Issue: May 2008
FEATURE DESTINATION: Tappahannock on My Mind

Just an old sweet song--and 35 miles of river--put this small Rappahannock town on the list of favorite cruises.

by Jody Argo Schroath
photographs by Starke Jett

This was me, sailing my boat and singing: Come on, Bill, let's take them for an oldcountry rock. / Let's go back down on the Rappahannock, down Tappahannock way. / Whip it, Bill, while everybody rocks. The song is Bill Moore's early blues composition "Old Country Rock," but my rendition of it
could not, alas, have been counted in any way a success, since I amincapable of carrying a tune. However, I thought maybe Moore's ghost would be okay with it because (a) I was sailing alone and therefore not subject to mutiny, and (b) I was in fact sailing up the Rappahannock on my way to visit Tappahannock, Va.  

Moore, who had been a barber in Tappahannock, was also a leading bluesman of the East Coast or Piedmont variety. He recorded this song and five others of his own making for Paramount Records in Chicago in the winter of 1928. It's a recording that is now treasured by early blues collectors. In 2005, 54 years after he died, Moore got a historical marker of his own, placed along U.S. Route 17, near where his barbershop once stood. Bill Moore is just one of a fistful of intriguing things about this small town with the quadrisyllabic name on the banks of the quadrisyllabic river.  

So, as I said, I was singing to myself and sailing along, holding a generally northwest course in a generally southwest breeze. I had plenty of time to sing, since Tappahannock is about 35 miles upriver from Stingray Point at the mouth of the Rappahannock. Tappahannock has been around for a longish time, not counting its many, many centuries as a Native American settlement. English-settler-wise, though, it is nearly as old as you can get. Captain John Smith slept here--at least he tried to,

but was immediately given the bum's rush by the area's highly annoyed occupants. A few decades later, the colonists returned the favor in spades, pushing out the Indians, and the area became English, first under the appellation Hobbs His Hole, named for trader Jacob Hobbs and his anchorage. (That "His" in the middle of Hobbs His Hole is just the old-school way of making a possessive, by the way, like "the dog his dinner.") Then the name was changed to New Plymouth and,finally, in 1705, back to the name Smith had written on his map--Tappahannock, or "town on the rise and fall of water." Rappahannock meaning apparently "rise and fall of water." Tapp instead of Rapp, I mused dreamily in the warm sun. Rapp, Tapp . . . hmmm.

Here I am sailing and singing: When ev'ry stock you take is making money / When ev'ry heart you break / Is such a cinch, it's funny / Careful, Sonny / Rap-tap, rap-tap . . . on wood. No, a historical marker to Cole Porter is not another interesting thing about Tappahannock. Nevertheless, it wouldn't have hurt Tappahannock to do some rapping, tapping on wood. Like dozens of other strategically placed settlements on the Chesapeake and its tributaries, Tappahannock by the mid-18th century was a bustling center for trade, with ships stopping on their way up and down the river. But like many of the other early centers for trade, business dropped off as natural resources dwindled and overland routes developed. Pretty soon, the passage of time, like commerce, slowed to a trickle; and Tappahannock, like Rip van Winkle, pretty much dozed through the next couple of hundred years.

It's a long way to Tappahannock / It's a long way to go . . . As the sun grew warmer and I got sleepier, it seemed to me that dozing for a few years was not altogether a bad idea. I was making some progress, though. I had passed the Corrottoman River, then the town of Urbanna, Va., then Belle Isle State Park. As I sailed on, the dozens of boats that had flocked near the mouth of the Rappahannock dropped behind me, until by the time I reached Farnham Creek I was all alone. Not much of anybody makes the trek up to Tappahannock by sail these days--not only is the distance substantial, but the channel gets narrow for tacking and the current is often stronger than the wind.

Finally, the tiny inlet of Muddy Gut slipped by to port, and then Totutskey Creek to starboard. I stopped singing and sat up straight in my seat because right about Lowery Point the water on either side of me had gotten thinner than a Bryant Park model during Fashion Week. I started the engine and gave up my career as the Rappahannock's first lady of song. I was nearly there. The U.S. Route 360 bridge, which connects the Northern Neck with the Middle Peninsula, was only about three miles ahead. Now I also began keeping a close lookout for the vestigial remnants of another of Tappahannock's intriguing points of interest. And I found it, just outside the channel, about a mile past flashing green "29".

