The Changing Face of Virginia: Peeling Back the Layers of History
Hello again from the Education Office! Here is the second installment in our “Changing Face of Virginia” blog series written by high school student William Chapman. The remaining blogs will be posted over the next few months, so keep checking back! Enjoy!
~Jennifer Rohrbaugh Nesossis, Outreach Educator
On August 30, 1957, workers packed up their tools and left as the new Robert O. Norris Bridge was prepared for its opening. It was well known to these workers, as well as the crowd that gathered on the shore of the Rappahannock River, that this bridge would change Virginia’s Northern Neck forever. Forty-two years later, I crossed that bridge in the backseat of a gray minivan, and my life hasn’t been the same since. From my limited vantage point, I couldn’t picture in my mind’s eye the crowd of people in pillbox hats and business suits, and I didn’t know that those people had more to do with me than I could ever imagine.
I was five years old at the time, and I was going with my mom and dad to visit a place that my dad had told me was important, which he called Enon Hall. What we found was a house that had been built in the mid-eighteenth century and had been the family home of the Hathaways, my Grandmother’s family, for more than 200 years. It was dilapidated, with vines choking what little of the facade was visible through the trees. Over the next few years, I would not only discover my family’s story but also the story of a region that has seen quite a bit of change.
The Northern Neck that I entered was no longer the isolated region it was 100 years before. With the construction of the bridge, hundreds of weekenders from Richmond and Washington, D.C., had flocked to the area. They had bought most of the waterfront property, which once provided access for Chesapeake watermen to the once-plentiful waters of the bay. Now, the bay was full of Jet Skis and motorboats, and almost all traces of what this area had been before were gone.
As we began to peel back the layers of our family’s history—and chip away at the layers of vines, rust, and paint from our home—we began to discover more about what this place was like before the construction of the bridge. There had been a robust industry on the Chesapeake Bay of steamboats that ran to Baltimore and Norfolk, bringing goods and people to the Neck. This had been important to my family, who ran two hotels in the area, both of which catered to visitors who came to the Neck via steamboat. Even with all of this outside influence, most people from the Northern Neck stayed close to home, becoming farmers, watermen, or dockworkers. People stuck to the traditional lives that they had always known.
The last Chesapeake steamboat sailed in 1925, and shortly after, things began to change. Farms, like the one at Enon Hall, became less important, and people’s traditional ideals changed. At the same time, overfishing destroyed the watermens’ trade, which sent the economy of the Neck into a slump. It took the construction of the bridge and the sudden influx of “come-heres” to revive the area, but it just wasn’t the same as it had been.
I am proud that I have had the opportunity to return to this place, and I am happy that I have had the opportunity to discover the story of this area which I now call home. I now live here full-time, but I no longer consider myself a come-here. This is where I belong.
Jennifer Nesossis is an outreach educator at the Virginia Historical Society.