The Phoenix One Journals Stories from the dawn of RoadTrip America
With Love From The Dismal Swamp
It's not our habit to stay anywhere longer than a few days, but Virginia Beach has been our home for over a week. The fire in the NicoVan's engine compartment was responsible. It took a week for a mechanic to discover all the damage and repair it. We stayed at a La Quinta Inn because Marvin was welcome there, but every day we made a pilgrimage to the Tidewater Mack Truck repair garage in Chesapeake to find out when the NicoVan would get out of intensive care.
In the meantime, we worked, which is to say, we lived like pizza-eating troglodytes at the La Quinta, writing reports and planning for the next segment of the NicoVan's tour. After five days, we realized that if we didn't get outside, we'd run out of Vitamin D and suffer a horrible deficiency disease. Also, how could we stay for days and days in a place as packed with history as Hampton Roads, and never take a look at any of it? We'd never live
On Friday afternoon, we ventured forth. The weather was unappealing, gray and gloomy and drizzly, but we decided to head north from Virginia Beach, cross the bridge-tunnel to Hampton, and see what we could see at Fort Monroe, the historic army base on Old Point Comfort.
"There's a great museum there," Al Zimmer had told us. Al is the manager of the commissary at Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base. "It's called the Casemate, and when you go in, you'll feel like you're in another era. And afterwards, go have lunch at the old hotel. It's on the base, but it's open to the public."
The bridge-tunnel starts out as a low causeway. A tugboat was towing a huge container barge through the fog, and we could see a couple of freighters in the distance. On the other side were the murky silhouettes of the fleet at the Norfolk Naval Base, the largest such installation in the world.
The road slowly descended into the bay, and suddenly we were in the tunnel. "Too bad there aren't any windows," said Mark. "It'd be interesting to see all the wreckage that must lie on the bottom of Chesapeake Bay."
As slowly as we'd descended, we rose again, until we popped out. On our right was what looked like a wide sand bar. It was covered with houses, many on stilts. Each one had its own dock and beach. "Willoughby Spit," said the sign.
We got off the highway at a town called Phoebus, and followed signs for Fort Monroe that took us over a short causeway onto the promontory known as Old Point Comfort. At the entrance to the base, the MP on duty told us how to get to the museum.
We drove along the edge of the water, admiring the grand old two-story brick houses. Most had name plaques on their top steps, and most of the names were preceded by "General." "This must be a pretty special place to have so many ranking officers," I said. Just then we saw a huge building right on the water. "That must be the hotel," said Mark. "And I'm hungry. Let's go have lunch before we go to the museum."
Mark was right. The imposing building was the Chamberlin Hotel. We parked next to it, and as we gathered up our coats, we discovered we'd forgotten to bring the camera. "Darn!" I said. "I'm so used to having everything I own with me at all times. I'm not used to having stuff divided up into ‘house' and ‘office' and ‘car' any more, and I don't like it." But the camera was back at the La Quinta Inn, and that was that.
We climbed the steps into the Chamberlin and found ourselves in a terrazzo-paved hallway that smelled like a hospital. Eventually, we figured out that it took an elevator ride to get to the main lobby.
The lobby was sparsely furnished and had the same polished floor as the lower level. Our eyes were immediately drawn to a glass-paned door that overlooked a swimming pool and the bay. It was a smashing view, even in the rain.
The dining room had the same smashing view, and a waiter seated us at a table right next to a window. "We have a lunch buffet," he said. "Today it features kielbasa, chicken, and fried fish. It's all-you-can-eat for $5.95, and that includes your drink." It sounded good enough to us, and it was.
As we walked back down the cavernous main hall to the lobby, we saw a sign that said "Chamberlin Hotel Museum," and we stopped to have a look. The first hotel on the spot had been built in 1829, and Edgar Allan Poe had recited poetry on its veranda a month before he died in 1849. That hotel was torn down in 1862 because it was in the line of Fort Monroe's cannons, but the dining room was spared and used as a surgical ward during the Civil War.
The building we were in was built in 1928 after its predecessor burned down in a spectacular fire in 1920. It stands on federal land, but the building is privately owned and managed.
Next to the museum was a little gift shop, and we stopped to chat with the woman behind the counter. "Have you heard about Esmeralda?" she asked. "Esmeralda is the Chamberlin's ghost. The story is that she's waiting for her father. He was a fisherman, and he sailed out one day and never returned. Esmeralda's still waiting for him.
"She came in here the other day and knocked everything off those shelves over there. Look at that stuff. It's all fragile, but nothing broke.
