- Historic Sites
It is a place of noble harbors, a convergence of strong rivers and a promontory commanding a wind-raked bay; a shoreline enfolding towns older than the Republic and the most modern and formidable naval base on earth; a spot where a four-hour standoff between two very peculiar ships changed the course of warfare forever—and the breeding ground of crabs that people travel across the country to eat. Fred Schultz explains why the fifth annual American Heritage Great American Place Award goes to
October 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 7
At the museum’s entrance is the lens from the Cape Charles lighthouse, a gorgeous many-faceted crystal flower that shows how little energy was required to throw a light sufficient to guide vessels through the fogs of the Chesapeake. The light’s angled lenses also point the way to galleries that illuminate the whole vast history of American maritime enterprise. There is an extensive exhibit devoted to the hard lives of the bay’s working watermen, and a huge Alexander Calder statue of Leif Eriksson stands outside an Age of Exploration show that chronicles the history of waterborne conquest and discovery.
Entire galleries are given to a permanent exhibit on the naval architect William Francis Gibbs and to a temporary—and highly popular—one on Chris-Craft Industries, makers of the most sought-after wooden motorboats in the world. The Great Hall of Steam contains models of merchant vessels, several of them built just a few miles away at Newport News Shipbuilding, and one of the largest collections of ship figureheads in the country—mostly women with forbidding expressions and heroically large breasts.
The newest and most impressive permanent exhibit is titled “Defending the Seas,” and it is the work of the museum’s director, Dr. William Cogar, who recently came here from heading the U.S. Naval Academy Museum in Annapolis. We felt as though we had come full circle from Nauticus, finishing our tour with a depiction of a Revolutionary War frigate, scale models of the Monitor and the Merrimack inside a replica of the Monitor ’s turret, and a World War II aircraft carrier ready room. I hate to ruin a surprise, but this exhibit also includes a torpedo that, when a recording of an actual submarine attack commences, engages its engine and sends its propeller whirring. This certainly got my attention as I walked by, and it got me thinking about my old friend Captain Frazee. It occurred to me that he, and everyone who has served this country at sea—from the submariners of the doomed Tang to the fisherfolk who toil just offshore in the Chesapeake—is handsomely commemorated in this, one of the best museums in the United States.
By now it was day’s end, and we were again ready for replenishment. We opted for some of the bounty of the sea that started this odyssey. What better place, we thought, than something called the Crab Shack, at the base of the James River Bridge in Newport News. Turns out it’s where locals go for seafood. We sat out on the enclosed deck, just in time for a rainstorm to settle in. As we listened to the drops hitting the wa ter, we asked our server, Leah Hionis, what she would recommend. “The soft crabs, of course,” she said. Remember them? Of course. This is a great American place indeed.