Many people travel the Great Loop as quickly as possible, often in a year or less. Their rationale is that they will use the first trip to check out where they want to spend more time on their subsequent trips. We made the very conscious decision that we would only be doing the Great Loop once, and that we would spend as much time as we wanted sightseeing the first and only time around. As an aside, there is no requirement to do the Loop all at once. Many people do it in segments and take multiple years to complete their trip. So, even though we mostly follow the same route, everyone’s trip reflects who they are.
Before we even left the Portland, OR, area, we knew that we wanted an extended stay in the Chesapeake Bay area. Neither one of us had spent any appreciable time there, and both Portsmouth, VA, and Baltimore, MD, seemed like ideal “home bases” to board Chip and Dayle for an extended vacation off the boat and for us to get rental cars, use public transportation and some of those hotel reward points to savor what the area has to offer. This blog post will list the sights, but not necessarily in the order we saw them. As an aside, we did not try to see everything, but selected places that we thought would be of interest to us, and also, reserved the right for either one of us to say “I am museum-ed out. My brain is full. Enough!”
Many places did not allow photography, so our pictures are limited.
Lower Chesapeake Bay
We expected that the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum would chronicle the various shipbuilding activities from its founding in 1767 to present day. Unfortunately, our expectations and the contents of the museum were not in synch. It was informative to see how the shipyard evolved, but we were expecting a more in-depth coverage of the methods used, materials and types of crafts that contributed to building ships throughout the shipyard history.
The Trinity Episcopal Church, Portsmouth, was established in 1761-1762 and we had the privilege of a guided tour of their stained-glass windows before the service. One highlight was a Tiffany window that we could actually touch to experience how the variations in color and texture contributed to the shimmering lilies. Their cemetery is integral to the church grounds, and we wandered among graves that pre-dated the American Revolution. It is incredible to be among sites like this that are over 250 years old.
As we ventured up the James River, we intended to stop at Jamestowne, VA, the archeological dig site for the first English settlers in North America. However, we never made it there because we ended up spending 2 days at the The Mariners’ Museum, Newport News, VA. (The advantage of not having a rigid schedule!) Originally, we thought this would be a one-day (five hours for us) visit and had put it on the list specifically to visit the USS Monitor Center.
If you went to high school in the North, you learned about the USS Monitor and the USS Merrimack. If you went to high school in the South, you learned about the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia. The USS Merrimack was sunk at the Gosport Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth at the start of the Civil War. Amazingly enough (snark remark) she was raised and re-christened the CSS (Confederate States Ship) Virginia in record time and became one of the first ironclad ships, along with the USS Monitor. Their battle off the Hampton Roads (where the James River and Chesapeake Bay meet) was a crucial naval engagement for control of the shipping lanes to fuel both Confederate and Union war efforts. This two-day battle essentially ended in a draw, with the CSS Virginia having inflicted severe damage on the Union fleet, but the Confederacy was unable to break the Union blockade of Chesapeake Bay. Its main significance was in the use of the iron clad sides on each boat to deflect cannon balls and rifle shot. The museum featured multi-media explanations of the battle itself, the construction of the ships and the preservation efforts that continue today on the USS Monitor. After five hours, we had only seen the USS Monitor portion of the museum. So, there was nothing for it but to come back the next day to see the rest.
The rest? The REST? Oh, yes! When we arrived the next morning, we made a beeline to the International Small Craft Center, which houses real, non-replica, full-size small boats. (Small = 40 ft or less. Then Again is 31 ft, for reference.) We have included photos of some of our favorites below. We also saw displays of miniature models of ships, and a display about speed and innovation in the America’s Cup. This museum was definitely a five-star attraction for us.
We stopped at the Colonial National Historic Park in Yorktown, VA, expecting to see recreations of the Battle of Yorktown and the surrender of British General Cornwallis to American General George Washington at the end of the Revolutionary War. If we had been able to do more walking, it would have been fascinating to retrace the battle lines and see the batteries used. However, it was very hot and humid that day, so we took a pass. Many guided walking tours are available, so if you decide to go, you will be well taken care of.
We spent some time at the American Revolutionary War Museum in Yorktown, VA, and wished that we had skipped the historic site and started out here. Another well curated locale that uses multimedia presentations and hands-on experiences to lay out the whole history of events leading up to the war as well as significant battles and what life was like on a Revolution-era farm.
Of special interest to us was Fort Monroe and the Casemate Museum in Fort Monroe, VA. Louise’s maternal grandparents, Joseph and Katherine Gasdik, spent the first years of their married life here, as Grandpa Gasdik was assigned to the Army Post. Grandpa Gasdik was an immigrant who was able to attain US citizenship by enlisting in the Army and in 1916 was a part of General Black Jack Pershing’s force sent to the US-Mexico border to chase Pancho Villa, a Mexican revolutionary, back to Mexico after some raids across the border. The US gave up chasing Pancho Villa when we entered WWI in 1917.
Enslaved people sought refuge at Fort Monroe, which was Union held. Once in the confines of the fort, they became free people. Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, was imprisoned in Fort Monroe following his capture in 1865. By the way, casemates are a series of interconnected vaulted chambers within the Fort’s wall. The photo below shows the view out one of the casemates, across the moat.
Upper Chesapeake Bay
While we were in Annapolis, MD, we found two small museums that were definitely worth our time. The first was the Annapolis Maritime Museum, located inside what was previously McNasby’s Seafood and Oyster Company, as seen below.
