September 28, 2021

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Palms on the Potomac

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For this farewell-to-summer excursion we’ll follow blue highways, the stuff of country music lyrics, those roads less taken that are devoid of Sheets or Wawas. Perhaps we’ll find some mom-and-pop-run oases and meet some interesting folks.

Blue highways are no longer shown on maps in blue ink as Rand McNally did when cartographers used red to delineate major thoroughfares. But on a steamy August morning recently, for the third time this year, Style Weekly photographer Scott Elmquist and I are following mostly blue highways for a 90-minute drive to Colonial Beach, which fronts the Potomac River on the Northern Neck. It’s a destination many Richmonders seldom visit, though it’s roughly 60 miles from both Washington and Richmond.

On our two previous excursions we’d motored west to Scottsville and south to Keysville, respectively. For our excursion to seasonally bustling Colonial Beach, a one-stoplight town once known as “Reno on the Potomac,” I bring a 70-page Virginia map book published by DeLorme. It’s one of those slightly oversized publications that are full of colorful topographic detail and sold in convenience stores and filling stations. My colleague Scott humors me, but he is fine with a GPS system. 

We both clutch Starbucks coffees. Is that cheating? One thing about blue highways is that you shouldn’t expect anything specific, even hot coffee. But you will find something, guaranteed. 

Leaving town we follow U.S. Route 301 north through Hanover County. We cross the Pamunkey River into Caroline County and pass through a relentless swampy stretch that continues over Polecat Creek and the Mattaponi River. Veering east at Bowling Green, Route 301 becomes a straightaway through dense forests that define much of the terrain of the Fort A.P. Hill Military Reservation. We comment on the bizarreness of the American military being trained here and dutifully going forth in the name of a Confederate general. But then again, the statue of Gen. Ambrose Powell Hill Jr. in Richmond is still a Lost Cause vestige marking a major crossroads at Hermitage Road and Laburnum Avenue. 

Moving beyond Fort A. P. Hill, within a few minutes we arrive at the all-but-lost town of Port Royal, population 210. Although this burg can easily be missed, it was a thriving Rappahannock River port town from the 1600s to the 1800s when tobacco was shipped downstream. To picture the place, imagine what Williamsburg would look like today if the Rockefellers hadn’t come along in the 1920s and applied their Standard Oil fortune and fancy Boston architects to its restoration. Here, unexpectedly we confront traces of another Civil War figure considerably more notorious than A.P. Hill, John Wilkes Booth. He was a 27-year-old actor when he assassinated President Abraham Lincoln in Washington in April 1865. A historical marker in front of a large frame house explains that this was the place where Booth was captured after being chased and shot to death 10 days after fleeing the scene of the crime. A creepy exclamation point to reading about the violence that occurred here were a bevy of huge vultures perched stoically atop the roof and chimneys of the weathered house, their black coats of feathers glistening in the morning sunshine. Scott and I didn’t tarry.

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  • Scott Elmquist
  • Vultures preen atop the Richard Garrett house in Port Royal, a Caroline County town. John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, died on this porch in April 1865 after being tracked down and shot.

Driving five blocks, we exit Port Royal, cross the Rappahannock River and arrive in picturesque King George County. After a brief drive through lush farmlands, we turn east at the village of Edgehill and onto state route 205. Soon we are in Westmoreland County. We arrive in Colonial Beach and although we can see the Potomac River in the distance, we pass through town to its eastern edge to arrive at a wooded historical site, the James Monroe birthplace. Monroe (1758-1831) was the fifth president and a popular one. He spent the first 17 years of his life here on the then-500-acre farm before beginning a life of public service. In light of our fraught political times, it’s hard to believe that he faced no opposition in his successful run for a second presidential term in 1820.

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  • Scott Elmquist
  • The birthplace of the fifth U.S. president, James Monroe, has recently been rebuilt on its original foundations and is the newest attraction in Colonial Beach.

We stroll around the stalwart frame dwelling built on the foundations of the house where Monroe was born. It sits in a grove of trees and is visible from highway 205 beyond a flurry of state and national historical markers. The multiyear restoration is nearing completion by the James Monroe Memorial Foundation. Archeological work was conducted by the College of William & Mary and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation executed the architectural work. Landscaping and furnishing the place is a work in progress. Of the eight Virginia-born presidents, there is only evidence of what two of their birthplaces actually looked like: this house and the Woodrow Wilson birthplace in Staunton. Plans call for replanting orchards and re-creating houses for enslaved people and other structures that once populated this 18th and early 19th century farm. 

