Editor’s Note: February’s “Past is Prologue” featured entries from Kent Mountford’s 1964 log book pertaining to his first trip in the Chesapeake region. The journey, with his former college roommate Bill Roome, began in the Delmarva Peninsula. This month, which begins in Cape Charles, VA, contains entries from the conclusion of the pair’s trip.
We stood on the sand beach at Kiptopeake, an area later acquired by Virginia for a state park, but then just wild shoreline with few access points. We were only half aware that Hurricane Gladys was offshore and drawing a bead on the Virginia Capes at that very moment.
“…An odd surf ran onto the beach from the S(outh)W(est) here ‘backlashing’ around the Cape and hitting here a mile or two above the old Kiptopeake Ferry pier, now abandoned for the Bridge Tunnel. We found redbeard sponge (Microciona porifera, a scarlet species and one of the Bay’s most colorful) which was growing on whelks. (These were Busycon carica and B. Canaliculatum, two species valued by pre-colonial Native Americans for making ornaments that were traded deep into the mainland. They’re now harvested commercially.) [There were] hundreds of horseshoe crab sheddings and a few crab traps scattered along this almost deserted, clean beach behind which rose the fifty-foot bluff.…Beautiful view.”
The Chesapeake here is about 15 nautical miles wide, and it is possible look at a horizon with no hint of the Western Shore. This beach was the first on Chesapeake Bay to be visited by John Smith in his 1608 voyage. It has always been important spring spawning habitat for horseshoe crabs, one of Earth’s most ancient living species which is now threatened by overfishing.
“[After crossing the causeway to Fisherman’s Island] we strode the channel (from Cape Charles to Cape Henry) by virtue of the rather remarkable but sterile and somewhat purloining Bridge Tunnel, sweeping over a choppy sea with stiff crosswinds. The toll was $4.85.”
Today, the same trip costs $12 in a passenger car. This 17.6-mile bridge-tunnel complex spans the whole Bay mouth and is the world’s longest. It was brand new in 1964, and had opened just 159 days before our crossing.
The lower shore—an isolated backwater—was since the 1930s serviced by ferries leaving Kiptopeake for Norfolk and Virginia Beach. In 1954, the Chesapeake Bay Ferry District Commission was created and $200 million in bonds were floated to construct the first crossing. Another $197 million bond was issue for a second, parallel crossing that opened in 1999. The system has carried 80 million vehicles since Bill and I drove over.
[On Cape Henry,] “near Virginia Beach we stumbled on a natural seashore area which the Virginia Park Service has auspiciously preserved. We expected to find dunes and salt hay by clear lagoons. To our surprise we walked for several hours beside black pools from which rose mighty bald cypress and with festoons of Spanish moss which neither of us had seen before in nature. A remarkable plant and a worthwhile stroll over two well-planned trails. There was a lot of (dry, upland) woodland too, and we saw another snake, this time a beautiful fellow with brilliant orange belly.” (This was the orange bellied subspecies of the water snake.)
The area, today’s First Landing Park, commemorates the place where the Jamestown adventurers first came ashore in April 1607.
“We met L.W. Hooper, Ranger, who informed us that the weird cypress knees, actually conical knobs, were biologically gas vents for the tree.”
Later science has disproved this then-plausible explanation. In 2005, at Maryland’s Battle Creek Cypress Swamp, Natural Resources Director Dwight Williams explained that the knees are actually the buckling of long radial roots. They provide stable footing in soft, often anoxic, soils and form by bending, very much like real knees.
“He (Hooper) gave us his opinion that we would be able to spend a day or so out there without jeopardy from hurricane Gladys, which then seemed imminent to us. We took his advice...
“The ocean was rough but the surf had a long reach and did not pound as on our (North Jersey) beaches. The sun set perfectly clear...”
We were not yet under the outer cloud bands of Gladys and the deceptive clarity led us on.
“Sallying forth…after a fair meal, we strode beneath a full moon picking up a mess of tar on our shoes (Tar balls were common before today’s tanker laws.) and capturing one of the huge 6" ghost crabs that tear about the beaches after dark. In the sink back at our room, he appeared just a larger version of the little ones we have home. Released him on the dune front of the place, getting sandblasted in the process the wind being up to about 25 knots.
“Dawn was clear with just some scud (fragmented, low clouds) coming off the ocean and we started [off] after breakfast with the sun streaming in on us. It closed in with remarkable rapidity…sand whipped in on a breeze that probably touched moderate gale (32 knots)…It was raining as we made our way up [the dunes] but the wet sand still carried free making it impossible to face the wind. Still it seemed to redouble with the sand physically roaring through the gaps, tearing the very skin off my legs and threatening to blow me into the valley beyond. I had never felt anything so awesome in nature.” I estimated the wind conservatively at 60 knots (about 70 mph).”
Hurricanes have played powerful roles in the Chesapeake’s history. In August 1814, during the British sack of Washington, D.C., a hurricane off Chesapeake Bay struck the city with such intensity that the marauders abandoned their destruction and returned to their ships. In 1933, many shoreside towns were mauled by a virtually unannounced, and unnamed hurricane that scored a direct hit in the Bay. The effects of Isabel in 2003 remain in the Chesapeake consciousness.
After the hurricane, we arrived in Hampton, VA, at the mouth of the James. Beneath it lie the remains of the Indian village of Kecoughtan where Smith and the Jamestown adventurers were entertained and spent a memorable and warm Christmas in 1608. Jamestown’s recording secretary, William Strachey, wrote, in part: “Kecoughtan…is an ample and faire Country indeed.” While the area has now been developed, it was still a pretty fair country for us that night when we arrived tired and windblown.
