Virginia’s Eastern Shore
By Renée S. Gordon
The Eastern Shore of Virginia is a 70-mile tract of land on the Delmarva Peninsula enclosed by the Atlantic Ocean on the east and the Chesapeake Bay on the west. It consists of two counties, Accomack and Northampton, a series of barrier islands, and is the longest remaining natural coastline along the entire eastern seaboard. The region begins at the Maryland state line and ends at the southernmost point of the peninsula.
The earliest settlers were Native Americans who left a legacy of artifacts and place names. In the early 16th-Century explorers visited the territory and in 1608 Captain John Smith and a small crew mapped the area. The English took ownership from the indigenous people in 1614 and in 1620 they, accompanied by slaves, established permanent settlements.
A visit to the Eastern Shore is perfect for everyone. There are opportunities for active tourism and quiet places for a romantic or solitary stroll. Sites are family friendly and yet the area abounds with antique shops and wineries that appeal to a select group. History buffs will love the huge collection of historic homes and quaint towns that seem arrested in time. It is affordable and best of all, it's only a few hours drive and yet it's a world away. www.esvatourism.org
This tour begins with a ride across the 17.6-mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. The bridge is considered one of the "Seven Engineering Wonders of the Modern World." Four man-made islands provide access to the two tunnels and two bridges, the 3,800-ft North Channel Bridge and the 460-ft. Fisherman Inlet Bridge, and the tunnels connect Virginia Beach, VA with the Eastern Shore and it was completed in 1963 at a cost of $139,200,000. www.cbbt.com
The Chesapeake Grill, a marvelous dining establishment, opened on the bridge in July of this year. It is located 13.5-miles from the Eastern Shore and is a destination in itself. The menu makes extensive use of fresh seafood and ingredients and the view, especially during sunsets and storms, is unparalleled. Virginia Originals Gift shop on the premises has an eclectic selection of Virginia products. www.virginia-originals.com
Kiptopeke State Park is three-miles from the bridge and this migratory flyway has been one of 15 birding areas since 1963. From August until November migratory birds are captured, examined and banded. A pristine maritime forest that looks exactly as John Smith would have seen it borders the park's beach and the breakwater is comprised of concrete ships used for target practice during World War II.
The park offers several types of reasonable accommodations, family cabins that house up to 16 people, trailers, campgrounds and even a yurt. Reservations can be made online. www.dcr.virginia.gov/state_parks/kip.shtml
Charming Cape Charles, situated 10 miles north of the bridge, is filled with Victorian homes, 1920s Sears and Roebuck mail order houses, B&Bs, two nationally ranked golf courses, eateries and historic sites. The area was named Cape Charles on April 26, 1607 in honor of a prince who later became Charles I. The one square mile town dates from 1884. www.capecharles.org
Cape Charles Museum and Welcome Center opened in 1996 as a museum. Highlights of the collection include a huge 16 1/2 bore Busch-Sulzer diesel fuel injection engine, artifacts, maps, an exhibit on the tunnel and a display on Jefferson's, an African American store. The museum also relates the story of the creation of Chesapeake Bay by a meteor 35 million years ago. The crater, the largest in the country, is 26 miles wide and as deep as the Grand Canyon. The two-mile wide meteor was traveling at 21-miles per second.
City walks take in the Palace Theater constructed for $75,000 in 1942. The theater has a faithfully restored Art Deco lobby and breathtaking 30-ft. linen murals in the main auditorium. "Arts Enter Cape Charles" offers a full season of theatrical productions as well as educational opportunities.
Bay Creek Railway was built in 1913 and restored in 2008. The No. 316 functions as a dining car with fine dining, charter services and pizza runs. www.baycreekrailway.com
Old Plantation Flats Light Station is unique. The light within the two-story cottage was first lit in 1886. The structure was 28-ft square and stood atop five screwpiles. It has been restored and contains a 180-lb replica light and a 225-lb. bronze fog bell. It is not in the bay because remnants of the original lighthouse is still there, 1.5-miles away. This is a very unique site and one that should not be missed.
