Issue: January 2008
FEATURE DESTINATION: The City Across the River

Rife with history, beautiful architecture, art, music and great marinas, Portsmouth, Va. is a natural complement to the big-city bustle of Norfolk.

by Paul Clancy
photograph by Steve Earley

We entered Portsmouth's harbor on one of those exquisitely beautiful afternoons where westerly light paints the sails of a dozen boats and a balmy breeze roughs up the water. A horn sounded: Five minutes to the start. Larry Bryant, at the helm of a venerable Columbia 28, put us into a slow arc that brought us to the line within seconds of the start right off downtown Portsmouth. And off we went on a fast race across the Elizabeth River and back, jibing as we madethe turn near the sprawling campus of the Portsmouth Naval Hospital, almost
dipping our rail in the water as we flew by the boats anchored off Hospital Point.

 There was too much going on to appreciate the fact that this is one of America's most historic waterfronts, but I couldn't help but notice the rooftops of Olde Towne, the domed lighthouse lens and, in the distance, the giant hammerhead crane at the Naval Shipyard. Legions of ships have been launched from there, including a certain famous and lethal ironclad--the C.S.S. Virginia. There's a presence, always, of the deep, deep history of this place.

We were acquitting ourselves well in this edition of the Barnacle Friday night races, even though there were bigger, more modern boats in the lead. But, just as you might suspect in this harbor, as we headed for the next-to-last buoy before the run to the finish, a tug and barge entering from the Western Branch of the Elizabeth plowed through the course and we were forced into an extra tack that took us way out of contention.

"It doesn't matter," Bryant said as we crossed the finish line close to the seawall that runs beside the city's downtown. "Everybody out here is a winner."

That's exactly how I feel every time I visit this place by water. Whether approaching Portsmouth by ferry from downtown Norfolk or coming by boat and stopping at one of several marinas, dropping anchor off the hospital, or tying up free at one of the two public landings, it's always a pleasure. Making the trip by water is so appealing that whenever I travel here I automatically think about making the passage over the water, instead of under it by way of one of the busy tunnels that link Norfolk and Portsmouth. 

This historic city, now in the midst of a waterfront renaissance, has a lot going for it. It has gone from merely a fine place from which to watch the sun or moon rise over the skyline of that other city, Norfolk, to a flat-out great place to be. There are terrific eating establishments, antiques shops, a world-class children's museum, water views to die for and excellent boating facilities. There's also Olde Towne, brimming with meticulously restored 18th- and 19th-century houses, churches with Tiffany and rose windows, evening candlelight tours. And history? Oh, my goodness.

A few days after the race, I sailed up the Elizabeth from my mooring on the Lafayette River and eased into North Landing. The annual Seawall Art Show was crowding the other landing at High Street, so I figured this one would be less busy. The paddle-wheel ferry that crosses the Elizabeth from Norfolk calls at both of these landings, just as the bigger car ferries did before tunnels were burrowed between the two cities.
It was blisteringly hot, not the sort of day for a costumed actor to take anyone on a walking tour. Instead, Eric Price, who portrays Colonel William Crawford, the founder of Portsmouth, had just completed his tour-guiding from an air-conditioned trolley. Actor or not, when he stepped from the trolley, in knee breeches, great coat, waistcoat, ruffled shirt and long, flowing locks, introducing himself with a cultured British accent, the illusion tugged at authenticity.

"Bloody hot," he said, mopping his brow. "Why don't we go someplace where we can find shade?"

A few blocks' stroll in Portsmouth's Olde Towne, with or without a costumed guide, will convince you that you're in another century. The houses, built in Federal, Greek Revival, Gothic and Queen Anne styles and laid out on wide streets with brick sidewalks, have been restored and kept up with obvious pride. We walked to a small park and sat on a shaded bench.

I asked my guide, who had dropped his British accent by now, what he liked best about Portsmouth, then and now. He paused. "It's the people who have visited, occupied and lived in Portsmouth since 1620," he said. Folks like those in the American Revolution and Civil War have pushed the city toward both loyalty and rebellion--founding a shipyard that served both sides in the Civil War and building hotels that were used as hospitals for Union and Confederate soldiers. Locals have had in their midst traitors such as Benedict Arnold, enemies like Cornwallis, heroes like Lafayette. And today, Price said, there are the people "who keep up the beauty and integrity of Olde Towne."

