Set your sails for Newport News, where you’ll find seafaring stories, military sagas, and natural history at every turn.
By Phil Bowie
Virginians call it “the Peninsula.” Outsiders may know the large coastal expanse of land that is bordered by the York River to the north, the Chesapeake Bay to the east, and the James River to the west, as the home of Newport News.
Either way, it’s an area with a fascinating history. A few examples: the Jamestown settlement and the surrounding woodlands were home to Captain John Smith and the legendary princess Pocahontas. Just across the Peninsula from there, Gen. George Washington and his ragged army soundly defeated the pompous Lord Cornwallis and his redcoats at Yorktown in the last major battle of the Revolutionary War.
North of there, Colonial Williamsburg and the dizzying rides at Busch Gardens daily draw tourists by the thousands. A bit south of Yorktown, the NASA Langley Research Center works to make flying safer and more efficient, and nurtures the imaginations of those who yearn for the stars. And at the southernmost tip of the Peninsula you can gaze out across Hampton Roads, where the famous ironclads USS Monitor and CSS Virginia (formerly the USS Merrimack) pounded each other in a four-hour Civil War standoff that forever changed the nature of sea warfare.
The city of Newport News stretches along the lower James River, central to it all. It makes an excellent family motor coaching destination. This is a city that dearly loves its pristine recreational and scenic parks (31 public parks and squares), and the Newport News Park, at 8,000 acres, is one of the largest municipal parks east of the Mississippi. It’s the best place to reserve a wooded campsite with all the amenities for at least a few days, time you’ll need to explore the area in any depth.
Newport News residents also are proud of their museums. The most famous is The Mariners’ Museum, which spreads out by a lake in a nice 550-acre park. Archer Huntington, son of Collis Huntington, who founded the Newport News Shipbuilding Company and the Central Pacific Railroad, used a good chunk of his immense fortune to set up the nonprofit complex in 1930. Docent Jack Fuson is unabashed in his praise. “It’s the best museum of its kind in the world,” he said. “We have 35,000 wonderful things on display.”
In the cavernous entrance gallery, soft rainbow rays from a big Cape Charles lighthouse lens play over a 3,200-pound carved and gilded eagle figurehead from the old USS Lancaster. From there you can wander among the many exhibits in the several large halls or join a guided tour.
The Chesapeake Bay gallery reveals the hard lives of the men who worked in the pre-World War II menhaden fishery, and aboard the sailing skipjack oyster “drudgers” that once crowded the bay. (A few still work the beds in fall and winter.) Displays include old shipbuilding tools, venerable outboard motors, and goose-hunting punts armed with multiple long big-bore shotguns akin to cannons.
Entire galleries are devoted to such themes as the age of the explorers, such as the bold Liefr Eiriksson (as his mom spelled it), and Christopher Columbus; the era of the grand steam vessels, displayed as museum models as long as 40 feet; the life and works of naval architect William Francis Gibbs, designer of World War II Liberty ships and the superliner SS United States; and a collection of miniature sailing ship models exquisitely fashioned by August Crabtree from exotic woods such as pear, laurel, and white thorn. A free maritime library has more than a million items, including such treasures as Mark Twain’s original river pilot’s license.
As you tour the museum, you may see Allen Mordica using some of the collection of arcane instruments such as astrolabes, back staffs, and sextants to demonstrate how generations of sailors found their ways accurately long before satellites “” by logical ded (deduced) reckoning and skillful celestial navigation. “Where do you think sayings like ‘get the lead out’ and ‘wipe the slate clean’ and ‘cut and run’ came from?” Mr. Mordica asked me. The lead was the depth-sounding lead, he explained, and the slate kept a temporary record of soundings. And mariners would cut the anchor line and hastily make sail to escape a storm or an enemy.
Behind the museum you’ll find the remains of certainly one of the most important historical vessels in the world. The ironclad USS Monitor sank in a storm on December 31, 1862, 16 miles off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. In recent years Navy divers, working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, have made at least 700 descents to 240 feet to survey and stabilize the wreck and to help retrieve parts and artifacts. The Mariners’ Museum is the designated custodian of the Monitor and related archives. The ship’s heavy revolving turret “” 20 feet in diameter and a technical marvel 140 years ago “” now rests in a big tank alongside other tanks holding the 30-ton engine and assorted parts, all now being gently bathed in a solution of sodium hydroxide and water to leach corrosive salts from the old metal. It’s a multiyear process. A $30 million Monitor Center is a planned museum addition, scheduled to open in 2007.