“The next day found us at vastly differing activities. First came the remarkable Mariner’s Museum at Newport (-News, VA), where we saw some of the most unusually detailed ship models in the world. Most of them had some unusual detail highlighted with a spotlight and magnifier, such as groups of figures arguing on deck, or minute cherubim clustered on a transom or gunport carving. At the close of our visit, I slipped in and reported that periagua (See “Past is Prologue,” February, 2006.) to the curator in hopes they might preserve her.”
The Newport News Mariner’s Museum has continued to grow and is today an excellent repository of information, artifacts and exhibits on the Chesapeake.
“Jamestown, a reconstructed colonial settlement, filled our afternoon. (Today, much enhanced, it’s known as Jamestown Settlement Park, just upstream of the uncovered fort site.) The job has been very well done, and the three little ships proved of special interest. A crewman with flowing hair and a manicured beard…walked about with us and provided...interesting information. ...The ships, he said, were built of green (unseasoned) lumber and were even now rotting faster than they could be preserved. ‘Tis a sad commentary on (the lack of) forethought, but at least they still sail one of them.”
The Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery replicas had been built only six years earlier and the speed of their decomposition would prove very costly for the Jamestown Yorktown Foundation, which would have to replace them in the 1970s and is in the process of replacing them yet again. (See “Past is Prologue,” January 2006.)
“We bid the [crewman] good-by and permitted him to return to his seat atop a reproduced ‘culverin’ which poked its muzzle beneath the ship’s rail.”
His successors at the modern settlement park are equally as cordial to visitors, fully portraying 17th century characters and skilled interpreters in their own right.
The real Jamestown is emerging from the archaeological excavations of the fort site downstream, on adjacent parcels owned by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities and the U.S. Park Service. Archaeologist Beverly “Bly” Straub showed me their behind-the-scenes collections in January 2005. The extraordinary artifacts reveal detail upon detail of the colony’s struggle, failures and coping 400 years ago. Much historical interpretation has focused on the vanities and stupidity of the colony’s “gentlemen,” some of whom were wasteful, selfish, uninformed and unwilling to work. Straub, however, has deep respect and sympathy for most of these first settlers. “They tried so hard to make it work,” she said.
After spending the night in Richmond, Bill and I returned to the rim of the Chesapeake next day:
“Stopping for the better part of the day at Calvert (or Scientists') Cliffs, which has been preempted pretty much as an exclusive residential area.”
It still is, and is open only to those who live or have friends living within the community. Nearby, though, is Calvert Cliffs State Park, where one can hike down to the cliff’s base and beach.
“We had no idea how to actually get to the “Scientist Cliffs” shown on our free Esso roadmap.” (Esso was the predecessor to Exxon; the maps are no longer free.)
This was a rural area; even the main roads were two-lane and we stopped by a little rundown country store called Ogden’s. The store, itself, dated perhaps as early as 1825 and by the mid-19th century was headquarters for the “tobacco factor” or regional merchant. Tobacco, since colonial times had drawn from the soil of this hard-scrabble Calvert County. Retail trade in the 1800s was carried out under the name Beniah Bowen’s Store.
Today’s proprietor Bobby Ogden, an enormous man, directed us down still smaller roads till we came to the top of the cliffs, lined with little cottages. We found only one draw leading down to the beach, and a pleasant man standing by a log cabin said we could park there and asked if we would like to see the fossils in his basement.
This man, I discover years later, was George Flippo Gravatt, a plant pathologist and expert on the American chestnut blight, which in a decade had made virtually extinct a tree that may have covered up to a third of East Coast hardwood forests in 1608. Gravatt and his wife, Annie, had started this community as an enclave for trained scientists, and proof of that pedigree was long required for entry to the owners association.
Gravatt’s cabin—and its furniture—were built entirely from chestnut logs salvaged from the dying species. Many trees lay in the forest for decades, testimony to their great resistance to weathering, termites and rot. Chestnut Cottage, as it’s known today, is home to Scientist Cliffs’ Community Association, and the little “museum” is still downstairs.
My log from 1964 continues:
“The whole region represents a sectioned outcrop of fossiliferous material spanning the late Eocene, early, middle and late Miocene, and some Pleistocene. We made some rather fruitful hauls including, for my part, three beautifully preserved and nicely spaced in size shark teeth (for which Calvert Formation is famous).”
We visited Rod Barr, a naval architect living near the District of Columbia.
“Next day we did a good portion of the museumry in Washington…Bill was tired…and I had a headache…the pace was no doubt showing. We eased off and relaxed…We drove up to the Great Falls of the Potomac…This is something I had never so much as heard of before and gives the impression that someone has dropped the Falls of Zambesi (in Africa) amid Washington’s surrounding woodlands.”
My impression of Great Falls was “a great labyrinth of huge rock and tumbling cataract, even at this ebb of water flow.” That flow was signal to the worst drought in decades, then in progress, with the Potomac delivering 609 cubic feet per second—near its low-flow record of 601 cfs in 1906.
The Washington Beltway was brand new in 1964 and this sojourn was almost entirely before the great wave of development. Barr was even then lamenting this wave as some future horror.
Bill and I left the Chesapeake region the next morning, completing a trip of 1,491 miles, not too different from Smith’s discovery voyages in 1608.
My Volkswagen Bug, getting almost 35 miles per gallon, burned just less than 43 gallons of gas. Forty-two years ago, this cost $13.12 or about 30 cents a gallon. Those figures have changed about as much as the Bay!