Yorktown, one of the three sister towns known as Virginia’s “historical triangle” consisting of Williamsburg, Yorktown and Jamestown, is seldom mentioned by itself in conversation. Yet, the town offers more than enough to make it a single destination for visitors. In 1781 Yorktown was referred to as a “sleepy port town”. Yet it was here that America, along with its French allies, ended a three-week siege through the use of skill, raw determination, a little luck, and a lot of plain old digging, to win a decisive battle that would turn the tides for war forever in favor of a free America over the British.
In order to get into the proper mindset, your journey begins as you travel along the historical Colonial Parkway located off of I-64. This road, built by the National Park Service, was designed not only to carry you to your destination, but to carry you back in time as well - back to simpler days when traffic lights and painted lines were not needed. Billboards, housing developments and businesses are a world away. Age-old trees surround you as you wind your way along the river and its marshy creeks. The road was painstakingly built in sections to resemble the shell and marl roads of the colonial period. The parkway’s brick covered bridges and underpasses add to the historical flavor.
Exit the Colonial Parkway at Yorktown. Your first stop should be the Visitors Center run by the National Park Service. For a nominal fee you can wander along the well-worn paths of the historic battlefields and get a sense of what life must have been like during the Revolutionary encampment with the help of interpretive programs. Inside you can view a brief film on the battle of Yorktown that describes in great dramatic detail the victory of George Washington over Charles Cornwallis on October 19, 1781.
In addition, the Visitors Center houses a museum that provides visitors with an appreciation of the life of the soldier. It contains a re-creation of a Revolutionary War encampment, as well as a replica of a Colonial era ship complete with low ceilings, cramped quarters, sounds of wind and waves and crooked flooring. In a matter of minutes you will feel as if you have been carried out to sea. The museum also has an interpretive program especially designed for children.
The Victory Monument, dedicated to the victory of the battle of Yorktown, is just a short distance away. From there, you can easily walk to Yorktown, which blends its historical past with modern day small town life and a touch of commercialism. Here you will find sunbathers along the beach, fishermen bringing in their catch along the pier, picnickers, and boaters all enjoying the York River. Everything is within close proximity. However, if you choose to do so, a free trolley is available daily from June until September.
Be sure and look carefully as you walk along Water Street, the riverfront street along the river. Otherwise, you might overlook one of the most infamous attractions in Yorktown - Cornwallis Cave. This small sandstone cave was supposedly used as headquarters by the British General Cornwallis when he realized defeat at the hands of the American’s was imminent. It is debatable as to whether or not Cornwallis actually used this cave. However, the cave is reported to be haunted. Orbs have been photographed and distressing sounds have apparently been heard emanating from within its walls. During our visit, all we encountered was an unusual experience of having our digital camera take a blank photo (yes, the lens cap was off). Mysteriously enough, the second photo came out perfectly. Other than that, the only distressing sounds we heard were emanating from our rumbling stomachs.
Fortunately, there are several dining options at Yorktown. Our choice for the day was the Yorktown Pub, which offers a casual dining atmosphere. We enjoyed beer battered onion rings and crab cake sandwiches while looking out onto the waterfront. There are also several other restaurants located along the waterfront and in the historic district of Yorktown.
In addition to dining, Yorktown offers a hotel, bed and breakfast, several antique stores and art galleries mingled along with the many historical buildings such as Grace Episcopal Church, which was built in 1697 and is still and active today. Yorktown’s newest attraction is its Riverwalk Landing area which offers many shops, fine dining, a performance area, two docks and two parking lots for tourists to visit by land or by sea. A short drive away, yet still in Yorktown is the Watermen’s Museum and the Yorktown Victory Center – a re-created late 18th century farm and a Revolutionary War encampment.
Yorktown is truly a town for all seasons. The summer months are filled with musical performances from the Fifes and Drums of Yorktown and various concerts. Fall brings the Yorktown Victory Celebration. Winter heralds “A Colonial Christmas” and spring welcomes the Home and Garden Tour. Don’t make the same mistake General Cornwallis did by underestimating Yorktown. Between its sandy beaches, fishing and boating piers, picnic areas, historic battlefields and buildings, ghostly sightings, shops, and small town charm, Yorktown has a lot to offer everyone from the history buff to the recreation seeker.