Thursday, August 26, 2021

Establishing Control: The Environmental Transformation of Sewell's Point

By Alec Bright
HRNM Volunteer

Naval Station Norfolk (NSN) is now a sprawling 3,400-acre complex with over 50 buildings; however, 100 years ago, in 1921, it was in its infancy, with a mere 474 acres to its name. Only 20 years before that, Sewell’s Point, the peninsula on which NSN sits, was largely undeveloped land. So, how did Sewell’s Point become what it is today? Sewell’s Point would undergo an environmental transformation for the Jamestown Exposition and the 300th anniversary of the arrival of British settlers to North America. Eighty thousand plants and trees were brought in to populate the once swampy area. The entirety of Lake Sanford was drained. The early efforts of the Exposition planners proved to the Navy the possibility of shaping a landscape to suit their own needs. Less than ten years after the Exposition, the Navy purchased the land on Sewell’s Point and began development, which continued for the next 100+ years, into the present day. In a sense, this is the story of how Naval Station Norfolk was created from the ground up.

Above is a map of the Jamestown Exposition Fairgrounds. Created by William H. Lee, a cartographer, the map was included in a pamphlet given to Exposition visitors. (Theodore Roosevelt Center)
Many already know the story of Admiral’s Row, the famous Jamestown Exposition homes where flag officers now live on base; however, few consider why or how this location came to be the Navy’s home in the mid-Atlantic. While the geographic importance of Hampton Roads was well known, as proven by all navies during the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, Sewell’s Point, named after an early British settler, had largely been overlooked before the early 20th century. Apart from a small Confederate outpost, a waterfront hotel, and some hunting land, the peninsula had been left in its natural state. In 1903, when the site selection committee for the Jamestown Exposition chose Sewell’s Point for the World’s Fair, they did so to fulfill the Virginia’s General Assembly request that the fair be “held at some place adjacent to the waters of Hampton Roads whereon all navies of all nations may rendezvous.”[1]

Overseen by W.H. Manning, an experienced landscape designer, the transformation began in January 1905 with the removal of dense vines and shrubs from the 400-acre lot. From February to April 1905, local companies removed pine trees on the fairgrounds, replacing them with 30,000 willow trees. By May 23, 1905, the entire 100-acre lake, Lake Sanford, had been completely drained. Tributaries of nearby Bush Creek were also drained to eliminate mosquito breeding grounds and provide more space for Exposition buildings. Although some parts of the existing environment were left for viewers to enjoy the “natural beauty of the land,” they were sparse.

After a report on flood mitigation techniques from Manhattan, Brighton Beach, Coney Island, and Atlantic City, the board of directors agreed to construct bulkheads and jetties on Sewell’s Point. A system of fast-draining pipes and stilts raised buildings above the marshy waterline on the western part of the fairgrounds and mitigated the mosquito problem. These jetties and other anti-flood protections were drawn into the Exposition’s building plans.
An image taken in 1909 of the two piers build at the end of Sewell’s Point for the Exposition; known as the “Godspeed” and “Susan Constant” piers. (Wikimedia Commons)
When the Navy came looking for a home in the mid-Atlantic for the upcoming war in Europe, it was known that this land could be tamed. W.H. Manning, his crew, and the rest of those involved in the Jamestown Exposition had morphed a small, rough forest into an urban center suited to host both ships and people. Over the next 100 years, the Navy would face many more challenges in maintaining its control over Sewell’s Point. However, after adding more than 2,900 acres to the naval station, the Navy continues to demonstrate willingness and ability to form the landscape to suit its needs in the area.

Circled are some of the remaining buildings from the Jamestown Exposition, Admirals Row. Today, these houses are occupied by Navy flag officers. (Google Earth)

[1] Charles Keiley, ed., The Official Blue Book of the Jamestown Ter-Centennial Exposition, A.D. 1907: The Only Authorized History of the Celebration (Norfolk, VA: The Colonial Publishing Company, 1909), 37.

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