The Mariners’ Museum is open daily, and admission is $8 for adults and $6 for children ages 6 to 17. Seniors 65 and over receive a discount, and a $1-off admission coupon is available on the museum’s Web site, www.mariner.org. For more information, call (757) 596-2222.
The Mariners’ Museum is one of four museums within a short distance from each other. Across the street is the Peninsula Fine Arts Center, which contains changing art exhibits from around the world. This is a facility geared toward education as much as it is exhibitions. With some expert tips, kids “” and their adult counterparts “” can create their own works of art with clay, or finger paints, or watercolors. Admission is $5 for adults, $4 for seniors, and $3 for children ages 4 to 15. Contact the center for more information at (757) 596-8175 or visit www.pfac-va.org.
Another good place for the whole family is the SPCA Petting Zoo, which boasts a collection of exotic and domestic animals, such as leopards, deer, ostriches, and more. Children enjoy petting the farm animals. The petting zoo is located across the road from the Peninsula Fine Arts Center and is open daily; admission is $3 for adults and $1 for children ages 3 to 12. For more information, phone (757) 595-1399 or visit www.peninsulaspca.com.
Right across the street from the petting zoo is the popular Virginia Living Museum, newly expanded at a cost of $22.6 million. It’s an interesting natural history museum, featuring an outdoor wildlife walk, an aviary, an indoor aquarium, and an astral observatory. Here you can rest your palm in a dinosaur footprint made in the Blue Ridge foothills 200 million years ago, or look through a telescope at vast solar flares that erupted a mere 8½ minutes ago.
Staffer Virginia Gabriell said, “If you spent a lifetime walking through Virginia’s woods and along the shores, you wouldn’t see as many different creatures as you can see right here. We tell a statewide story. We’re one of the few museums with fish, reptiles, amphibians, and birds.” Many of the museum’s 150 species “” bald eagles, raccoons, herons, coyotes, and nearly extinct red wolves “” have been nursed back from gunshot wounds or other injuries. The nonprofit museum has the help of 400 enthusiastic volunteers. Thirty-year-old John Guerin, for example, an aircraft engine mechanic by trade, spends a few hours each Saturday helping kids learn about Virginia’s wildlife. “It’s an education for me, too,” he said.
The museum hosts fossil and rock hunts, and schedules special viewing evenings in the observatory. It is open daily; admission is $11 for adults and $8 for children; planetarium shows are $3 extra. For more information, call (757) 595-1900 or visit www.valivingmuseum.org.
If you’re a Revolutionary War or Civil War buff, you’ll be in your element on the Peninsula. Be sure to see the historic homes that mark major military events. For example, Endview Plantation, built in 1769, was a watering stop for George Washington’s weary militia, a training ground during the War of 1812, and a hospital for both sides of the Civil War conflict. On display at the plantation are artifacts found at the site and memorabilia of the family members who lived there.
The restored 1859 Lee Hall Mansion served as Confederate headquarters during the 1862 Peninsula campaign. The Rebels sent a hot air balloon aloft from the front yard to spy on the Yankees. Defensive earthworks are still visible. Inside the home you can take a guided tour past many artifacts. This mansion and the Endview Plantation are both on Yorktown Road.
The Virginia War Museum in Huntington Park (near the James River bridge) chronicles America’s military saga from 1775 through the present. It also features an array of weaponry from around the world “” a brass Gatling gun, rifles, a huge 15-man cannon, an early tank, and sidearms. Also displayed are American and foreign uniforms; the famous cartoons of Herbert Morton Stoops, who lived in the trenches with the World War I fighters whose plight he depicted; and even a section of the Berlin Wall. The museum evokes mixed emotions “” sadness at the tragedy and futility of war, pride in those few who have fought for the rest of us, and awe at the sheer ingenuity that war has stimulated. The museum is open daily. Admission is $6 for adults, $5 for seniors, and $4 for children ages 7 to 18. Phone (757) 247-8523 or visit www.warmuseum.org for more information.
While in a military frame of mind, go to Fort Eustis and take in the U.S. Army Transportation Museum. This collection includes a DUKW (“the truck that could swim”) and an array of other conveyances ranging from a covered wagon to tugboats, helicopters, and steam locomotives. Even a “flying jeep” is on display. Ask for directions and you can drive to the James River waterfront area on the base and stop at one of the shaded tables for a picnic. From there, you can see the “Ghost Fleet” “” dozens of old ships mothballed and rafted up in retirement.
