Home to 8 US presidents, 120 National Historic Landmarks and 13 National Historical Parks, Virginia is an American history icon. Our country began here in 1607, and it's no surprise that the Old Dominion has more than its share of historic and historical sites, exhibits, monuments and legendary personas.
As you can see below, Virginia is for Lovers, but they forgot to caret the word ‘History’ in between the words ‘for’ and ‘Lovers’ in the welcome sign to this lovely state.
First of all, the state of Virginia is absolutely gorgeous. At first blush, most people think of Virginia as another ‘East Coast’ state i.e. one big city along the coast with insane traffic. Far from it. There are at least 3 Virginias within the state of Virginia itself.
Let’s talk about terrain first.
In the western half of Virginia it is very mountainous like Kentucky. There are the younger Allegheny and Cumberland mountain ranges which are composed of very tall, bluffy, completely wooded mountains. As one goes eastward, the famous Shenendoah valley separates them from the equally famous but older and less tall Blue Ridge Mountains of John Denver’s ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’ fame. (Yes, John mentions West Virginia, but the Blue Ridge runs into Virginia, too.)
Mountain stream in Blue Ridge Mountains
Here's a link to 'Take Me Home, Country Roads':
This area of the state is rife with Confederate flags and tends to be more politically conservative in nature.
Moving eastward, one enters the Piedmont Plateau where the undulating hills of the Eastern side of Blue Ridge Mountains start to flatten out and pastoral farms similar to that in Southern Wisconsin are prevalent. Here people tend to be more moderate in political persuasion.
Finally, on the eastern side of the state major cities start to appear including Alexandria, Newport News, Chesapeake, Virginia Beach, Norfolk and the state capital of Richmond. This is the tidewater region of the state where many bays penetrate the land mass and the ocean tides affect the water level of Virginia’s rivers.
Here is where Virginia might get the reputation of an east coast state as the traffic does get a little crazy and superhighways abound. Politics tend to go in a more liberal direction on the east coast.
The trees are tall and plentiful across the entire state. Even traveling on the superhighways, one seems to be enveloped by the trees.
Now for the history part.
Adventure Cycling (the non-profit organization that provided our bike route across America) does a great job of sending us to the famous historical sites including the Richmond National Battlefield Park, the presidential homes of Jefferson, Madison, Tyler and Harrison, famous people’s homes such as Patrick Henry, important gravesites such as Stonewall Jackson’s final resting spot and great places to visit such as Williamsburg, Yorktown and Jamestown.
Again, traveling from west to east, history seems to take a linear walk back into time. Civil War signs and placards adorn the roads and I bicycled in the western part of the state and I constantly found myself wanting to stop and read them. Virginia has put a lot of time, money and effort to preserve our national history and it manifests itself with awesome historical parks and visitor centers with very well trained and knowledgeable park rangers and support staff.
One good example is Richmond National Battlefield Park. It is actually a series of historical parks spread across the Fredericksburg area.
At the Malvern Hill visitor center, National Park Ranger Randy Beaver explained how all of these wonderful parks are financed. “Most of the money for these national parks comes from local and state benefactors in Virginia. There is some federal money contributed to support these great parks, but local and state organizations provide the bulk of the money required for historical research, park development and the building of visitor centers”.
Ranger Randy Beaver describing the Malvern Hill Battlefield
You can learn more about the Richmond National Battlefield Park at the following link:
When Jaine and I visited the visitor center at the Chancellorsville Civil War battle site, a young park ranger named Haley gave an excellent historical overview of the battle using a huge map of the site as a guide. She really knew her stuff. The visitor centers were very modern were packed with information and all of the parks had hiking areas where a person could intimately experience where the battle took place.
Visiting Jefferson Davis’s house at the Confederate Museum in Richmond, coincidence struck again. Our extremely knowledgeable guide, Josh Shafer, noticed my Wisconsin cap and mentioned that he was originally from Wisconsin, too. After the usual “we’re from the Madison area” followed by “well, we’re actually from Brodhead” Josh said he was from Monroe. How neat. After the excellent tour, I mentioned that I used to teach Chemistry at Brodhead High School and wondered if he happened to know Sue Shafer, one of my better chemistry students I taught back in the 80’s. “Why Sue is my aunt!” he said. Small world, huh? We had a great time catching up on what his Aunt Sue was up to, and wished him luck on his pursuit of a Master's degree in History.
Williamsburg is a ‘must see’. Plan on spending a minimum of 1 full day to see the colonial city but it would be easy to spend an entire week walking around this ‘living’ Colonial city. I actually got a tip of the hat from General George Washington himself as he cantered by on his horse. Huzzah!
George Washington after he tipped his hat to me
Cannoneers saluting George Washington with cannonade
Fife and Drum band entertaining the town with Yankee Doodle
Jamestown is also a great place to visit. One of the most interesting places was the reconstructed glass blowing facility at Jamestown. Apparently, skilled German glass blowers were brought over to start the New World’s first global enterprise…the making of glass to be sent back to Europe for profit. Unfortunately, the American Natives didn’t think this was a good idea when they tried to wipe out the colony and a furnace explosion later put an end to this promising venture.
Removing molten glass from oven
Making glass bottleneck for a bottle
Finishing off the bottle
When I was a kid living in Washington DC I remember visit some historic sites that basically consisted of placards describing something important that happened somewhere and that was about it.
The level of presentation, knowledge and commitment to preserving history has vastly improved in Virginia since I was a kid and is well worth a trip for the aspiring American History buff.
American History is alive and well in Old Dominion!