Wednesday, August 24, 2016
August 24, 2016: Virginia Places: Newport News
[Inspired by my annual Virginia pilgrimage with the boys, this year’s series will focus on AmericanStudying interesting places in the Commonwealth. Leading up to a special weekend post on my presentation at the Historical Writers of America conference in Williamsburg!]
Three ways that transportation revolutions contributed to the development of a coastal city.
1) That unique name: There are apparently multiple theories about where the name Newport News came from, but to me the most plausible is also the most historically interesting: a group of Jamestown colonists led by Captain Christopher Newport abandoned the colony during the horrible winter of 1609-10, only to encounter an arriving ship carrying new governor Thomas West and resupply. While some returned to Jamestown, others stayed in this new place, and named it after both their famous Captain and the unexpected good news. As with Plimoth Plantation and the Massachusetts colonies, it’s difficult to overstate both the period’s uncertainty over arriving ships and the role that such ships played in Virginia’s early English histories. Such news quite literally meant the difference between life and death for many individuals and communities (if not indeed the entire enterprise), and I like the idea that Newport News offers a permanent memorial to that historical reality.
2) A railroad magnate: Newport News remained a small fishing village for more than two and a half centuries after that origin point, and might have continued in that role if not for a post-Civil War invitation that exemplifies the idea of the “New South.” Not long after the war’s end, former Confederate General Williams Carter Wickham invited California railroad magnate Collins Huntington to contribute his expertise and funds to a new southern railroad line. Huntington linked another line on which he had worked, the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway, through Richmond and down to Virginia’s coast, a development known as the Peninsula Subdivision. While his initial goal was to transport coal eastward from West Virginia, he quickly saw the shipping possibilities of the Newport News area, and created the Chesapeake Dry Dock & Construction Company (later the Newport News Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Co.) there. I don’t want to overstate Huntington’s individual role—obviously many people and communities were involved in and affected by these shifts, as in every industrial and corporate development—but the emphasis on him in the narratives reflects quite potently the role of such magnates (or robber barons) in the Gilded Age generally, and the New South specifically.
3) The Great White Fleet: Even a prescient industrialist like Huntington couldn’t possibly have foreseen just how much shipbuilding work his dry dock would soon be offered, though. When he became president after William McKinley’s assassination, Theodore Roosevelt made the development of an American naval fleet one of his top priorities, and turned to the Newport News docks for the bulk of that construction. Not only did the company build seven of the first sixteen warships, but when the Great White Fleet (as it had come to be known) set sail in December 2009 for its 14-month worldwide voyage, it did so from nearby Hampton Roads. Both the area overall and Newport News in particular have been intimately associated with the navy and armed forces ever since, with Newport News Shipbuilding still primarily serving those government contracts, the joint Air Force and Army base Langley-Eustis one of the city’s largest employers, and three naval vessels to date named after Newport News. But while such a longstanding connection might seem inevitable from our vantage point, it’s always worth thinking about the multiple transformative moments that have contributed to any city’s 21st century identity.
Next VA place tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Interesting places (in any state) you’d highlight?