Port Cities

Some towns developed along the Chesapeake Bay to support the fishing industry, such as Onancock in Accomack County. Reedville in Northumberland County became the center for the menhaden fishery, and the wealth of that business can be viewed today in the grand Victorian homes in that town.

Other towns and cities developed because they were good locations for ports to handle international trade. Remember, Virginia has been integrated into the international economy since Christopher Newport brought the Susan Constant, Godspeed,, and Discovery from England to Jamestown in 1607. Initially exports and imports were delivered directly to the docks at individual plantations, as European settlement moved upstream in the various Chesapeake Bay watersheds. The Fall Line cities developed initially as ports for handling trade with population centers on the East Coast (Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and Charleston), plus tobacco and grain exports to the Caribbean and Europe.

Norfolk developed a century after initial settlement of Virginia. Its excellent harbor on the Elizabeth River offered shelter from storms and pirates, but the region was exposed to attack by Spanish, Dutch, and French warships. The local sandy soils produced poor tobacco, but the region did provide lumber, meat (especially pork), and produce needed by the Sugar Islands in the Caribbean as well as the coastal cities in north America. Norfolk also grew as the export/import center for northeastern North Carolina, since that region lacked a good port on the Atlantic Ocean.

Norfolk was destroyed by the American rebels at the very start of 1776, in part to prevent Lord Dunmore and the British from making it a base of support and in part because its Scottish and English merchants were not strong supporters of the American Revolution. Nonetheless, it has been the main population rival to Richmond (which was made the capital in 1780) throughout the history of the state.

Richmond could handle shallow-draft shipping at the City Dock, at the base of Church Hill, but needed a port with deeper water for larger ships. It financed a railroad to West Point, at the junction of the Mataponi and Pamunkey (the start of the York River). Petersburg did the same at City Point, now part of Hopewell. Norfolk's growth was seriously deterred by competition with Richmond and Petersburg for the inland trade of the Roanoke and James river watersheds.

Norfolk and Portsmouth waterfronts on the Elizabeth River waterfront, about 1891
Norfolk and Portsmouth waterfronts on the Elizabeth River waterfront, about 1891
Source: Library of Congress - Bird's eye view of Norfolk, Portsmouth and Berkley, Norfolk Co., Va.

No city exists in a government vacuum, and Norfolk's growth demonstrates the impact of political geography more than physical geography of Virginia. State-supported transportation improvements were recognized from the beginning as tools for increasing population and wealth of one city, often at the expense of another.

Every early Virginia city was a port except one - Williamsburg. Unique in the development of the state, it was located on the watershed divide between College and Queens creeks, on higher ground where the roads tended to dry out sooner after rains. The second capital was considered to be healthier than Jamestown, being away from the swamps and brackish drinking water. Originally known as "Middle Plantation," it was located in the middle between the James and York rivers and not far from either, but no ship ever tied up at the wharves of Williamsburg.

Alexandria waterfront, 1863
Alexandria waterfront, 1863
Source: Library of Congress - Birds eye view of Alexandria, Va.


Why Virginia's Cities and Towns Are Located Where They Are
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