Established in 1691 as a royal port for trade and tax collection, Yorktown, Virginia, reached its economic peak in the mid-1750s, when it boasted shops, taverns, a busy wharf and elegant homes on the bluff. However, the chief local crop was tobacco, which depletes the soil, so the town was likely already remaking itself in 1781 when Lord Charles Cornwallis chose the site as a base for the British fleet. The York River—a tidal estuary of the Chesapeake Bay—has a deep natural channel, making it ideal for maritime maneuvers, even today.
Fortunately for us, General George Washington and Count Rochambeau had daring plans for this riverfront enclave, which hosted the decisive battle of the Colonial revolt—a three-week siege that decimated two-thirds of the hamlet and heralded the final days of the Revolutionary War. Yet this would not be Yorktown’s only brush with disaster: In 1814, a fire destroyed much of the recovering city. And during the Civil War, Union troops inadvertently blew up most of a city block. Thus, Yorktown’s history is one of reinvention. While the town may never recover its original economic prominence, residents cherish its pivotal role in American history and welcome all comers.
“People are passionate about Yorktown’s history and preserving it,” says Amy Demetry, who purchased the Marl Inn Bed & Breakfast with her husband and relocated there from Bowie, Maryland, three years ago. Locals often volunteer at historic sites or participate in the Fifes and Drums of Yorktown, a group of community members who teach music and history and perform in local events.
These days, Yorktown’s white-sand beach is dotted with technicolored umbrellas when the waters are warm. Visitors can stroll the brick Riverwalk Landing and read signs that detail the many peoples who have plied these waters—from the Powhatan tribe to French and British fleets to American submarines based at the Naval Weapons Station just up the river. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch an opening of the 90-foot-high Coleman Bridge, the largest double-swing-span bridge in the U.S., which turns sideways to let vessels upriver.
Best of all, Yorktown offers multiple means—foot, wheels and water—by which to explore this charming landscape. And a trolley (visityorktown.org) that hits all the sights runs daily through November 18 and on Friday, Saturday and Sunday from November 23 through December 30.
Back in Time
The state-of-the-art American Revolution Museum at Yorktown (historyisfun.org) aims to tell all sides of the town’s story. Built in 2017, it boasts an immersive theater that reenacts “The Siege of Yorktown” on a 180-degree screen complete with smoke, smells and rumble seats. Throughout the museum, illustrations, paintings, portraits, moving-shadow projections and even holograms ignite the imagination. Also on display: a model of The Betsy, a British ship commissioned to transport food and supplies that sank nearby. Artifacts on view from the wreck include cuff links, pipe bowls and tiny rat skulls.
Strolling the grounds outside the museum, visitors find re-creations of a Continental encampment, slave quarters and a Colonial-era farm, complete with costumed interpreters and livestock (in season). Replica cannon and musket firings take place at both the museum and the Yorktown Battlefield.
The Yorktown Battlefield and National Park Service Visitors Center (nps.gov/york) sits atop the grounds of Cornwallis’ main defensive position, making it an ideal starting point for a ranger-led, 45-minute Siege Line tour. On a recent tour, park ranger Robbie Smith gave me goosebumps as he recounted the pivotal events of the battle on its actual site. He encouraged us to ponder Washington’s “daring decision” and the “calculated risks” he took in marching 17,000 troops and heavy artillery south to attack the British, with no guarantee that the French fleet would arrive or be successful in driving the British fleet back. He described the Continental Army’s bombardment of Yorktown with siege cannons and the ways Washington found to exploit the uneven, marshy terrain using what Smith termed “classic siege warfare” techniques. He evoked the ordeal British soldiers must have endured while more than 15,000 rounds were fired into their ranks over eight straight days.
After the tour, purchase a CD to guide your drive through the battlefield’s highlights. Be sure to stop by Surrender Field where, on October 19, 1781, British troops paraded in front of a tattered Continental Army and turned over their weapons. Claiming illness, Cornwallis didn’t show up but wrote to King George: “I have the mortification to inform your Excellency that I have been forced to …surrender.” Words to bring a smile to any patriot’s heart, then and always.
