An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Abraham Lincoln visited Fort Monroe in 1861 to help plan the Union attack on Norfolk. Lincoln's visit was in 1862. The error has been corrected below.
Escapes: History at its most unexpected
Friday, September 17, 2010
The night before I left for Hampton, Va., I wasn't able to download the city's promoted iPod tours. The next morning, I discovered that the outlets in my rental car were dead, rendering my GPS device useless.
At least I knew that getting to the waterfront city, about 80 miles east of Richmond where the Chesapeake Bay meets the harbor of Hampton Roads, was easy enough: south on I-95, east on I-64. But I arrived in Hampton not quite knowing where I was going or what I was going to do, not unlike the legendary Capt. John Smith, who'd stumbled upon the area in April 1607, before moving inland to what would become Jamestown to avoid marauding Spaniards.
Thankfully, I had no enemy other than my own cluelessness. Settling in for lunch at Goody's Deli & Pub, I spread out a leaflet I'd picked up at an interstate rest stop. From behind the bar, Kate Lawrence had no problem pegging me as an out-of-towner. She also happened to be one of Hampton's downtown ambassadors.
"This is like a little town in a big city," she said of the downtown area of the burg of approximately 144,000 people.
When I expressed an interest in a harbor tour, Lawrence quickly checked whether the lone boat that gives them had recovered from the previous day's engine problems. It hadn't. We strategized on what I could do instead. The Hampton History Museum seemed promising, so off I went.
I attended kindergarten through college in Virginia, but I had to admit that I didn't know much about Hampton. Certainly I was familiar with Norfolk, the naval behemoth on the other end of the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel. Also the nearby historic trifecta of Williamsburg, Yorktown and Jamestown. But it was high time to learn more about their neighbor, which this year marks 400 years since English colonists settled on what had been the grounds of the Kecoughtan Indian village. (Hampton claims to be the oldest continuous English-speaking settlement in the country, the key word being "continuous." Jamestown, though founded earlier, wasn't always populated.)
The Native Americans were way ahead of Smith and his Virginia Company cohorts in recognizing the region's bounty. The colonists also soon understood the strategic importance of the harbor, the Chesapeake Bay and the Hampton River. The water would play a key role in a 1775 skirmish with the British during an early engagement of the American Revolution and in the famed Civil War Battle of the Ironclads in 1862.
On my way out of the museum, staffer Mary Burnette recommended that I see Fort Monroe, the historic military base already on my agenda, and then casually mentioned an archaeological dig going on down the street. Who needed that iPod tour, anyway?
At the excavation site, I asked Hank Lutton, a Boston University doctoral student, about the perception of Hampton as a historic place compared with the other nearby areas. "The antiquity of Hampton is cloaked," he said. That's because Confederate troops burned the town in 1861 to prevent the Union from occupying it. Down went the colonial buildings, and with them some of the obvious signs of the city's history.
The next morning I visited Fort Monroe, about 10 minutes from Hampton. It has been used as a defensive position since 1609. Next year, the base there will cease operations, and the state will gain control of the nearly 600 acres of prime waterfront location and the leafy college campus-like setting.
The U.S. Army began building the current moat-surrounded fort in 1819, after British incursions during the War of 1812. Among those supervising its construction was a young engineer by the name of Robert E. Lee, I learned in the Casemate Museum's underground galleries. The fort is further peppered with Civil War significance. In 1861, the fort's commander declared three escaped slaves "contraband of war," meaning that the Union had no obligation to return them to their owners. While it wasn't emancipation, thousands of slaves fled to the fort for protection behind Union lines. Abraham Lincoln visited to help plan the attack on Norfolk in 1862. After the war, former Confederate president Jefferson Davis was a prisoner there for two years.
After the museum, I explored the rest of the base. Some of it has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places and declared a National Historic Landmark District. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was a thriving resort area with several grand hotels. I ate lunch in a bistro at the only surviving one, the Chamberlin, which has been converted into residences for the 55 and older set. The view, over a sweeping front lawn and rippling water, seemed timeless.
By the time I left Fort Monroe, I had little need for my Garmin or the crinkled maps piled on the passenger seat of my car. As the area's settlers learned, being lost often leads you to an unexpected path of discovery.
Crowne Plaza Hampton Marina Hotel
700 Settlers Landing Rd.
Pretty much the only large-scale accommodations downtown. Rooms from $99.
Goody's Deli & Pub
11 Queens Way
Nautical-themed eatery. Most sandwiches $7.15.
2 Fenwick Rd.,
Enjoy the view from inside the old Chamberlin hotel. Sandwiches and salads from $8.
Hampton History Museum
120 Old Hampton Lane
Open Monday-Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday 1-5 p.m. $5, children and seniors $4.
Open daily 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Bring ID so you can enter the base's security checkpoint to obtain a day pass. Free.