Two of Cape Charles' best treats are the harbor, where visitors can watch the fishermen bring in the catch of the day, and a stay at the award-winning Cape Charles House, a fantastic B&B with all the amenities and a great breakfast to start your day. www.capecharleshouse.com
One of the charms of the Eastern Shore is the ability to visit the shops of craftsmen and watch them work as well as purchase items made exclusively for you. Kurt Lewin is a master woodworker whose expertise is handcrafted Windsor chairs. His heirloom quality chairs and stools are created using the tools and methods perfected in the 18th-century. Classes are available for those wishing to try their hand. Antiques are also for sale in the shop. Seaview, VA. www.lewinwindsorchairs.com
Littleton Eyre purchased the land near Cherrystone Creek in 1754. At that time his estate consisted of more than 3,000 acres and 106 slaves. He is credited with constructing the first portion of Eyre Hall, a wooden house with one-and-a-half stories and four rooms. In 1796 there was an addition of a gambrel roof and a wing. The estate continues to be owned by the family and it is significant architecturally and historically.
The complex is made up of several dependencies, the oldest of which is the 1760 dairy house, the family cemetery and a series of garden rooms within the oldest continuously maintained garden in the Commonwealth. Notably rare is the orangery, an early greenhouse, constructed of handmade bricks with housing on the second level for the enslaved who tended to the plants.
Eastville has been the Northampton County seat since 1680 but the area was populated around 1614 when settlers, both black and white, free and enslaved, began migrating to the region from the Jamestown area. This "land beyond the water" was known as Accawmacke by the indigenous people and was one of Virginia's eight shires in the 1630s. In 1662 free blacks were recorded in America for the first time and 1664 tax rolls list 62, more than 10%, free blacks. In 1643 the county was divided in two and the lower portion took the name of Northampton in an effort to eradicate "heathen" references. www.northamptoncountychamber.com
The most documented black residents were Anthony and Mary Johnson, probably two of the original Angolan Africans sold into Jamestown in 1619. The Johnsons became the owners of a plantation, indentured servants and slaves. Records indicate that Johnson was America's first black freedman, the first black property owner the first black slave-owner and, astonishingly, based on a 1654 court case regarding his slave John Casor, the first to obtain an involuntary servant for life based on said individual's commission of a crime. www.nps.gov/ethnography/aah/aaheritage/Chesapeake_furthRdg2.htm
Eastville is definitely an important destination for lovers of history because it lists a number of singular sites on the Eastville Visitor's Loop and boasts the oldest continuous county court records in the country, dating from 1632.
A great way to experience Eastville's charms is to begin your tour in the historic courthouse area with a meal at the Eastville Inn Restaurant. The original part of the structure was erected in 1726 for use as lodging for the adjacent courthouse. Chef Charles and Shannon Thain build their meals around local seafood, produce and wines. www.eastvilleinn.com
The preserved 1899 brick courthouse anchors the 18th-Century village green. The county records are stored here. Two monuments are located nearby, one to confederate soldiers and one dedicated to Debdeavon, "the Laughing King," who was chief of the area tribe.
The complex has two earlier structures the most significant of which is the Clerk's Office. It functioned as the courthouse and housed the records and was built to be fireproof with a stone floor and a masonry ceiling. The jewel of the city, showcased here, is the only original slave measuring stick in the hemisphere. It is currently undergoing preservation in Williamsburg but one can still see its outline on the wall. As county seat business was conducted here and the slave trade was lucrative in the region. The 1790 census indicates that the county held more free blacks than any other region in the southern US.
In the rear of the Clerk's Office is the Debtor's Prison, a single story brick structure with double-barred windows. The room is furnished as it would have been with a straw pallet on the floor and a stool.
Just south of Eastville is the Bibbins' Cemetery, the oldest extant African American cemetery in the county. The internments span the years from 1867-1927.
Virginia is a spectacular destination any time of year but in the fall it dresses up in lustrous reds and golds just for you. In part two we'll cover the northern portion of the state's Eastern Shore, until then you can begin to plan your visit by accessing travel-planning resources on the web. www.Virginia.org/fall and www.esvatourism.org
I wish you smooth and enchanting travels!
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