This museum was devoted to the Chesapeake Bay oyster business, and we were able to easily follow all the steps involved from harvesting the oysters (you don’t “catch” them, you rake or dredge them up from the bay floor) to sorting, cleaning, and packing them for shipment. Work at the oyster company paid well for women in those days, and the owners even built wooden boxes that the shuckers and cleaners could stand on so that they would be at the correct height at the tables. Unfortunately, the oysters were over harvested in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, so they became scarcer. However, thanks to cooperation between the fisheries and the environmentalists, the oyster beds are regenerating. Oysters used to filter the entire Chesapeake Bay in about a week during the 1800’s; now, it takes almost a year.
In the area of “Things We Did Not Know,” the Maryland State House was the site of General George Washington’s speech resigning his commission as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army on December 23, 1783. The State House displays Washington’s personal copy of his speech, considered by many to be the fourth most important document in American history, since it set the precedent of the military being under control of the civilian authority. Additionally, on January 14, 1784, Congress ratified the Treaty of Paris here, officially ending the Revolutionary War.
Onto Baltimore, MD, which had two major sights on our list: the Baltimore Museum of Industry and the Baltimore and Ohio (B & O) Railroad Museum.
The Baltimore Museum of Industry is also housed in an old cannery, so we were able to refresh ourselves on the oyster industry in Chesapeake Bay. This museum also features recreations of late 19th century businesses: a machine shop, print shop, grocery store, pharmacy, garment loft and a mid-20th century gas station. Since we grew up in a small town in western New York State, many of these exhibits looked familiar to us.
A highlight of our Baltimore stay was the Baltimore and Ohio (B & O) Railroad Museum, with its roundhouse center piece that featured original and recreations of railroad equipment. The museum bills itself as the birthplace of American railroading, and a most fascinating exhibit was entitled “The War Came By Train,” which illustrated how the B&O (and other railroads) were essential links in the supply lines to both the Union and Confederate armies in the Civil War. This was another five-hour museum for us, as we wandered through every exhibit. We love train travel and railroad museums, and this one ranks in the top two, the other one being the California State Railroad museum in Sacramento, CA.
Continuing our transportation museum tour, we headed over to St. Michaels, MD, to see the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. This one did not live up to our expectations, but we were spoiled by the National Maritime Museum and the Annapolis Maritime Museum that we had visited earlier. If we had not already been to those two places, the exhibits here of oystering, crabbing, ship building, and the outdoor models would have been very educational. We, however, were sort of at the “seen it already” stage. One advantage this museum has is that there are several marinas in near proximity, so if you are planning a boating trip, we would recommend it.
Anchorage Marina in Baltimore served as our headquarters for our Washington, DC, trips. We took Amtrak round trips twice to our Nation’s Capitol, and then Uber’ed around. We personally do not see how anyone can keep their sanity and drive their own car in DC! We selected four places to go: a Washington Nationals baseball game, the National Museum of American History (Smithsonian), the Vietnam Wall, and the Newseum. We wanted to take things at our own pace, so our first visit was the baseball game and the Smithsonian, and our subsequent visit was to the Vietnam Wall and the Newseum.
The Nats played the Atlanta Braves and lost 4-3. The highlight was the President’s Race at the end of the 4th inning, won by Thomas Jefferson. Louise got too excited rooting for Teddy Roosevelt and forgot to take a picture. But there is never a bad day at a ballpark. Unfortunately, the Baltimore Orioles schedule did not match up with ours, but, since we had seen them in Spring Training, all was not lost.
The Smithsonian occupied two full days for us. What a delight to see Julia Child’s kitchen and to view artifacts of appliances that we grew up with. How sobering to view the Star-Spangled banner that waved over Fort McHenry in the War of 1812. How enthralling to see the First Ladies’ dresses, and especially to be reminded about what a fashionista Nancy Reagan was. Viewing the various roles that the President of the United States performs as a part of his office was educational and caused us to reflect that every role, from Commander in Chief to head of his political party are so important to the history and character of our Nation. Some Presidents have done better than others at setting high standards of morals, ethics, and civil discourse. No pictures from inside the Museum. Very happy that we had allowed two days to visit all three floors.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial (aka the Wall) should be required viewing for anyone who is considering waging war. Lenny is a combat veteran of Vietnam, and we also wanted to look up LCDR Donald E. Thompson, who is Louise’s Uncle Loyd’s brother. It is a long, slow walk down the path by the wall, and, even though it was very busy the day we went, all were silent along the way. Later we sat in the grotto commemorating the medical personnel, mainly Army nurses, that provided what help they could to those that were injured. Even as Louise writes this, she sighs and shakes her head at the cost of this war – and all wars — to each of us.
Our final DC museum was the Newseum, whose mission is to increase public understanding of the importance of a free press and of our First Amendment freedoms: religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition. One of the changing exhibits reflected on the evolution of LGBT rights, while another demonstrated the various ramifications and interpretations of our First Amendment freedoms. The Pulitzer Prize Photographs Gallery displayed all the prize-winning photographs since 1942. Not all of them were tragedies, and interactive kiosks allowed you to select the photos and read about the circumstances and the biographies of the photographers. Unfortunately, the Newseum will be closing on December 31, 2019, as the building has been sold to Johns Hopkins University. We could not find any information on what would happen to all the exhibits and archives.
We never regretted our decision to spend over two months in the Chesapeake Bay area, since we knew we were unlikely to return to any of these locations. We repeated over and over, “I don’t remember this from our history classes or our social studies classes (although we should)” and were gratified that our time investment enlightened us on the importance of the Chesapeake Bay area to our country’s history and future.