Weekend In Hampton, Virginia
Passionate about history? Fascinated by science? Love waterside towns? Welcome to Hampton, Virginia. Home of civil war history, the Virginia Air & Space Center, and the Chesapeake Bay. Well-located along the mid-Atlantic coast with a beautifully restored antique carousel. Take the family and visit some of its attractions.
Considered to be one of the oldest settlements in the United States, Hampton dates back to the 1600s. It was a quiet town. Mainly a trading port, known more for its hogs than its tobacco. Then came the Civil War. As part of the war effort, the federal government, in the form of the Union army, held nearby Ft Monroe. There was concern that Confederate troops would attempt to take the fortress. Fearing they would be caught up in the battles, many residents fled leaving their homes vacant. The Confederate army, in an attempt to stop the Union troops from taking over abandoned town, burned it to the ground. But the Confederate army never tried to attack the Fort. It had been designed by Robert E. Lee to be impregnable. This was the same man who later led the Confederate army, and knew better than anyone not to try to take the fort he himself had designed.
Clearly, Hampton Virginia has a story to tell about the conflict that tore this country apart during the 1860s, and that strong sense of military, and history continues today. Across the bay is Norfolk's naval base. The expanded Virginia Air & Space Center is also the official welcome center for NASA at Langley Air Force Base. Navy Seals train off Ft. Wool, and you can sometimes see a helicopter do a mine sweep of the harbor.
Hampton has a softer side, too. There's a beautifully restored 1920 carousel gracing the plaza by the bay, and downtown Hampton celebrates art with installations of sidewalk sculptures along the main street.
Hampton University & Museum Pick up a pamphlet at the Clark Hall & Library for a self-guided tour, or just wander the grounds of this beautiful historic (listed on the National Register of Historical Places) school on the water. It's among the oldest African-American universities in the country. Starting out as the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute its mission was to educate freed black men and women after the Civil War and teach them trades and skills such as sewing, boot-making, and brick-making. In fact, the bricks for several of the oldest buildings were made by students. It also became a school to educate native Americans so that they would be able to return to their tribes as teachers.
Today, the students are more likely to be studying journalism than brick-making but there's a sense of being grounded in history that is a proud theme to the campus and the museum. Clark Hall & Library, a high-ceiling classical building, is home to their small jewel of an art gallery. Their acquisitions include H. O. Tanner's The Banjo Lesson, and the lesser known but quite wonderful Bagpipe Lesson depicting a young boy working mightily to use this difficult instrument, looked on by adults with amusement of fondness. There's the art of Archibald Motley, Jacob Lawrence, John Biggers, Elizabeth Catlett and more, plus special exhibits, and permanent displays of masks, quilts, and tribal art. The museum also mounts thoughtful major shows highlighting the art of black Americans.
The Emancipation Oak, where the Emancipation Proclamation was read, is also a highlight of the tour. Although the Proclamation didn't actually free that many people, it did (finally) establish that principle.
Downtown Hampton and the History Museum In many towns and cities downtown means the business district but in Hampton the downtown area is more like a town square with shops and the few surviving historic buildings. The Art Market is art outdoors, where art should be -- along the streets of the town rather than sequestered in imposing buildings where people feel compelled to tiptoe quietly. Queen's Way is the focus. Although some of the pieces have been bought by the town and will be permanent, many others are on display for one year (and available for purchase), to be replaced with new pieces each year. You can pick up The Art Market tour brochure in all the downtown Hampton businesses.
Hampton History Museum Opened in May 2003 it tells the history of Hampton. Originally settled by colonists in 1609, it is the oldest continuously English settlement in the new world. There are reproductions of artifacts placed within kid-reach so they can touch and explore. Anything priceless is sensibly placed behind glass. Costumed interpreters help visitors understand the significance and context of the exhibits.
The commander of Fort Monroe during the Civil War, Benjamin Butler, had little tolerance for the Fugitive Slave Act which made it mandatory to return escaped slaves to their owners. And even less when he learned that the south was using slave labor in the war effort. His solution was brilliant, if a bit unusual. He decreed slaves to be contraband. In war, contraband is confiscated and it isn't returned to the owners. And neither were the escapees, who began to arrive in great numbers, determined to attain their freedom.One of the most famous runaways turned freedman was George Scott who provided that test case. What is less well-known is the role played by freemen and freedwomen in furnishing important information to the Union about Confederate troops and fortifications. (For more information see the fascinating article The Civil War: Black American Contributions to Union Intelligence at www.cia.gov
The Casemate Museum is the starting point for the walking (and guided) tours. One of the highlights is the cell in which Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy, was used as an unwilling guest when he and his entourage was arrested in 1865. He spent almost 3 years there before he was released. There are also rooms set up replicating living conditions of officers.
Phoebus Remember the contraband-now-freed people from Fort Monroe? The overflow of troops from the Fort, and the freedmen and freedwomen eventually populated an area called Camp Hamilton. When the war ended the Union soldiers, freed slaves and locals stayed on. Today the area is known as Phoebus -- proud of its identity and history. This is the place to explore for antiques and simply old-stuff. There's an auction gallery only open on Saturday, and range of restaurants from down-home to haute fusion cuisine. The American Theatre, in a restored 1908 vaudeville and then motion-picture house, is today a venue for the performing arts.
Carousel Take a ride on the carousel located just steps away from the Air & Space Center. Built in 1920 by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company this cheerfully flamboyant gilded carousel was restored after years spent in storage. The families of Hampton actually sponsored individual horses, plaques and parts. Come and ride the carousel, it's a beauty.
Harbor Cruise It's always lovely to take a boat ride and stand at the prow of a ship slicing through the water, sending up blue waves and white mist. But it's extra special when that boat takes riders back into history. The guides are knowledgeable - especially about naval history. The cruise includes a stop at Fort Wool - an entirely man-made island created to help defend the shore against enemy attack. It was important in the Civil War, and both World Wars. The fortress is in partial ruin, making it extra fun to explore, and the guided tour is fascinating. The cruise aboard the Miss Hampton II also includes a sail-by of the naval base in Norfolk with all the sea craft and carriers at anchor. It's huge, and an impressive display of military power.
Jacques Cousteau Gallery There's not very much to see, yet, but it's a good place to stop along the waterfront. Cousteau is a legend, and a visit is a good way to pay homage to the intrepid scientist and environmentalist who invented the aqua lung (what we call SCUBA gear - for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus) and introduced millions of people to the Underwater World.
Goodfellas in downtown Hampton serves up food and music and Marker 20 has an outdoor dining pavilion and serves salads and sandwiches.
Hampton Virginia is a nice town - and this isn't faint praise but a recommendation. Science and history, art and water. Filled with things to do and things to see, it makes a wonderful (long) weekend visit.