The museum offers free admission and free parking and is near the entrance to Fort Eustis. Stop at the guardhouse near the gate and tell them you are there to see the museum, and you’ll be given a visitors pass. The museum is closed on Mondays and federal holidays, as well as Easter Sunday. Hours are 9:00 a.m. to 4:40 p.m.; phone (757) 878-1115 or visit www.transchool.eustis.army.mil.
While you’re in the area, the kids will, of course, want to visit Busch Gardens-Williamsburg and, if it’s warm out, Busch’s Water Country water park. Each park is worth spending a day at, and they are accessible by making a 10-minute drive up Interstate 64 and following the signs. Also, don’t forget about Colonial Williamsburg, which is a few miles farther north of Busch Gardens via I-64.
To the east of Newport News at the tip of the Peninsula is the city of Hampton, home to the excellent Virginia Air & Space Center, the official visitor complex for NASA Langley Research Center and Langley Air Force Base. On display there is a 3-billion-year-old chunk of the moon; the re-entry-charred Apollo 12 Command Module; and many famous aircraft. Live science demonstrations, hands-on educational exhibits, and a Space Shuttle simulator will captivate the entire family’s attention. Schedule your time to allow for seeing one of the spectacular IMAX movies.
The Virginia Air & Space Center is open daily; admission is $8.50 for adults, $7.50 for seniors, and $6.50 for children. Extra fees are charged for the IMAX films. Call (757) 727-0900 or visit www.vasc.org for more information.
In your spare time you may want to hit the links at the Newport News Golf Club, whose courses include Deer Run, a reasonably priced course that has been highly rated by Golf Digest magazine. You also might want to explore plenty of shops scattered here and there and in the Patrick Henry Mall. The city boasts enough dining choices to thoroughly confuse your decision-making process and delight your palate.
You might try to time your trip to Newport News to coincide with one of more than 75 special events “” including the spring music fest celebrating city native Ella Fitzgerald, the summer Civil War van tour, the fall United States Tennis Association Mid-Atlantic Section Senior Tennis Championships, the dazzling winter 100 Miles of Lights show.
For maps and more information about events, dining choices, and everything else, contact the Newport News Visitor Center listed above. The visitors center is located right by the entrance to Newport News Regional Park at 13560 Jefferson Ave. The staff there is most helpful and genuinely friendly.
Newport News Visitor Center
13560 Jefferson Ave.
Newport News, VA 23603
The tourism department offers a Newport News Combination Ticket that includes admission to Endview Plantation, Lee Hall Mansion, The Mariners’ Museum, Peninsula Fine Arts Center, Peninsula SPCA Petting Zoo, Virginia Living Museum, and Virginia War Museum. The price is $32 per adult (a $12.50 savings) and $30.50 for AAA members (a $14 savings). The tickets can be purchased at the visitors center on Jefferson Avenue as noted above. The tickets expire six months from date of purchase.
Camping In Newport News Park
This vast 8,000-acre municipal park has two freshwater lakes and is one of the largest city parks east of the Mississippi.
It offers boat rentals, bicycle rentals, bike trails, 30 miles of hiking trails, an 18-hole disc golf area, a 30-acre aero-model flying field, a Civil War battle site, a golf course, a rare five-star archery range, and a mountain bike trail.
For RVers, the park has 180 year-round campsites located in a natural wooded setting next to the Lee Hall Reservoir. Sites have a grill, a picnic table, and back-in paved pads from 50 to 70 feet long. No-hookup sites cost $15.50 per night (as of January 2005); sites with electrical hookups (30- or 50-amp service) cost $17.50; sites with water and electrical hookups are $18 per night. Prices do not include tax.
Reservations are accepted with one night’s deposit. The campground also includes rest rooms, heated showers, laundry facilities, and a dump station, and has 24-hour security. Pets are welcome (rabies certificate required).
Park access, at the northern end of Newport News, is easy. Take exit 250-B off of I-64, which bisects the Peninsula. For reservations, call (800) 203-8322 or (757) 888-3333; for more information, phone the Newport News Visitors Center (listed at the end of this article) or visit www.newport-news.va.us/parks/park1.htm.