40th Anniversary  •  Culture & Identity  •  History

Grant Project Reaches Beneath the Surface of the Suffolk Water Trail

By David Bearinger

It’s a chilly morning, late October in Suffolk, Virginia, and twenty-five seventh graders are piling onto the deck of the Bea Hayman Clark, a teaching vessel on loan from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Karla Smith and John Wass are at the helm, explaining to the teachers how this brief, three-hour introduction to the Nansemond River system will unfold.

The kids, meanwhile, are trying on life-vests, checking out the deck-rigging, or peering over the gunwales at the water below. Amid all the jostling and excited chatter, one boy with a shy smile and watchful eyes—call him Tommy—hangs back, separate from the others, observing it all silently, as if from behind an invisible wall.

After a few last-minute instructions from the captain, the docking lines are loosened and the Bea swings out into Chuckatuck Creek, then north toward the James River. The voyage is under way.

Replica of John Smith’s “Shallop” which he used to explore the Chesapeake Bay and surrounding waters. – Photo courtesy of The Sultana Project

Smith is a retired teacher and she still has the gift. She’s describing to the kids how it wasn’t long ago that waterways were the main roads in Suffolk; how John Smith explored these waters more than 400 years before; and how communities of watermen once thrived here, earning a good living from the once-prolific oyster beds nearby. She’s holding a large, colorful map, and watching these kids’ faces, you can see the lights coming on, one by one. This is a different kind of classroom, and they’re loving it. Tommy is too, in his own way; standing apart, at the edge of the group, listening to every word.

Suffolk is Virginia’s largest independent city by land area, stretching across more than 400 square miles. It’s also the most rural. And the most suffused with water. Along its northern border and reaching deep into the interior, a filigree of lakes, creeks, rivers, and tidal marshes have all shaped the contours of life in Suffolk for 10,000 years—millennia, in fact, before the Jamestown colonists arrived. And ever since.

suffolk-waterIn 2011, a half-dozen organizations came together to tell Suffolk’s story in a new way. Working at the intersections of ecology and history, this group included the Nansemond River Preservation Alliance (which Smith and Wass cofounded), the CE&H Heritage Foundation (now Suffolk River Heritage), the Suffolk-Nansemond Historical Society, Volvo-Penta, the National Park Service, and the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, which offered grant support.

The result is a thirty-two-panel fold-out map, the same one Smith’s holding, designed for use by a wide range of people, from tourists to teachers and schoolchildren. One side explores the ecological diversity of Suffolk’s waterways; the other side explores their historical richness. In Suffolk especially, the two are closely linked.

The Suffolk Water Trail Map is designed to help create a sense of place. Connecting our history to the environment will hopefully promote stewardship of both….
– Karla Smith, co-founder Suffolk River Heritage

The Nansemond River widens as it flows north from downtown Suffolk to the James, passing miles of undeveloped shoreline along the way. In 1608, on his second Chesapeake voyage, John Smith sailed eight miles up the river, past a wide peninsula formed by the Nansemond on one side and Chuckatuck Creek on the other. Today, this peninsula is dotted with small villages—places like Crittenden, Eclipse, Chuckatuck—that were once home to watermen who worked the oyster beds out in the James. The oysters are mostly gone now, but the history remains, including the stories of African American watermen and boat builders from Hobson, Sandy Bottom, and Oakland.

In the winter of 1610, when about three-quarters of the Englishmen in Virginia died of starvation or starvation-related diseases, the English tried to force the Nansemond Indians to trade corn stored on Dumpling Island, now a wooded slab of high ground farther upriver. When the Indians refused, lives were lost on both sides, setting the stage for bloodier conflicts to come.

During the Revolutionary War, the crossing at Ferry Point was used by both Benedict Arnold and Lord Cornwallis, and it later became important as a steamboat stop on the route from Suffolk to Norfolk and Newport News.

It’s also said that people living near Cedar and Barrel Points witnessed first-hand the battle of the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia (constructed from the USS Merrimack) on March 9, 1862.

For sixty years, barges carried marl, used in making cement, from the river’s edge at Lone Star Lakes. The same site is the ancestral home of the Nansemond Indian Tribe.

In 1712, John Constant built a tobacco-rolling house in what is now downtown Suffolk; and directly across from Ferry Point, is the former home of Amadeo Obici, an Italian immigrant who brought Planters Peanuts to Suffolk in 1913.

Constant’s Wharf (site of present-day Downtown Suffolk) – Courtesy of Suffolk-Nansemond Historical Society

All this history, and much more, is captured on the Suffolk Water Trails map, along with information on canoe and kayak launch sites, riverine and marsh-land habitat, and native wildlife—from blue crabs to bald cypress, river otters, and Great Blue Heron.

There is no other city in Virginia with so much undeveloped land inside its borders; and no other city comes close to matching the length and diversity of Suffolk’s waterways.

Water and history. The Suffolk Water Trails map is a gateway to both. It’s also a teaching tool. Karla Smith describes it as an “icebreaker.”

A few days after their voyage aboard the Bea, Tommy’s teacher wrote to say she wasn’t sure at first that he should even make the trip, his autism is so severe. Instead, to her surprise, the experience broke down a piece of that invisible wall, leaving him more openly inquisitive, more comfortable with other children and adults than he had ever been.

For Karla Smith and John Wass, says Smith, “This is what we wanted to achieve. This kind of story makes it all worthwhile.”

VFH - 40 Years, 40 Stories

About VFH

Since its founding in 1974, VFH has produced more than 40,000 humanities programs serving communities large and small throughout Virginia, the nation, and the world.

These stories celebrate our 40th anniversary by sharing a few of the ways VFH has helped connect people and ideas to explore the human experience and inspire cultural engagement across the Commonwealth.