For 25 years, from 1924 to 1949, the most striking thing about Tappahannock was that it had a 273-foot wooden ship grounded just offshore. The ship, the Caponka, had been built in Portland, Ore., in 1918 in a world-record 49 days to help in America's supply effort during World War I. Unfortunately for her, however, the war ended a mere seven months later. In 1920, after only 52 days of active service, she was mothballed with 500 other members of the wooden fleet on the James River. But unlike most of her sisters, who were eventually taken up the Potomac and scuttled in Mallows Bay, the Caponka was purchased and taken to Reedville, Va., where her engines were removed for use in the menhaden fleet. Then she was purchased again and taken to her new owner's home of Tappahannock--where she ran aground about halfway between Jones Point and Hoskins Creek. It was here that she spent the rest of her inglorious career as a blot on the local landscape. But she was an interesting blot, and something of a local attraction. In fact, many residents felt that having a 273-foot wooden boat of uncertain derivation sitting offshore set their town apart from other, less-interesting towns. And when she burned in 1949--over two spectacular days, residents recall--many were sorry to lose their local landmark. A section of her charred hull still breaks the surface of the water.

So much for shipwrecks and whimsy, though, it was now time to come to grips with Tappahannock's shortcomings as a destination--no entirely satisfactory place to drop the hook. [See Cruiser's Digest.] Since the wind was still clipping along smartly, I opted for weather-friendly Hoskins Creek. After following the dredged channel inside, I edged out of the way until the lack of depth became alarming and then quickly toppled the CQR overboard. A short dinghy hop to the fishing dock, and I was ashore.

Now that I had Tappahannock firmly under foot, I had a couple of hours of daylight left to play with and a choice to make. Walking up from the dock, I passed White's Home and Auto (which carries a fair number of boating and fishing supplies), a gas station/fish store and a seafood restaurant/fish store before reaching the main highway, U.S. Route 17/360. (This took me 60 seconds. In a mild and entirely temporary attack of obsessive-compulsive behavior, I actually timed how long it took me to get from one place to another.) Here I had to choose. I could turn right and go into the historic section of town (10 minutes), visit the library (15 minutes) and then find a place for dinner (1 minutes, 3 minutes or 5 minutes), or I could turn left and enter the world of fast food, clothes shopping, Lowe's and Wal-Mart. Of course, I turned right. No, just kidding. I turned left, but only because I needed AA batteries. Besides, I was meeting a friend the next day to take the walking tour downtown, so why spoil it? The point is not so much that in Tappahannock there is history to the right and Wal-Mart to the left, but that both are within only a few minutes' walk--an ideal situation for boaters, who have to depend on their own 10 toes for hunting up culture as well as creature comforts.

After securing the AAs and poking about the shops for a bit, I retraced my steps and headed for Lowery's Restaurant, which has been serving food in Tappahannock for a mere 70 years, ever since Wesley and Lorelle Lowery opened a lunch counter in 1938. Lowery's remains a family business and a local institution. It even has three separate parking lots and nearly as many parking spaces as Wal-Mart. It's on the main highway, too--but in the cultural direction. I dined (gorged might be a more appropriate word) on crabcakes, hushpuppies and sweet tea, then retired to Hoskins Creek and a night onboard.

The following morning, over coffee and fresh muffin tops at Java-Jacks Coffee House (10 minutes), my friend Kathy Hubbard and I planned our trip through Tappahannock history, which fortunately had already been done for us at www.tappahannock.us. All we had to do was follow the map we had printed out and read the history bits aloud to the other's annoyance. (A tour brochure is also available at the Essex County Museum on Water Lane for those who like to read silently.) The tour starts with Beale Memorial Baptist Church, which was the courthouse in 1728--though it looks suspiciously Greek Revival now--and then moves on to the customshouse, an early 19th-century building that sits on a lot once owned by prosperous merchant Archibald Ritchie. An interesting thing here is that Ritchie, who thought the Stamp Act was a jolly good idea, was the target of local independence rabble-rousers like the Lees and four brothers of George Washington, who hated the Stamp Act and thought the jolly good idea would be to tar and feather Ritchie. Apparently, they thought better of it because they never did. Ritchie's actual house is another block up from the river on Prince Street and is now an attorney's office. Its interior is . . . in Delaware. Specifically, it is in the Tappahannock and Essex Rooms at the Winterthur Museum near Wilmington. Don't ask me why, though I'd guess it had something to do with piles of du Pont money. The oldest house on the tour is Scots Arms Tavern, which dates to 1680 and is now a private home.

