The Story of the Bay – Part Three

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The expedition that would lead to the first permanent English settlement in the west at Jamestown made it’s first landfall at the northeast corner of what is now Virginia Beach, an event memorialized by the naming of the part woody and part marshy First Landing State Park there, and where there now stand not one but two Cape Henry Lighthouses less than four hundred feet apart. The first was constructed from mottled pink and tan sandstone, its original oil stained wooden stair case stripped and replaced long ago with one of iron, and the cupola above the color of verdigris, inside and out. The second, larger lighthouse was built of iron plates fixed to a frame bolted to a granite foundation, and painted in a striking black and white checkerboard pattern in bold contrast to the first. The original dates from the eighteenth century and stands as a young country’s first federal building project, and was thought in need of replacing after a lightning strike drove cracks through its wall, necessitating the construction of the second. Over a century after the second was built, they still stand on the beach together looking out over the ocean and the bay, and, though mismatched in size, construction, and appearance, one struggles to imagine a time when one ever did or ever will stand without the other on the cape.

A tall rectangle of land from the bay in the north down to the state’s border, Virginia Beach is best defined by the waterways around it and throughout, as, with its myriad canals, bays, coves and lakes and inlets, the surface area of city is in fact only half solid ground. The eastern edge of the city, at the Atlantic coast, is lined by thirty miles of the world’s longest pleasure beach, which then turns to the west into the bay at Cape Henry for several more miles. Starting twelve miles north of the border in the south, and at places just a thousand feet from the ocean itself, lies a large body of brackish water called the Albemarle Sound, and south of it and forming an important part of the US Intracoastal Waterway, lies the Currituck sound. The ICW is a nearly three thousand mile long sheltered inland waterway from Boston to Florida that provides safe passage to both barges and pleasure craft alike, and is interrupted at various points by swing and cantilever bridges that open and raise at the top of the hour with the sounding of a bell, should the need arise due to an approaching vessel. The Virginia Beach portion of the ICW is comprised mostly of the North Landing River, snaking north from the Currituck Sound through dense, peaty pocosin wilderness until it meets the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal in Chesapeake. The canal turns abruptly west for several miles before reaching the southern branch of the Elizabeth River flowing north to Norfolk, a key shipping port on the east coast.

While the southern half of Virginia Beach—carved up by Back Bay and the North Landing River—is mostly forest and farmland, the northern half is the city proper, the two so distinct that it is not unusual for residents from the north to have never ventured into the southern part for its strawberry farms or its boating and fishing. The northern half of the city is itself bisected, by a freeway running from Norfolk in the west to the ocean in Virginia Beach’s resort area. Land north of the freeway is dominated by a trident-shaped body of water called the Lynnhaven River, a shallow tidal estuary dotted with small bays and tiny coves, that naturally suits itself as a location impressive homes on large lots. It is just north of that freeway, and nine miles from the oceanfront, that the city’s young and thriving downtown can be found.

Hampton Roads Roadstead



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The Virginia Beach Journal
Summer 2020

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