Portsmouth's history is spiced with treachery and intrigue. The story begins in 1620, just 13 years after the founding of Jamestown, when a fellow named John Wood obtained waterfront land here for building ships. The next couple of decades saw a prosperous ship trades economy as vessels were careened on the town's shallow shoreline--brought in at high tide and laid on one side or the other as the tide fell, so they could be scraped, caulked and repaired, then refloated. But things started getting politically dicey in 1657 as William Carver, a merchant and master mariner, arrived on the scene and was granted more than 600 acres of prime real estate. He established himself as one of the leading lights of Lower Norfolk County, high sheriff and all that. But his fate was interwoven with an infamous power struggle between Governor William Berkeley and Nathaniel Bacon, the trouble-making populist who in 1676 seized control of Jamestown. Bacon's rebellion petered out after Bacon died of dysentery and his coconspirators (including Carver, who had charge of his tiny navy) had their necks stretched. Carver's lands reverted to the crown.

The town's real beginning waited for years, until 1716, when William Crawford--a merchant, ship owner and eventually colonel of the local militia--took title to that land, and then 1752, when the property was surveyed and marketed as lots. Crawford named it after the bustling seaport in England, which also happened to be his home. By that time, the new village had become a center for maritime trades, with numerous small shipyards along its shoreline. None was more impressive than the yard founded by William Sprowle, an ambitious Scot who cast his lot with the crown and made a fortune servicing his majesty's ships. He named his shipyard and the accompanying village Gosport, after the famous English naval yard.

Gosport Navy Yard became Portsmouth's economic engine, and almost every pound sterling it generated was tied to the British homeland. In the years before the Revolution, Portsmouth earned a reputation as a "hotbed of Toryism" and was largely deaf to the stirrings of independence in Williamsburg. It wasn't surprising that when Virginia's governor, the puffed-up and harsh Lord Dunmore, fled the scene he took refuge, along with his fleet of ships, at Gosport. For a time in late 1775, Sprowle's village served as colonial capital and his mansion as virtual governor's palace. The screws continued to tighten, and Dunmore fled with a shipload of loyalists (including Sprowle) to Gwynn's Island near the Rappahannock. Sprowle's mansion was demolished and his shipyard taken over.

And this was only the beginning of the shipyard's momentous history. Gosport Navy Yard would be burned down three times: first by the British, second by the Union and third by the Confederacy. It would produce one of the navy's first frigates, the Chesapeake, and open the nation's first working drydock. It would build the first quasi-ironclad, converting the captured U.S.S. Merrimack to the C.S.S. Virginia, which went on to battle the Union's Monitor in Hampton Roads. And Gosport would go on to become Norfolk Naval Shipyard, one of the largest in the world. (There was already a Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in New Hampshire during the Civil War when the Union decided to rename the yard, so the name of the neighboring city was chosen.)

Walking north from the shipyard along the city's pedestrian-friendly seawall, you pass by a first-order Fresnel lens that once guided ships near Virginia's Eastern Shore, now on display in a glass dome; and the red-hulled lightship Portsmouth, dry-docked at the foot of London Street. Eventually you merge onto Crawford Parkway and continue along the waterfront (Crawford Bay, of course) and end up at the other major historical anchor of the city. It was on this land jutting out into the Elizabeth that a Revolutionary War bastion, Fort Nelson, was built.

Built to defend the approach to the shipyard, Fort Nelson was demolished by the British in 1779. Soon after, the notorious turncoat Benedict Arnold took control of the city and set up camp near the remains of the fort. He was followed in early 1781 by that fellow Cornwallis, who could have stayed, perhaps, but chose what he thought was a more defensible location, Yorktown. Fort Nelson, redesigned in 1798 by famed architect Benjamin Latrobe, was rebuilt largely of brick, then abandoned after the War of 1812. Then, it was reborn in another form--its bricks were used to build the country's first naval hospital.

Up until the early 1800s, wounded or sick ships' crews were treated onboard in sick bays between gun ports, with "remedies" like bloodletting and amputations. Shore-based care took place in sail lofts, storerooms or other work places at shipyards. And sailors paid for it themselves: Congress in 1798 had followed the British system of deducting money, in this case 20 cents per month, from each sailor's pay for health care. By 1821 the country had the wherewithal to build military hospitals. Nine years later, the Navy's first hospital opened in Portsmouth. The first building, Building No. 1, is classic Greek Revival, made of granite and other stone. But the foundation and inner walls were made from half a million bricks removed from the old fort.