Eventually, the tour wanders down Water Lane to take in several majestic buildings at St. Margaret's School, an Episcopal girls boarding and day school. Now, if you ask me why Tappahannock, an unprepossessing town of only 3,000 inhabitants dripping wet, has a clearly prosperous private girls school nestled comfortably in its midst, that I can tell you. It's on account of the sunrise. How do I know that? Because I went into St. Margaret's Hall (stop number 12 on the walking tour) to talk with the head of school, Margaret Broad. She explained that back in the 1930s the Diocese of Virginia sent a delegation to find a location for a school somewhere in the middle section of Virginia. While visiting Tappahannock, the committee saw the sun rise over the Rappahannock River and it knocked their Episcopal socks off. This is where the school will be, they decided then and there. The sunrise over the Rappahannock has been knocking the socks off generations of prospective students and their parents ever since. Broad swears this is a true story, though I did make up the part about the denominational socks.

"Come and look at this," Broad said to me, and I followed her out of the administration building and into the dining hall, which is all rounded glass several stories tall and feels for all the world like the command bridge of the Queen Mary (or what I imagine it to be). "How would you like to eat all of your meals in front of this view?" she asked. And, looking out on the Rappahannock, with the bridge arcing about a mile over the river to the left and marsh-edged riverbank as far as you could see to the right, I felt compelled to keep a close eye on my own socks, and it wasn't even sunrise.

Broad, a lifelong sailor, admits that the Tappahannock section of the Rappahannock is tough sledding for sailors. She and her husband David have sailed and chartered all over the world, but here they have given the sport up in favor of a pontoon boat. "Having sailed all over, I can say that this is one of the most beautiful places in the world," she said. "[The creeks] are the area's greatest charm. You are truly alone with nature. Up the creeks, you are surrounded by reeds, with no sound but the birds, and only the sun shining down you."

The 160 students at St. Margaret's make good use of the river, too, especially with their new three-season crew program. And each year, during River Days, students spend time at the river's edge, learning to take water samples, to identify native species of plants and animals, and to enjoy the water resource that flows by their front door.

Like many other small towns on the Bay, Tappahannock is finally turning its attention back to the river, as well. I left Hubbard to finish the tour, while I walked over to David Broad's office on Jeannette Street, backing up to Hoskins Creek (6 minutes). Broad, a twice-transplanted Englishman who grew up in France (where he and Margaret met while she was teaching there), is now very much rooted in Tappahannock's civic life. He was part of the group that organized the town's big annual summer shindig: Rivahfest. Now in its sixth year, the event, which will be held June 21 this year, draws thousands of visitors and a lot of boats--largely powerboats, pontoon boats and kayaks. Increasingly, David Broad said, organizers of Rivahfest are trying to incorporate river-based events. This year, plans are in the works for a raft race, a boat show and boat rides. "We're also looking at putting a water taxi service from the marina to the dock at St. Margaret's."

Another of David Broad's projects, the ongoing Main Street Program, is advocating the construction of a city pier. "We want to put Tappahannock back on the water to welcome visitors from the river," he said. Although it's a small town, he continued, it has a lot to offer boaters. "The whole population of Essex County is only 8,000, but we are the market place for 60,000 people from eight counties. That's why we have such a wide variety of businesses."

I walked back to Duke Street (7 minutes) and found my friend Kathy trying to decipher a typically time-damaged headstone in the graveyard next to St. John's Episcopal Church. "Stop!" I cried. "Enough culture, let's shop!" And we proceeded to sample every antiques store, gift shop and gallery we could find from A to Z, and including A to Z Antiques, Nadji Nook, Mayhew's, Queen Street Ltd., Coffman's and a lot more--Tappahannock is for some reason (don't know why) a veritable hotbed of antiques shops. We put the finishing touches on the whole shopping shebang at Hoskins Creek Table Co., presided over by John Vaughan, who used to just sell tables, but now makes them as well.

