Looking out over the Rappahannock River from a new 100-foot fishing pier in Port Royal, VA, Cleo Coleman sees more than a good place to cast a line. She sees the town’s past, present and future. “You are looking at the primary fact that the town is here,” Coleman said.
The Rappahannock River was once essential for commerce and transportation, and Port Royal boomed because of it. Although that’s no longer the case, Coleman said that opportunities for recreation on and near the river are drawing visitors to this sleepy town at the crossroads of VA Route 301 and Route 17.
Coleman is one of the prime movers behind the revival of Port Royal, which has been under way for several decades. She founded the nonprofit, Historic Port Royal, after returning to the town where she grew up and where her great-grandfather, a freed slave, and successive generations in her family made a living from the land and river.
“I have a passion for history,” said the retired fourth-grade teacher. She’s used that passion to help fuel the town’s reawakening to its own history.
Coleman explained that a wharf once stood where the pier is now. In the 1700s, the wharf at Port Royal provided a deepwater berth for ships on the Rappahannock carrying supplies from England to the colonists. For more than 100 years, the port and the ferry service across the river ensured the vitality of the town.
Port Royal’s name was likely derived from its 1744 designation as an official port and warehouse containing the Crown’s tobacco and hosting a licensed inspector of the “sweet Virginia tobacco” that was loaded on the ships bound back to London.
The town was laid out in 84 half-acre lots. Today, Main Street is now VA Route 301, which crosses the Rappahannock River at Port Royal.
After crossing the Route 301 bridge, southbound visitors may notice two brick chimneys, stabilized by timbers. They mark what was once the home of Dorothy Roy, the only woman licensed to operate a tobacco warehouse in the colonies.
Set farther back from the highway in the shade of towering sycamores and oaks, sits the Port Royal Museum of American History, home base of Historic Port Royal.
Inside is a treasure trove of artifacts carefully arranged to follow the course of local history, from Indian settlements dating back thousands of years through the colonial years, Civil War and modern era.
“We call this a museum of American history because you can trace our nation’s history through the displays that chronicle Caroline County’s history,” said Carolyn “Cookie” Davis, president of Historic Port Royal.
Display cases show arrowheads, stone mortars and pestles, and a silver shield bearing the English Crown. Capt. John Smith and other early European explorers offered these shields to Indian leaders. The artifacts were uncovered on a farm near Camden, a plantation home just downriver of Port Royal.
A large diorama of the plantation during an important battle of the Civil War anchors the room. Made by the same model makers employed by the Smithsonian museums, it shows Camden under siege in December 1862 by Union gunboats attempting to clear the river for ships moving supplies upriver.
In one corner hangs a copy of a self-portrait of John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated President Lincoln in 1865. When Booth fled the District of Columbia, he and an accomplice, David Herold, crossed the river at Port Royal and found shelter at the Garrett farm just south of town. There, Herold was apprehended. Booth was shot and killed.
Across the museum’s parking lot sits the Old Port Royal School House. It’s one of more than 20 one-room schools in Caroline County funded by Julius Rosenwald, a Jewish-American businessman who supported the education of African-American children in the rural south. In the spring and fall, groups of modern school children — and adults — receive a living history lesson from Coleman, experiencing the core principles of “God, community and cleanliness” taught in the African American school she grew up in.
Cookie Davis, whose Scottish ancestors settled here in the early 1700s, describes Port Royal as a survivor. “After the Civil War, the town kind of went to sleep,” she said.
Taken over by Union soldiers, townspeople moved inland. Then, as the railroad became the engine of commerce, the town’s riverside location was no longer as useful.
A surge in prosperity accompanied the building of the Route 301 bridge in 1924. But when Interstate 95 was built, traffic was once again diverted away from Port Royal.
Today, as the town continues to work toward revival, people are increasingly finding that gas stations are not the only reason to stop by.
Travelers looking to escape the congestion of the I-95 corridor often take Route 301 over the bridge that arches gracefully over a quarter-mile stretch of the Rappahannock. At the base of the bridge, River Haven Restaurant serves locally caught catfish at tables overlooking the river. More restaurants are expected to open soon, Davis said.
Visitors can also stretch their legs on the town’s walking tour, which includes more than a dozen houses that remain from the 1700s and 1800s, built by shipwrights and carpenters. Protecting and restoring those buildings is a big part of the town’s revival. More recent buildings have benefited, too. Old-fashioned hotels from the 1960s have been converted into small businesses, and one is on its way to becoming Port Royal’s fourth antique shop.
At the end of Caroline Street is the new Port Royal Unit of the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge. Walking trails traverse grassland and shrubs, where visitors can spy sparrows, warblers and indigo buntings on the way to the Rappahannock, which is home to a large concentration of bald eagles and wintering waterfowl.
The Rappahannock Wildlife Refuge Friends were instrumental in building the trails, as well as the town’s new pier at the end of King Street. The pier serves anglers and also provides a launch site for canoes and kayaks — a point of departure for both the Port Royal Water Trail and the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.
Richard Moncure, the Friends of the Rappahannock’s tidal river steward, said that Port Royal is demonstrating how a community can make the most of its riverside location and its connection with a regional network of water trails. “When a town like Port Royal encourages use of the river by providing access, it helps with town revitalization,” Moncure said.
Local paddling routes are mapped for beginning, intermediate and advanced paddlers. The routes include intimate sections of the Rappahannock River as it meanders between bluffs and wide floodplains, much of which is protected by conservation easements. Paddlers travel through bald eagle habitat and buffered agricultural fields.
“You can understand the dependence that we have here on the agricultural community and connect the dots between what happens on the land impacts the river,” Moncure said.
There are also creeks to explore, like Peumansend, where the 17th-century pirate, Peuman, met his end while hiding at the head of the creek. “These are nooks and crannies you can only get to by water,” Moncure said.
Port Royal offers a total experience, said Ann Graziano, president of the refuge friends group. “You can launch at the pier, paddle down to one of the refuges or walk the trails, and return to the town for a meal or to shop for antiques.”
Then you can walk off that meal with a leisurely stroll past houses so old that restoration specialists from Williamsburg visited Port Royal to learn about architecture and landscaping in the early colonial days.
Along the way, you might see the Lyceum, the town’s only remaining brick structure from the colonial era.
Nearby, the Peyton-Brockenbrough house, once one of Port Royal’s finest homes, is shored up and awaiting a new owner. There’s a banner draped along the side advertising a restoration opportunity in bold block letters: “Opportunity to rescue this historic house where presidents and John Wilkes Booth have visited.”
Whether it’s a house restoration project, diving into local history at one of the town museums or heading off to paddle a stretch of the river, Port Royal is once again on its way to become a town worth stopping for.
Discover Port Royal & the Rappahannock
- Historic Port Royal lists events and hours at the Port Royal Museum of American History, Port Royal Portrait Gallery and Port Royal Museum of Medicine.
- The Rappahannock Wildlife Refuge Friends provides information about the Port Royal and Toby Units and the Port Royal Water Trail.
- The free Rappahannock River Water Trail app is available on iTunes.
- Background and maps are available for the John Smith Chesapeake Trail.