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.
by Paul Clancy
photographs by Jay Paul
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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."
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."
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
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
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.