Just beyond the modern reception center and museum is a so-called Time Trail, a half-mile, aggregate-paved and oyster shell-deckled walkway. Here we meet an engaging woman walking her dog. Vivian Lee Messner, with Barney tugging on a rope good-naturedly, says she was named for the famous screen actress, but doesn’t explain why her name isn’t spelled Leigh like the star of “Gone With the Wind.” We chat at one of the regular intervals on the trail where large granite slabs and benches are engraved with information pertaining to Monroe’s life and times. “This path leads to water and a canoe launch,” Messner explains. 

Since we’d introduced ourselves as day trippers to Colonial Beach making our first stop near town, she cheerfully says that she’s a 26-year resident of the town. Although born in West Virginia and reared in Framingham, Massachusetts, she says she loves it down here. “I love Virginia. When my company, Geico, moved me for a time to St. Petersburg, Florida, I cried. When I heard I was being transferred back here, I went hopping through the office: ‘Yahoo, I’m going home,’ I yelled.” 

And this come-here clearly knows the territory. She recounts that in 2017, she ran for the Democratic nomination for a seat in the House of Delegates. While she lost to an opponent who ultimately lost to a Republican, Messner says she carried several counties in the primary. “Everyone should do it,” she says of running for office.

When asked for the inside scoop on Colonial Beach, she quickly suggests that there are two schools of thought among the residents. “Some people, the old timers, want to keep the town old timey,” she says, “others want change.”

Internet access is “iffy” she adds, while tourism development is always an issue. She explains that there is a public sculpture project downtown and along the beachfront that has many folks wondering if the money might be better spent on more pressing infrastructure needs.

“A major issue is that folks from around Washington, D.C., are moving down, buying houses and causing costs to be jacked up,” she says. “What some home builders are charging is highway robbery.” 

We ask for breakfast suggestions.

“Lenny’s is where the old timers go,” she says, while “the Colonial Buzz Espresso across the street from Lenny’s is more hip.”

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  • Scott Elmquist
  • Vivian Lee Messner, a long-time Colonial Beach resident, walks Barney along the Time Trail at the Monroe birthplace.

For a county steeped in 18th-century architecture and lore, George Washington’s birthplace and Stratford Hall, the ancestral home of the Lees, are near Colonial Beach. Meanwhile, our breakfast spot, Lenny’s, is a local institution with an authentic midcentury modern vibe. The restaurant’s shallow A-frame exterior silhouette gives way upon entering to an outbreak of turquoise blue. Every table and booth in the L-shaped space is filled with a customer mix equally Latina, Black and white. Scott orders pancakes and sausage and I have an omelet.

It’s late morning, spirits are high and no one seems in a hurry.

“Take care,” shouts the Rev. K. Lionel Richards, who is dining at a table, to a friend who is exiting the diner. Adds the Rev. James Johnson while laughing, “It’s a hard job but someone has to do it.” A few minutes later, Richards, 69, explains that both he and Johnson are pastors of nearby congregations, Mt. Olive Baptist Church and Maranatha Bible Church, respectively. “Things are going pretty smoothly considering the COVID,” says Richards of his flock and the church’s programs. “People are trying to get back out. We have between 30 and 50 attendees at services now.” 

As we leave Lenny’s, I scan a number of the photographs and newspaper clippings that hang throughout the restaurant. The eatery was opened in 1978 by Leonard Skeens, who operated it until his death in 2007. Today it is run by his stepdaughter, Brandy Robinson, who we observed this busy morning in high gear. One of the newspaper clippings stresses how Lenny’s has played an important generational role in the life education of scores of teenagers and young people in Colonial Beach. They had their first real jobs there – and Skeens was considered a tough task master: His mantra: “If you have time to lean, you have time to clean.” 

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  • Scott Elmquist
  • The Rev. K. Lionel Richards, a local pastor, enjoys breakfast at Lenny’s diner.

Leaving Lenny’s we cross Colonial Avenue, the main road to the beach and a strip of suburbia – if only a hint. We stroll onward to Colonial Buzz Espresso and approach a woman and man enjoying a late-morning beverage. They lounge in chairs under stylish blue fabric swaths that are billowing next to the cottagelike coffee house. The friendly pair asks us where we ate breakfast and light up when we tell them Lenny’s.

“That’s where each of us had our first jobs,” says the woman, who was with her son, and who politely declined to give their names.

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  • Scott Elmquist
  • River, land and sky: The path of Irving Street follows the Potomac through much of the town of Colonial Beach.

Finally, on to the beach!

At two and a half miles, Colonial Beach is the second-longest bathing beach in Virginia. The freshly groomed sand extends flush to the concrete boardwalk. Shade trees – mostly sycamores and a few specially planted (and unexpected) palm trees offer a shady respite for those without beach umbrellas.  