The hospital would be needed. In 1855, hundreds of desperately sick Portsmouth residents suffering from yellow fever were treated here. And soon after, wounded Confederate and Union soldiers found whatever remedies were available. It would serve through all of the later wars. So Hospital Point, as it's called, has a connection to just about all the fighting and dying the nation has ever done. Across from Norfolk on the river, it's also a favorite anchorage for cruisers, especially during spring and fall snowbird migrations.

A slight breeze wafted through the park as Eric Price, the Colonel Crawford impersonator, rose to leave. One of the things I had wanted to do here was take a look at one of the houses, and the opportunity presented itself as Price and a resident, Faye Timm, exchanged greetings.

Faye and her husband David had recently bought and restored the Federal style "Macon House" on Middle Street, and she invited me to take a look. And while I was sitting in the sun-drenched dining room with the Timms, another chapter in Portsmouth's history emerged.

The original owner, who built the house in 1830, added a hotel at the rear named for Nathaniel Macon, a famously crusty North Carolina politician. The hotel was apparently a favorite of sea captains in its early days, then became a Confederate officers' residence. When the Union took control of the city in 1862, the hotel became a military hospital. Names of some of the soldiers can still be found where they had carved them into floorboards and rafters. The hotel part has been carved up into apartments, leaving only the adjoining house available for painstaking restoration.

Faye, who once managed the Virginia Opera in Norfolk and raises money for other performing arts organizations, prefers the quieter lifestyle on this side of the river. She and her husband can walk to the wonderfully lavish Commodore Theater, to nice local restaurants and the n'Telos Wireless Pavilion on the waterfront. And when they want to take in the opera or symphony on the other side of the river, the ferry provides a short, and often moon- drenched, ride. "I walk over to the seawall every morning," she said. "I love the view of Norfolk, especially at sunrise."

And the Timms love the neighborhood, especially the community spirit, people constantly comparing restoration ideas, sharing names of good carpenters or painters, or how they found exactly the right hinges for their shutters. "Here, you live with your neighbors," said David. "You do some work in your yard, you're liable to end up in some neighbor's house drinking a beer."

A retired Navy officer and engineer, David now makes jewelry as a hobby in their basement. The part that intrigued me was the area next to his shop, where there was still a dirt floor and the remains of a privy. He speculated that the basement contained slave quarters. "I don't think the gentry lived on dirt floors in those days," he said.

I thanked the Timms for their hospitality and walked over to High Street, the hub of Olde Towne's revival. There's the old Norfolk County Courthouse, now an art gallery, on the corner of High and Court streets. Across High is Trinity Episcopal Church, one of the oldest (1761) of the city's lovely places of worship. Among those resting in Trinity's churchyard is Commodore James Barron, the man who surrendered the Chesapeake to the British without much of a fight and who years later killed Navy hero Stephen Decatur in a duel. Next door to the cemetery is the Art Deco style Commodore Theater, named for the man who won the duel but lost his honor.

A few doors down High is the Children's Museum of Virginia, one of the best such places in America. Inside, kids were sitting in the cab of a fire engine and on the seat of a police motorcycle. Others were making giant bubbles, operating a sound studio, playing an outsized drum and a big tuning fork. "Come here! Look at this!" one of them called to her mom, pointing to a freeze-frame of her shadow on the wall. Part of the museum contains the Lancaster Antique Toy & Train Collection, one of the largest model train exhibits in the nation. There are 80 operating trains and hundreds more on display, with a full-time train technician keeping things running. A boy stood with his head inside a Plexiglass bubble, watching with wide-eyed wonder as an O-gauge freight train rolled through a mountain pass.

Down at the High Street Landing, the Seawall Art Show was going strong. The variety was impressive, with painters, photographers, sculptors, stained glass artists and jewelry makers. One item I admired was a wire sculpture of a couple of tango dancers. Down at the waterfront, a quartet called the Doorway Singers was doing very good renditions of swing-era favorites. With "Stompin' at the Savoy" ringing in my ears, I could have stayed and gazed all day.

