A National Park Service study has endorsed the idea of designating the nearly 3,000-mile route of Capt. John Smith’s Chesapeake Bay explorations as a National Historic Trail.
The feasibility study, completed in late July, agreed that the trail met the legal requirements for joining other nationally historic routes with that designation, such as the Lewis and Clark and Pony Express trails. If Congress goes along, it would be the first water trail to be designated as a national historic trail system.
“John Smith’s voyages throughout the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries led to an unprecedented understanding of the geography of the region, an understanding that would eventually translate into writings and maps that would guide future travelers and settlers in the region for centuries,” the study said.
During a series of journeys that spanned 1607–09, Smith made the first European contact with many of the Native American tribes living around the Bay, and provided the first detailed written descriptions of the Chesapeake, its landscape and resources.
The study concluded that the trail could provide new opportunities for education, recreation and heritage tourism in the region. “In providing a focus on and appreciation of the resources associated with Smith’s voyages, the trail would help to facilitate protection of those resources,” it said.
The study, which was the subject of public comments during the summer, will lead to a final recommendation by the Park Service that will then go to Congress. That would clear the way for action on legislation to establish the trail, which has already been introduced by Bay area lawmakers in both the House and Senate.
Lawmakers have said they would like to have the trail officially designated by the time of the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown next year.
Eventually, the study envisions a trail that would be managed by the National Park Service, but which would consist mainly of access points and historical and cultural sites managed by various state and federal agencies, nonprofit organizations, museums and others.
In addition to retracing John Smith’s journey, the route would recognize the Native American towns and culture of the 17th century and draw attention to the natural history of the Bay.
The Park Service would provide overall guides to the trail, and help to coordinate interpretation of important sites along the trail and coordinate access. Several “hubs” along the trail would serve as main interpretative and orientation points for visitors.
The trail would be also be coordinated with the existing Chesapeake Bay Gateways and Watertrails Network, Chesapeake Bay Gateways and with plans by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Chesapeake Bay Office to develop a series of interactive buoys that would mark the important sites along Smith’s route.
Although the trail is primarily envisioned as a route that would be experienced from the water by boat, the plan says it is possible that non-boaters may eventually be able to take advantage of the trail. “Where feasible and desirable, roads that parallel the historic routes could be marked as an auto tour route to provide non-boaters the ability to experience the trail,” the study said.
The study examined a no action alternative and the potential of a trail administered by the states. It concluded that the states were unlikely to have sufficient resources to undertake a major coordinated initiative without federal support, and that taking no action would result in only a “piecemeal” interpretation of Smith’s voyages with no overall coordination.