The history of Hampton Roads is as deep as the waters that surround it. From some of the first settlers in the New World to the formation of the nation, Virginia’s Tidewater is rich in curious tales of legends and lore.
In the Southside, the famed pirate Blackbeard was beheaded by Captain Maynard of Hampton. Captain John Smith was a part of the first governing body in America formed in Jamestown. The nation’s oldest mental institution still stands in Williamsburg. Staff and guests at Boxwood Inn in Newport News have reported hauntings from a former owner and other eerie occurrences. In this offbeat travel guide, author Tamy Kay Thompson covers these stories and more as she takes readers on a journey through the always entertaining past of Hampton Roads.
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We will start our tour of the Southside (the Virginian cities of Hampton Roads south of the James River) in Virginia Beach, the longest beach resort city in the world; Virginia's tidal shoreline measures 1,200 miles in length. Though not ideal for surfing, the riptides on the Southside can be deadly just the same. Strong currents can pull a swimmer or body-boarder offshore in a matter of minutes. A study from 1998 to 2008 revealed that a total of thirty-three people have drowned at the two most popular beaches on the Southside, Oceanfront in Virginia Beach and Ocean View in Norfolk.
And riptides aren't the only danger at the beach — there is also the occasional shark attack. Since the mid-1950s when the International Shark Attack File began, a dozen shark attacks have been recorded in Virginia. One of the most memorable Southside attacks occurred in 2001 when a ten-year-old boy was attacked while wading in four feet of water with his father. Unfortunately, the boy died shortly after from the injuries he sustained.
Since it was established in 1634, Virginia Beach has become a great vacation spot with delicious food, trendy shopping and thriving nightclubs. It also offers fishing, boating and swimming in the Atlantic Ocean with access to the Chesapeake Bay, which is largely considered a dead zone today due to the lack of oxygen in the water. The Southside has also been home to TV evangelist Pat Robertson (700 Club) and musician Clarence Clemons (Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band). Of course, the Southside has its share of historical sites, such as the beautiful Cavalier Hotel, located at 4201 Atlantic Avenue in Virginia Beach.
The original hotel, situated atop a hill, was made from cement-encased steel, and then half a million bricks were added to the structure. The hotel was completely fireproof before the term "fireproof" was even coined. It took about a year to build, opening in 1927 as "the building made from the most bricks" in Virginia. To increase tourism, a train ran straight from Ohio and Chicago to the Cavalier. Aptly, the train was called the Cavalier, and its motto was "Take the Cavalier to the Cavalier" right up until the train's disuse in the 1940s.
There was no electric refrigeration system when the hotel originally opened; only large blocks of ice to keep perishable items cold. Likewise, there was no running water as we know it; instead, there was a large tub of ice on the roof of the hotel. The ice would melt and run down gravity-powered pipes into the hotel, so the water running out of the faucets was only as warm as the sun's rays could make it. The bathtubs were only equipped to run cold salt water directly in from the ocean, making for a frigid bath during the winter months.
The hotel featured luxurious amenities for its time, such as the swimming pool on the roof, which was filled with fresh seawater until the 1970s. The hotel lobby contained a doctor's office, a barbershop and a photographer's studio for the guests' convenience. Plus, there was a stock brokerage office with a ticker tape directly from the New York Stock Exchange. A radio station (WSEA), the third in America to broadcast coast to coast, was located in the hotel as well.
Many famous people have stayed at the Cavalier since it opened, such as Adolph Coors, the original beer tycoon himself, who vacationed at the Cavalier Hotel in the summer of 1929. Coors managed to make it through the early years of Prohibition by manufacturing ceramics, inventing "near beer" and providing malt to the Hershey's Company for its malted chocolate balls. He may have made it through Prohibition, but he couldn't make it through the Great Depression; instead, he plunged headfirst from his sixth-floor balcony at the Cavalier Hotel and died on June 5, 1929.
Throughout the 1930s, the Cavalier was the place to stay during vacations and holidays. Celebrities such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ginger Rogers, Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland all stayed there, as well as Richard Nixon, John F. Kennedy, five other United States presidents and a Nobel Peace Prize recipient. Even part of an NBC TV-movie was filmed there in 1992 about the life of Jackie Kennedy, the late president John F. Kennedy's wife.
During World War II, the navy used the hotel as a radar training facility, and the swimming pool on the roof was drained and used as a classroom. In 1944, a naval officer was attending the school when he met his future wife, who was working there as a nurse. The couple soon married. They planned to spend their forty-seventh wedding anniversary at the Cavalier Hotel. Unfortunately, the husband died in 1991, three months short of said anniversary. As a tribute, his wife decided to stay at the Cavalier without him. She gave the hotel manager the flag from atop her husband's casket, and it was proudly flown from the roof of the hotel for a brief time.
A second hotel, the Cavalier Oceanfront, was opened in 1973, and the original hotel was renamed the Cavalier on the Hill. The Cavalier Oceanfront, which is located just across Atlantic Avenue from the Cavalier on the Hill, is less grand and more modern than its original counterpart but is a great place to stay during summer vacations due to its views and proximity to the beach. The Cavalier on the Hill was scheduled to close and be auctioned off but was reopened in 1976 by popular demand. In 2014, the Cavalier on the Hill was closed again for renovations until 2016, and some contents from both hotels were sold.