"My daughter worked at the Chamberlin for a year, and once she was upstairs on a floor that's not used. She heard a piano playing. She called out to see who it might be, and then she heard footsteps running away. No one was up there, and the only pianos were old discarded ones in a storeroom. It was Esmeralda. Everyone around here has an Esmeralda story."
We rode the elevator back down to the ground level and walked outside. "I don't really want to go to the museum without the camera," I said, "Why don't we drive back over the bridge-tunnel, stop at the hotel, get the camera, and drive down Highway 17 into the Dismal Swamp? We've still got a few hours of daylight, and we can come back to the museum tomorrow." I'd wanted to take a look at the Dismal Swamp ever since I'd first noticed it on a map in fifth grade. It sounded like a place Uncle Remus might have invented, and I figured it would be at its best in gloomy weather. Mark agreed, and soon we were heading south.
As we drove along Interstate 64 toward the turn-off for the Dismal Swamp, we listened to National Public Radio. Today was the day when, back in 1851, Moby Dick was published, and in honor of the great white whale, a Maine lobsterman was on the air. He had the distinction of having trapped a white lobster, the only white lobster anyone's ever seen. After the interview, the local news came on. A Virginia Beach Baptist pastor was being sued for destroying a memorial garden because he sensed evil spirits in it. The man it was built to commemorate had been a mason. It looked as though the pastor was going to lose.
We arrived at the exit for Highway 17 and headed south. "The Dismal Swamp Canal parallels this road all the way into North Carolina," I said. "There are supposed to be pullouts where you can stop and take a look or launch a boat."
There was nothing dismal about the swamp. Autumn colors were abundant, and the leaves counteracted the gloom. "Whoever named the place must have been walking through it," said Mark. I looked across the canal into the dense growth. It would be slow, wet going on foot. We found out later that William Byrd II was responsible for the name. He had indeed walked through the swamp, and had been eaten alive by yellow flies, chiggers and ticks.
The Dismal Swamp Canal has a lengthy history. It was the brainchild of none other than George Washington, who had dreams of draining the swamp, harvesting the cypress and cedar trees, and using the land for farming. Things didn't work out as he'd envisioned, but the canal was eventually dug from Chesapeake Bay all the way to Albemarle Sound in North Carolina. It also has a ‘feeder ditch' connecting it to Lake Drummond.
The water in the canal is the color of strong tea. It's full of tannic acid from the bark of the resident juniper and cypress trees. The acid prevents bacteria from growing in the water, and it was a popular commodity on sailing ships because it stayed fresh indefinitely. We didn't try any, even though legend claims it promotes health and longevity.
The next morning dawned chilly and clear. The temperature rose quickly, and by mid-morning, a newscaster was referring to the weather as ‘summer-like.' "If this is summer-like, I'm glad we won't be hear for winter," said Mark as he zipped up his jacket. But it was a glorious day, and once again we headed over the bridge and through the tunnel to Fort Monroe.
Fort Monroe was first fortified in 1609. It's been an active post since 1823, and boasts such famous visitors and residents as Edgar Allan Poe, Robert E. Lee, Harriet Tubman, Ulysses S. Grant, Woodrow Wilson and Dwight Eisenhower. Jefferson Davis, who was accused of conspiring to assassinate Abraham Lincoln, was its most famous inmate. Currently, Fort Monroe is the headquarters of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command.
The Casemate Museum is housed inside the several of the chambers, or casemates, inside the stone fortifications constructed in 1819. The fort, built to defend Chesapeake Bay, had a full armament of 380 guns. Not surprisingly, most of the museum's exhibits focus on artillery, but Jefferson Davis' cell is preserved as it was during his confinement from 1865 until 1867.
After touring the museum, we climbed a gun ramp to the top of the fortifications and walked the perimeter on the grassy path between the inner and outer walls. Between the old gun mounts, we discovered another Fort Monroe tradition. For decades, people have buried their pets along the rampart walk and marked the diminutive graves with stone markers. A moat surrounds the walls, and the old gates, which now have traffic lights, are just wide enough to allow one car through at a time.
We left Fort Monroe as the sun was setting on the sailboats in the harbor. "The Gibraltar of the Chesapeake" looked like a medieval fortress in the fading light.
The NicoVan emerged from the Mack Truck repair garage looking hardly the worse for wear. Tomorrow, we'll climb aboard, bid farewell to Hampton Roads, and head north to Cape Charles. We'll drive up the peninsula to Maryland, and head on into New York.
Virginia Beach, Virginia
November 17, 1997