Hampton Roads


On a quay jutting into the river, the modern building, painted the haze gray of Navy ships, gives the illusion that it’s floating. Obviously designed for the twenty-first century, the 120,000-square-foot structure offers more than 100 exhibits, mostly on its third floor. The exhibits encourage participation, and even though you can try your video-enhanced hand here at landing a fighter jet on an aircraft carrier, they’re not all geared toward the naval and military experience. Included also on this floor, for instance, are hands-on exhibits that allow visitors to touch aquatic life. A Nautilus staffers assures the timid (namely, me) that it’s O.K. to touch the horseshoe crab and the threatening-looking sea urchin and even the back of a warm-water nurse shark. Programs for kids abound here, and to judge from the decibel level, the core audience approves wholeheartedly.

On the second floor, the museum presents a retrospective journey through the maritime history of the region, focusing on its defense. The story begins in 1607 about 20 miles east on Cape Henry, where representatives of the Virginia Company landed and eventually traveled upriver to establish Jamestown, the first permanent settlement in this country. In these parts, there is already a good deal of talk about celebrations planned for 2007 to commemorate the four hundredth anniversary of this truly momentous event.

The Hampton Roads Naval Museum gears much of its interpretation toward models, artwork, and artifacts of the Civil War era, which drew the attention of the whole world to this area. “Heavy breathing” is how the documentary filmmaker Ken Burns once referred, in an interview with me, to the world’s collective reaction to the first battle between ironclads, the new USS Monitor and the converted former U.S. steam sloop of war Merrimack , renamed CSS Virginia . The overseas watchers understood almost from the start that the 1862 duel represented a monumental change in how war would be waged at sea. Today, the entire region is eloquent of exactly how the transition from sail and wood and steam and steel has progressed and of what that change has meant.

In the span of a single long lifetime, the hastily extemporized ironclad evolved into one of the most impressive of all man-made artifacts. This year, a superb example came to Norfolk to stay, at the base of Plume Street on the Elizabeth Avenue waterfront. She’s majestic. She’s imposing. She’s the battleship Wisconsin , and her great bow divides the waterfront with the authority of a mammoth cleaver. Susan and I both gasped the first time we saw her.

At first, the World War II-vintage battleship might look out of place here, hitched as she is to the side of the slick Nauticus Center. The Wisconsin is one of the four Iowa-class battleships that until recently were the backbone of the U.S. surface fleet. Naval decision makers have deemed smaller ships —working in conjunction with missile-laden submarines and aircraft carriers (many of them berthed at the nearby Naval Station Norfolk, the world’s largest)—to be more cost-effective than the huge battleships.

The Wisconsin saw service from World War II to Desert Storm; her lower decks are closed because she’s on ready reserve.

Today, the plugged forward guns of the Wisconsin point directly toward downtown Norfolk. Among naval types, one widely known fact is that the 16-inch-diameter shells fired by these giant guns weigh about the same as a Volkswagen Beetle (the old one, not the new). Nauticus illustrates the comparison in the most literal possible way by hanging from its tall ceiling a 16-inch shell alongside a real Volkswagen.

Volunteers, many of them veterans of service on the magnificent ship, greet visitors as they step off the gangway from Nauticus and onto the Wisconsin ’s teak topside deck (below decks are closed because of the ship’s ready-reserve status). They detail her service, from naval operations in World War II to Desert Storm. Soon after the Gulf war, the Wisconsin was decommissioned and retired to Portsmouth, Virginia, until she was towed to her new home.

We chatted with Krissa Barclay, sitting just off the entrance to the “City at Sea” exhibit, which interprets the history of the mighty ship and life on board. “When I heard the Wisconsin was here,” she said, “I made plans to bring my father. My dad always wanted to be on a battleship, so I decided we needed to come to Nauticus.” Her father, Larry Smith, who soon emerged from the passageway leading to and from the ship, was elated. “We’re out of Nashville,” he said. “But America started not far from here, and there’s a world of history everywhere you look. There’s history around every corner.”

In downtown Norfolk, history is indeed around every corner. Nauticus is only one stop on the Cannonball Trail, a self-guided tour of historic downtown landmarks indicated by markers set in the sidewalks. An accompanying booklet recommends a minimum of two hours to walk it, but we couldn’t see how that would ever be enough time.

We began the trail tour at the old red-brick St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, built in 1739 and billed as the city’s “only tangible link to her Colonial roots.” Nat urally, we wanted to see the cannonball. Fired during a British bombardment in 1776, it remains embedded in the building’s southeast wall, and this atom of British ordnance gives the trail its name.