The Cavalier on the Hill has quite a reputation for being haunted, despite its renovations. Former employees have heard eerie music and the sound of flushing toilets coming from empty sixth-floor rooms, and the front desk clerks have seen calls from vacant rooms light up the switchboard. The elevator sometimes runs by itself, stopping on various floors to open its doors and allow invisible guests to get on or off. Invisible fingers have been known to play the piano in the grand ballroom.
The Cavalier isn't the only eerie place in Virginia Beach, though. We will continue traveling on Atlantic Avenue to our next destination, just off Shore Drive. But along the way, we will pass by Edgar Cayce's Association for Research and Enlightenment on the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Sixty-seventh Street. Since the establishment of the Cayce Hospital in 1929, numerous paranormal research groups have sprung up around Hampton Roads, such as the Hampton Roads Paranormal Society in Gloucester, the Paranormal Activity Research Alliance in Newport News and the Virginia Paranormal Investigations in Hampton; but Edgar Cayce was the original supernatural leader in Hampton Roads.
Edgar Cayce (1877–1945) was a mystic and psychic who gave readings concerning illnesses and holistic treatments while in a trance, and Woodrow Wilson and Thomas Edison were among his list of clients. Cayce was born in Kentucky and, in 1925, moved to Virginia Beach, where he spent the remainder of his life. The Cayce Hospital was established in 1929 but closed shortly thereafter because of the Great Depression. Edgar Cayce died from a stroke in 1945 and was buried in Kentucky.
Ten years later, in 1955, the Association for Research and Enlightenment (ARE) bought the hospital to use as its headquarters. Renovations took place during the summer of 2014 under the direction of the foundation president, Charles Thomas Cayce, Edgar Cayce's grandson. Currently, the ground level of the original hospital is a health center and spa, which offers massages, chiropractic alignments, hypnotherapy, acupressure and much more. Many alternative-style conferences are offered at the hotel each year, mostly about hypnotherapy, mediumship and spiritual awakening. The visitor center offers lectures, a meditation course and even extrasensory perception (ESP) testing. The building also contains a metaphysical library that houses fourteen thousand of Cayce's psychic readings, which were first recorded in 1923. The facility is located at 215 Sixty-seventh Street and is an interesting place to visit, although spa treatments are by appointment only.
Despite Cayce's supernatural abilities, he never seems to have searched for Blackbeard's lost treasure like we are about to do. Prepare yourself for pirates, because our next stop is Treasure Island, a small island on Lake Joyce next to a residential neighborhood off Blackbeard Road (coordinates: 36.9124, -76.1210). According to legend, this island is where the pirate Blackbeard was forced to abandon some valuable buried treasure.
Blackbeard's real name was formerly believed to be Edward Teach, but recent evidence suggests his true name was Captain James Beard. Edward Teach was an alias he used, and Blackbeard was simply a nickname that eventually took on a life of its own. Blackbeard was the most dreaded pirate of the high seas during the early 1700s, despite the fact that he was only a pirate for two years. He was from North Carolina — not England, as he claimed — as was most of his crew. They turned to piracy for profit and fun.
Blackbeard stood six feet tall and had bushy, black hair and a full beard, which he braided with colorful ribbons. He was married fourteen times, mostly to child brides, and was absolutely ruthless in battle. At the height of his career, he had a crew of nearly four hundred men and four ships at his disposal, including the infamous Queen Anne's Revenge. This ship ran aground off the coast of North Carolina in 1718 but was discovered in 1996 and confirmed in 2011. Cannons were recovered from it in 2013. When Blackbeard was attacking other ships, he flew his flag depicting a horned skeleton holding a goblet in one hand and preparing to stab a bleeding heart with the other on a solid black background. He also fastened slow-burning lit fuses made from hemp into the hair along the edge of his hat during battles. He completed his ensemble by arming himself with a cutlass that could reportedly split a man in half, several hidden daggers and six pistols crisscrossed on his chest in specially made holsters.
Like most pirates, Blackbeard's ties to Virginia were purely through debauchery, mostly attacking and plundering ships as they entered the Chesapeake Bay. He and his crew would steal cargoes of slaves and tobacco — two commodities as valuable as gold — and sell them elsewhere. By 1755, more than forty-two million pounds of tobacco had been exported from Virginia in large barrels known as hogsheads, and most ships exiting the Chesapeake Bay were laden with the product. This made Blackbeard's job as easy as taking candy from a baby.
His home base, and where he retired for a short time and was pardoned, was the eastern shore of North Carolina. He only came north to Virginia to loot other ships and to relax at a local "pleasure house," a tavern with prostitutes. While Blackbeard availed himself of the amenities the pleasure house had to offer, some of his crew would act as lookouts on a nearby dune, known today as Pirate's Hill. The crew would keep an eye out for incoming ships to attack or for patrolling government ships from which to flee.