Love the musical “Hamilton”? Then don’t miss the short drive to Redoubt #10, an earthen fortification, still partially intact, where Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hamilton valiantly led his light infantry to overcome one of the last British defenses. This assault, described in the musical, included the 1st Rhode Island Continental Regiment, which was primarily composed of African-American soldiers.
One If By Land…
Looking for a quick way to take in the town? Patriot Tours & Provisions (patriottoursva.com) affords multiple means of exploring, with guides or independently. Their two-hour Segway tour zips along the river landing and up to the bluffs overlooking the river; it includes Grace Church, the Royal Welsh Fusiliers Redoubt and the circa-1730, brick Nelson House, with a cannonball still in its side. The provisioners will also outfit you with your own kayak, bike or paddleboard.
Those coming by water can anchor for hours or overnight at the Riverwalk Landing piers. Both the Schooner Alliance and the Schooner Serenity (sailyorktown.com) offer sails on the river from April through early November, along with an occasional pirate tour.
Yorktown dining options lean casual with riffs on the local bounty, including cobia, clams and oysters. Ideal for yummy breakfast and lunch treats, Carrot Tree Kitchens (carrottreekitchens.com) offers a daily crepe special and buttermilk biscuit sandwiches. Looking for a good burger and a brew? Check out the locals’ favorite hangout, the Yorktown Pub (yorktownpub.com). Along with live music on weekends, it also serves up middleneck clams, York River oysters and a local catch.
Waterfront and bridge-view dining options include the Water Street Grille (waterstreetgrille.net), which boasts no-filler crab cakes, local oysters and cucumber wasabi coleslaw. The slightly more formal Riverwalk Restaurant (riverwalkrestaurant.net) features a tasty she-crab soup, along with grilled elk chops and killer fish tacos.
While strolling the sites, get your java fix at Mobjack Bay Coffee Roasters (mobjackbaycoffee.com), located in the cheery, circa-1730 Cole Digges House. Choose from chicory, Southern pecan or Tidewater blends.
Room at the Inn
While larger hotels abound near Williamsburg and Busch Gardens, Yorktown offers three charming inns—all just steps away from historic sites. The Hornsby House Inn (hornsbyhouseinn.com) has rooms in a colonial-style home built in 1933 and furnished with family antiques. Guests can relax on the porch that overlooks the 98-foot-tall, white-granite Yorktown Victory Monument.
Named after a Colonial-era building material, the Marl Inn (marlinnbandb.com) is a colonial-style house with beautifully landscaped gardens and a patio. The scrumptious breakfast at the York River Inn (yorkriverinn.com) overlooking the waterfront may include ham and feta pie or poached pears with cranberries.
Arts, Crafts and More
Pop into Viccellio Goldsmith & Fine Jewelry (viccelliogoldsmith.com) to catch the owner crafting some of his original designs, and even commission your own creation. Auntie M’s American Cottage (auntiemsamericancottage.com) focuses on made-in-America crafts, folk art and cards. The owner of Redcoat Antiques (757-890-1409) clearly has a sense of humor. Located in a traditional home, this shop offers jewelry, furnishings and paintings collected by its well-travelled British owner.
The Yorktown Onion (757-872-8232) showcases eclectic jewelry and home goods. The image of a Yorktown onion—a local plant with a purple flower—graces much of the artwork hereabouts. On the Hill Gallery (onthehillgallery.com) is an artists’ cooperative showcasing pottery, paintings and sculpture. A wide array of crafts, paintings and knickknacks is available at the Gallery at York Hall (visityorktown.org), which also serves as a local information center.
The American Revolution Museum shop proffers Colonial craft kits, maps, T-shirts and the de rigeur tricorn hats. Its book section includes an excellent children’s selection, with the Colonial story told from every perspective. The battlefield visitors center has reproductions of Colonial-era glassware, books and puzzles. And you can find a colorful collection of kites, yard flags and sun hats at Patriot Tours & Provisions.
Make time for Market Days at Riverfront Landing, which take place November 10 and 17 and December 8; participants in these popular events enjoy a farmers’ market, vendors, artwork and live music. Yorktown also hosts a Christmas Market and Lighted Boat Parade on December 1. For more information, see visityorktown.org.
All photos courtesy of Yorktown Tourism.