We drive along Colonial Avenue to where it reaches River Edge Inn, a large motel at the far western edge of the boardwalk. The walk extends eastward to border the north side of the tight downtown street grid. We examine a piece of realistic, newish-looking sculpture that depicts two apparent visitors to the beach dressed in late-19th century attire. It is a reference to the town’s founding as a summertime escape hatch for Washingtonians in the pre-air conditioning era. Strolling along we notice a number of piers. The town pier and visitor center is on Hawthorn Street. Most of the downtown buildings are one and two stories except for the hulking Potomac Renaissance condos near Irving Avenue. There is an unassuming flair to many of the buildings and the appearance of places that have been patched up and maintained over the years. Little is showy.

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  • Scott Elmquist
  • A sculpture depicting two Gilded Age vacationers greets beach goers on the waterfront at Colonial Avenue.

An exception is the Riverview Inn at 24 Hawthorn St. It is an art deco marvel with curved brick walls and a brightly colored exterior. There is nothing quite like it in Virginia. It looks, well, jazzy. It recalls an era when Colonial Beach was known – not always fondly – as a gambling destination. So gambling was legal in Virginia back in the day? No, but interestingly the southern border of Maryland extends to the low water mark along the south bank of the Potomac. Therefore, when you go into the water along Colonial Beach, you are wading or swimming in Maryland. Taking advantage of Maryland’s considerably more liberal gambling laws, savvy entrepreneurs built piers from the boardwalk into the water with gambling operations, including slot machines at the ends of the piers. 

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  • Scott Elmquist
  • The eye-catching art deco Riverview Inn is a short walk from the beach.

One of the charming things about Colonial Beach is walkability. And the number of golf carts rolling through the streets seems to exceed automobiles. We didn’t see many cyclists. Among those we meet today on the beach are two day-trippers from Washington, Deja Robinson and James Knighton.

“We’d heard about Colonial Beach word of mouth and today is my birthday,” Robinson says. As she lies on a blanket, her companion eats slices of fresh fruit, apparently purchased before leaving the city at Whole Foods from the looks of a brown grocery bag. “Do you know of any beaches nearby that don’t have jellyfish?” asks Robinson with a wince. I didn’t have the heart to tell these city folk that those stinging critters come with the territory and they are just as prevalent in the Atlantic Ocean at Virginia Beach, the state’s longest beach.

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  • Scott Elmquist
  • The Colonial Beach boardwalk is shaded by indigenous sycamore trees and specially planted palms.

Colonial Beach is a pleasantly sized peninsula that narrows to four blocks wide as one moves toward its end. At First Street the blocks become residential and from First Street to the Colonial Beach Yacht Center, at the tip, the town looks its best. Dozens of heartbreakingly attractive beach cottages front Irving Avenue, which overlooks the Potomac. With relatively few shade trees, each of the houses reflects the distinct tastes of its builder or owner. For a beach mostly off-the-beaten path for 150 years, there is an understandable, low-key variety. From Victorian cottages to stalk modernity, the houses seem to coexist beautifully. The back streets closer to Monroe Bay – Lossing, Bancroft and Marshall avenues – are lined with modest-sized showstoppers.

One of the largest riverfront cottages is the 1885 Bell House at 821 Irving St., a Queen Anne-style confection that also exhibits rare stick-style tendencies. The latter architectural style, exalting in showy, sharp-pointed carpentry, was more popular in the Northeast. This startling-looking place is a vacation home of Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone. He inherited it from his father and retreated from Washington here from 1907 to 1918. Locals will tell you that Bell experimented while in residence with modest-sized flying machines that were launched from the front, third-story balcony.  

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  • Scott Elmquist
  • of inventor Alexander Graham Bell that was built in 1885.

Colonial Beach has a wide range of dining options. One popular spot is High Tides on the Potomac with its Black Pearl Tiki bar that dominates the boardwalk with its Disney-like design and decor recalling the set of the CBS reality show, “Love Island.”

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  • Scott Elmquist
  • Kara Allison serves a lunch at Wilkerson’s restaurant, a riverfront destination on McKinney Boulevard.

Before departing Colonial Beach, Scott and I decided to drive a few miles to the edge of town and the considerably more sedate Wilkerson’s Seafood Restaurant, a local destination for 40 years. He visited the salad bar and I had the seafood platter, including a crabcake, while enjoying the 270-degree panoramic view of the water and countryside. It felt like being on a ship and the clientele was decidedly more Gilligan’s, in an affectionate way, than “Love Island.”

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