On one such visit to the pleasure house, Blackbeard's lookouts spotted an incoming ship brimming with riches, and they sent word to Blackbeard. He and his men attacked it. A few of the attacked ship's crew members boarded a small boat and attempted to escape with a chest filled with valuable treasures. However, Blackbeard spied them, and he and two of his men jumped aboard the small boat and killed them.
Suddenly, two navy ships approached out of the darkness, always intent on capturing or killing any pirates they encountered — especially those working with Blackbeard, since Governor Alexander Spotswood had sent soldiers to capture him. Blackbeard was forced to row ashore to the nearest piece of land. On the small island of present-day Lake Joyce, Blackbeard hastily scratched out a hole in the sand, buried the treasure chest and planned to return at a future time to retrieve it.
Instead, Blackbeard was beheaded by Captain Maynard of Hampton on November 22, 1718. Blackbeard was approximately twenty-eight years old when he died. More than half of his crew also perished during the battle, but many of the survivors who surrendered were returned to North Carolina unharmed. In January 1719, two members of Blackbeard's crew were hanged in Hampton and buried facedown. The remains of one were found in the 1980s and are currently part of an exhibit at the Hampton History Museum. Other crew members stood trial in Williamsburg; one was acquitted, one was pardoned and the other six were sentenced to hang. In 1992, archaeologists discovered a large scaffold designed for mass hangings, indicating that the sentence was carried out on the remaining crew members. In all likelihood, their bodies were displayed along the banks of the Hampton River. Blackbeard's remains suffered a similar fate; his piked head was sailed from the prow of Maynard's ship before being posted in the Chesapeake Bay at the mouth of the Hampton River for years. This particular spot on the bay is still known as Blackbeard's Point, and a Blackbeard festival is held in downtown Hampton every summer.
Blackbeard's skull was eventually removed from its pike at Blackbeard's Point only to be plated in silver and used as a drinking vessel similar to a punch bowl at the Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg. From there, no one is quite sure what happened to the skull, just like no one has ever found Blackbeard's buried treasure on Lake Joyce. Many treasure hunters — mostly locals and residents of the adjacent neighborhood — have tried to find it over the years, but no one has ever succeeded.
You won't find Blackbeard's Point or Treasure Island on a map, but there are plenty of other documented tributes to Blackbeard on the Southside. There is Pleasure House Road, Treasure Island Drive and, of course, Blackbeard Road. In fact, you can take Treasure Island Drive to Shore Drive before turning onto Independence Boulevard to our next destination, the Lynnhaven House.
The Lynnhaven House is located at 4401 Wishart Road, just off Independence Boulevard. This charming cottage near the Lynnhaven River has been known by a variety of names over the years, including the Wishart House, and is situated on 5 of its original 250 acres. The Boush family cemetery is on the grounds. Some restoration took place on the house in the 1970s, but over 80 percent of the house is original.
The property was first established in 1648 by Saville Gaskin and then was sold in 1662 to William Hodge, who in turn sold it to Francis and Abigail Thelaball in 1721. They built the current house around 1725; the original carpenter's chalk marks can still be found on the ceiling of the first-floor hallway. Frederick Boush bought the property and house from the Thelaballs in 1789, and it remained in the Boush family until 1859, when George and Joseph Smith bought it. From 1861 until 1922, the deed changed hands a total of seven more times before ending up in the Braightwell family. In 1923, the Olivers bought it from the Braightwells, and they became the last private owners of the Lynnhaven House. As of 1971, when the Olivers donated the house to the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, the house still didn't have electricity or running water. Currently, the City of Virginia Beach operates the house, and it is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
In 2007, the original timbers in the cellar and attic were drilled in an attempt to determine the exact age of the house. To date, the results of said test revealed that the wood was cut in the fall of 1724, suggesting the house was built in 1725. But this doesn't explain why a previous archaeological excavation turned up a piece of broken glass with the date 1713 etched onto it. Perhaps the owner of the property in 1713, William Hodge, planned to build a house and transferred a windowpane from his former house to his new property. The house was never built, though, and the window sat unused until it was inadvertently broken.
Tourists and tour guides of the Lynnhaven House have seen a trio of ghosts in the house: the spirits of a man, a woman and a little girl in a dazzling white dress. Civil War reenactors, while camping out on the property overnight, saw a ghost standing in the nearby family cemetery. Also, a workman who was restoring sections of the house kept misplacing his tools only to discover they had been hidden around the house by invisible hands. The Olivers, the last people to inhabit the house, had their fair share of supernatural events occur in the house, too. They reported hearing the sound of footsteps walking around overhead, although no one was on the second floor at the time. The Olivers also witnessed doors and cabinets opening and closing by themselves, and they saw all three ghosts at different times while living there.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Curiosities Of Hampton Roads"
Copyright © 2015 Tamy Kay Thompson.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1. The Southside,
Grace Sherwood Memorial,
2. Newport News,
Wilson Family Cemetery,
Denbigh Baptist Church,
College of William and Mary,
Bruton Parish Church,
Peyton Randolph House,
Public Records Office,
General Nelso's House,
Grace Episcopal Church,
Langley Air Force Base,
Tucker Family Cemetery,
Bluebird Gap Farm,
St. John's Episcopal Church,
About the Author,