress on the chilly morning of October 17 when a loan drummer boy, his heart undoubtedly thumping as furiously as his drum, stepped upon the parapet and began an unsteady roll. An officer holding a white flag over his head fell in with the lad and, as they stepped forward, American and French guns fell silent. Two days later, the battered British soldiers marched out to a field beyond the town and laid down their arms.
You can go there now, as we did, see captured British guns lining a ramp to a platform that looks out over "Surrender Field" and imagine what that moment must have been like. I struck up a conversation with a young man who sat on a bench near the field, writing in a journal. Bryan Ambrose had grown up in Yorktown and said he often comes to the park to sit and reflect.
"It's easy to take all this for granted," he said, "but when you look back and consider, you know, this is the place, this is the field where Cornwallis decided, 'Hey, I've had enough.' You look back and consider we were the underdog in that fight up to the last portion of the war. This field, a couple of hundred years ago, is where we all began."
In our excitement to get under way the day before, I had totally forgotten to fly my American flag from the stern. Now, our visit over, we pointed Ode to Joy south, and I watched with maybe a touch more pride than usual as Old Glory snapped in the breeze.
Paul Clancy, a contributing writer for CBM, is author of the forthcoming Historic Hampton Roads, Where America Began.
Cruiser's Digest: Yorktown, Va.
The approach to the York River from north or south is pretty simple, as long as you're patient. You can't bear into the river until you've reached the entrance at green "13" and red bell "14", with its deep-throated gong. From there follow the channel markers into the river. To starboard you'll see the Guinea Marshes and Big Island and, to port, Godwin Islands and the 41-foot Tue Marshes light. The passage upriver to Yorktown is a good ten miles, and ebb tide can be strong, so we timed our arrival to hitch a ride on the flood.
You go almost all the way to the Coleman Bridge before spotting the new piers at Yorktown. There are two floating piers, the one on the right (from the water) for small-to-medium-size boats. There are approximately 40 alongside slips, with hookups for overnight stays. The cost is $1.75 per foot. Day-trippers and pleasure boaters visiting shops and restaurants are welcome, at $5 per stay. On the left, the L-shaped large pier will accommodate commercial vessels and cruise ships up to 395 feet in length. Depths there range from 27 to 50 feet. Pump-out is available for $10. Call 757-890-3370 ore-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. The website,
www.riverwalklanding.com, includes docking information.
About a dozen shops and restaurants make up the new landing, including Nick's Riverwalk Restaurant (757-875-1522) and the Green Mountain Coffee Cafe, which shares space with a Ben & Jerry's. Shops include a jeweler, a women's clothing store, a boutique and an arts-and-crafts store. Up on the hill, occupying historic buildings owned by the National Park Service, you'll find art galleries and antiques and craft shops. The Yorktown Victory Center, Yorktown Visitor Center and the Watermen's Museum all have gift shops.
Besides the new restaurants at the landing, there are four others: the Yorktown Pub, Waterstreet Landing, the River Room at the Duke of York Motel and, on the hill, Carrot Tree, a bakery that offers breakfast and lunch. There are two bed-and-breakfast inns in the historic area, the York River Inn and the Marl Inn. For further information contact York County at 757-890-3300 (www.yorkcounty.gov); Yorktown Victory Center, 800-368-6511 (
www.historyis fun.org); or the Colonial National Historical Park, 757-898-2410 (
"The Bay is less and less able to support watermen--maybe this is the last place to see that life." That is how Executive Director John Hanna describes the mission of his Watermen's Museum in Yorktown. This quiet enclave on the banks of the York River tells the story of the hardy souls that draw their living from the surrounding water. Begun in 1981 to honor the role of the watermen on the Chesapeake Bay, it was soon pushing the limits of its modest first building. Then in 1986, "Cypress Manor," one-time home of a Newport News Shipbuilding executive, was donated to the museum. No matter that it was on the wrong side of the York River! In spring of 1987 the house and some of its outbuildings were barged across the water and rolled ashore onto the museum grounds. The museum continued to grow and plans to expand again were under way when Hurricane Isabel threw a wrench in the works. The storm swept away several outdoor exhibits, including a three-sail bateau named Pale Moon (some remaining pieces are on display), a deadrise workboat and the pilothouse from a buyboat. Many of the museum's outbuildings were damaged--though the main house, set above the hundred-year flood level, survived, looking like an island in a muddy sea.
- THE WATERMEN'S MUSEUM
The museum has now almost recovered. The pier has essentially been rebuilt (there is a Phase II which is still waiting for funding), and many of the museum's school programs are being conducted there (the little building used for student activities is also back in operation). The pier also serves as the base for a popular once-a-year workboat race, held as part of the museum's annual Watermen's Heritage Festival (this year on July 16).
As you approach the museum along the Riverwalk, the first things that catch your eye are some outdoor exhibits featuring a Poquoson-tribe log canoe, a gill-net boat, and a small fiberglass runabout. There are other artifacts on the grounds--dredges, shedding floats, antique motors. . . . In the main building you will find a model showing how a pound net is set up and pictures of one in use. There you'll also find the jaw bones of a whale that beached itself in Mobjack Bay in 1858 (a mark on the ceiling in the room next door shows how long the whale was). More displays include tools and equipment for catching fish, clams, oysters and crabs, and for boat-building. Models, photographs and drawings reflect the life of the region's original watermen, the Indians. If you're ever in Yorktown on a Friday night, stop by the museum for its informal TGIF gathering at 6 p.m. Enjoy snacks and drinks on the deck overlooking the river. There is no charge, though donations are appreciated. --Gene Bjerke Watermen's Museum, 309 Water Street, Yorktown, Va., is open Tuesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sunday 1 to 4 p.m. Admission for adults is $4. 757-887-2960; www.watermens.org.