Instead, I headed back down to North Landing, hopped back in my boat and moved her over to Tidewater Yacht Marina. This place, with hundreds of slips, is a huge presence on the Portsmouth waterfront. On the way in, I noticed a boat that had been anchored near Hospital Point was now at a slip at the marina. Cruisers are an important presence here, too, and I decided to drop by for a visit.

Mike and Lisa Taylor, along with Michelle, 16, and Ryan, 14--as well as their dog Lucy--have been living aboard a 51-foot Morgan ketch, Diligence, for two years. Without a protest from the kids, they sold their house in Merritt Island, Fla., bought the boat and began the cruising life.

And what a nice life it seems to be for them. Although the kids are a little tardy keeping up with home-schooling work, they're learning life lessons on the water they'll never forget, Mike said. While we were talking, he picked up a walkie-talkie and called Ryan to see if he'd run an errand. A couple of minutes later, Ryan roared up in the inflatable like a veteran waterman and stopped on a dime, grabbed a couple bags of trash and took off again, this time to pick up Michelle at the marina pool.

"It's a fantastic place to be," Mike said of life on the water. On overnight sailings offshore, the kids take turns standing watches. "It would be hard if they hated it, but they actually want to do it."

How long will this phase of their life last? I asked Lisa.

"As long as they love it," she said. The next day they were setting sail for the upper Bay.

I had to run. My wife Barb was waiting for me at a restaurant on Washington Street. I closed up the boat and hoofed it over. The place, recommended by the Timms, was called Krush, a restaurant and martini lounge that recently opened. With its playful menu and a decor that includes sofas and hanging bubble-encased chairs, the place was fun. And the food, with entrees like sesame-seared tuna and honey- Dijon roasted pork chops, was exotic.

After dinner, we walked several blocks to one of the city's premier attractions, the outdoor n'Telos Wireless Pavilion, which is perched, with swooping, wing-like awnings, right next to the river. It was late August and the last performance of the season was by stalwart Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd. It wasn't exactly my cup of tea, but I couldn't resist the lure of music on the waterfront. While they were wailing away with "Free Bird" and "Sweet Home Alabama," we stood at the top of the lawn seating area and looked out over the river. Yachts were pulling into next-door Ocean Marina and tugs were rushing by on their errands. Across the water, sparks from soldering spilled down the side of a dry-docked ship.

A couple of weeks later, lured by a late September full moon, my mom, Elizabeth Clancy, and I took the ferry over at sunset. We strolled along the seawall, paused at a bench for a bite to eat and watched the moon rise over the water. Perhaps a bit moonstruck, I decided that this city, founded by mariners, nurtured by those who care about its past, is my kind of sweet home.

CRUISER'S DIGEST: Portsmouth, Va.
Boating to Portsmouth means negotiating about 8 miles of an often-busy river, the Elizabeth. First there's Norfolk Naval Base, the world's largest, on your port, followed by Norfolk International Terminal and Lambert's Point coal piers. Just beyond, to starboard, is the new Maersk shipping terminal, followed by Portsmouth Marine Terminal. There are also major ship repair facilities. Needless to say, there's bound to be traffic, often tugs and sometimes tugs and barges. But the main channel is wide and deep, with room for everyone. Heading south, I frequently move to the left of the green markers, where there's still plenty of depth, to avoid the congested channel.

You'll pass the Western Branch of the Elizabeth and Scott Creek (which most locals call Scott's Creek) on your right and then the campus of Portsmouth Naval Hospital. Just beyond is red "36," Mile Marker Zero for the Intracoastal Waterway, and Hospital Point, a favorite cruisers' anchorage. Right next to the point is Tidewater Yacht Marina. Passing the marina you enter the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth. Downtown Portsmouth, with its long seawall, is on the right. There are two ferry landings, at North Street and High Street, where boaters can tie up free during daylight hours. At the end of the seawall is Ocean Marine Yacht Center and the n'Telos Pavilion. Just beyond is the Navy Yard.

You can walk to several restaurants, the Children's Museum, the public library, the Commodore Theater, antiques shops and the historic streets of Olde Towne. You can also take the ferry to Norfolk for $1. The major downtown marinas are Tidewater Yacht Marina (757-393-2525) and Ocean Marine Yacht Center (757-399-2920), both with overnight slips, fuel and repair capability. Scott Creek, just before downtown, has Scott's Creek Marina (757-399-2628), and Portsmouth Boating Center (757-397-2092) has fuel and a boatyard.