As we emerged from that shop with yet more packages, we saw that good fortune had put us only about 60 seconds away from Riverbank Cafe and Seafood. We were so hungry we made it there in under 45. More crabcakes for me, fried clam strips ("better than Howard Johnsons") for Kathy and a great heap of french fries for mutual plunder. We went from hungry to immobilized in minutes. I was nearly, but not quite, too full to waddle down to T n' L BBQ (3 minutes) to put in my order with Jimmy and Linda Taylor for tomorrow's lunch on the rivah (sorry, it's the law to write it like that down heah). While Kathy returned to Kinsale with all our loot, I secured a heap of barbecued pork ribs to go. Yes, I know, the Coast Guard disapproves of eating ribs while steering a boat, but I figured I'd have plenty of time to wash myself and the cockpit down before I reached the mouth of the Rappahannock.

Ribs in hand, I returned to the boat, where I watched the Rappahannock cruise boat Captain Thomas return to its dock on Hoskins Creek and then a tug nudge its barge up to the Perdue granary. Finally, and humming quietly to myself, I watched the sun set over busy U.S. Route 17/360 (not a sight that would have attracted many school committees, perhaps). I dove down into the icebox for a very cold bottle of ale and gloried in my discovery of Tappahannock as a boating destination--even for a sailor. In the immortal words of the Trade Winds' surf classic: ooh, ooh, ooh, ahh, ahh, ahh . . . New York's a lonely town / When you're the only surfer boy around . . . ooh, ooh, ooh, ahh, ahh, ahh . . .Tappahannock's a lovely town / When you're the only sailor girl around . . . ooh, ooh, ooh, ahh, ahh, ahh. Fade.



Cruiser's Digest:Tappahannock, Va.

Options for anchoring at Tappahannock are limited, but they do exist. June Parker Marina lies just on the other side of the bridge and has limited space for transients but no fuel. You also have to be able to clear the bridge's 50 feet of vertical clearance. Look for local red "2" and then follow the local markers, proceeding with an abundance of caution if you have any draft to speak of. If the wind is not an issue, shallow-draft boats can drop the hook near the rough boat ramp at the foot of Prince Street, which leads you straight into historic downtown Tappahannock. Study the chart carefully and keep a sharp eye out here; there are lots of submerged pilings from former bridges and a history book's worth of ruined wharfs. If all that sounds too daunting, Hoskins Creek, just downriver from downtown, has a dredged channel to allow barges and tugs access to the substantial Perdue granary inside. Look for flashing green "1" to find the entrance to the channel. Once inside, the trick is to find a pocket of deep water outside the channel where you can drop the anchor. I have been told by local residents that you can also anchor just outside Hoskins Creek in an adjacent small cove--being ever vigilant of the depth--but I haven't tried it. Inside or out, you can then dinghy to the public fishing dock and boat ramp. Because of Tappahannock's compact size, any of these three options allows easy access on foot to all parts of town. And if you have a shallow-draft boat, you're in like Jake.

MARINAS
June Parker Marina(804-443-2131; rivahmarine@rivnet.net) Call ahead to inquire whether transient slips are available; depth of channel and slips four-foot MLW, but may vary; gas only; ship's store.

Garretts Marina/Harborside Storage, Bowler's Wharf. (www.garrettsmarina.com; www.harbor
sitestorage.com) Shallow-draft vessels only; call 804-443-2573 to inquire whether transient slips are available; call 804-443-0190 for repairs; gas only; ship's store.

RESTAURANTS
The restaurants mentioned in the story are in the "cultural" direction (north) from Hoskins Creek and all are along U.S. Route 17/360 (Church Lane). There other many other good restaurants in town too.

Java Jacks Coffee House(804-443-5225) Wi-Fi.

Lowery's Seafood Restaurant(804-443-2800; www.lowerysrestaurant.com).
Riverbank Cafe & Seafood, at Hoskins Creek (804-443-2002).

T n' L BBQ(804-443-5959).

BED AND BREAKFAST
Essex Inn,203 Duke Street (804-377-3982; www.essexinnva.com).


JUST ONE MORE INTRIGUING STORY
One final interesting event in the life of Tappahannock. This one you might remember because it even made the network news. On Christmas Day, 2003, Tappahannock was placed on high alert, doubling its usual holiday police patrol from one to two, after the town was alerted by the FBI that federal eavesdroppers had picked up unspecified chatter that may have sounded like "Tappahannock" or "Rappahannock." Also on that day, state highway patrol officers drove through town a little more often, and, CNN reported, a few local citizens scrutinized their fellow diners at McDonald's just a little bit more carefully. Happily, nothing ever came of it, and life in Tappahannock went along just as pleasantly as ever.