A Roadtrip Down US-17 - The Coastal Highway?
Roadtrip-'62 ™ is looking at US-17 today, which today runs 1,189 miles from Winchester, Virginia to Punta Gorda, Florida. In 1962, it was a little shorter, beginning only at Fredericksburg, Virginia but having the same southern end point. Also known as the Coastal Highway, the highway’s proximity to the Atlantic Ocean has made parts of US-17 prone to hurricanes. In 2004, Hurricane Charley made first landfall near the southern terminus of US-17. The hurricane then followed up the highway nearly its entire route in Florida before temporarily heading out to sea. When Hurricane Charley again made landfall in South Carolina, it ran all the way north through Virginia close to the route of US-17. While it is the US-numbered highway closest and parallel to the Atlantic Ocean coast for much of its length, quite a lot of US-17 is not near the coast. Whether we consider the current north end at Winchester or the old north end at Fredericksburg, it begins well inland.
From Fredericksburg, US-17 follows the Rappahannock River to near its end and then jogs south to Yorktown, Virginia on Chesapeake Bay. This is our first view of the Atlantic Ocean coast. Yorktown is the site of the final major battle in the American Revolution, where General George Washington’s army defeated the British Army under General Cornwallis with the help of French forces in late 1781. The defeat was final enough that Cornwallis surrendered and a peace treaty was signed soon after. In recognition of the United States’ victory, the Continental Congress directed that a monument be erected at Yorktown, consisting of a marble column with text heralding the surrender and victorious actions of the combined forces of America and France. No action was taken on constructing the monument until 1879! Attempts were made in 1834 and 1876, but Congress finally authorized action and appropriated funds in 1880. The cornerstone of the current monument was laid the next year, per Congresses’ intention to have the monument completed for the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Yorktown victory, though it was not completed until 1884. The monument has twice been damaged by lightning, in 1942 and 1990. It was repaired in 1956, so that we would have seen it in all its glory during our 1962 visit.
The monument is part of Colonial National Historic Park, authorized in 1930, which connects the Yorktown Battlefield and Yorktown National Cemetery with nearby historical Williamsburg, Virginia and Jamestown Island. The Colonial Parkway was constructed to connect all of these sites, and runs 23 miles from the York River at Yorktown to the James River at Jamestown, passing under Williamsburg. The Parkway was begun in 1931 and completed in 1957. As with many projects of the period, both the Great Depression and World War II negatively impacted the construction schedule. The tunnel under Williamsburg was built in 1942 and resulted from the need to build a road connecting the park’s major elements while preserving historical sites. Colonial Parkway is typical of National Park roadways, with no at-grade crossings of non-park roads, gentle curves, elegant landscaping, no commercial development, and a relatively low speed limit. It makes for a very pleasant drive between parts of Colonial National Historic Park.
The battle occurred here because General Cornwallis had occupied the town to establish a naval base. Yorktown was a major Virginia port and economic center, and had 250 to 300 buildings and a population of almost 2,000 people around 1750. Unfortunately, though the United States won the battle and the war, much of the town was destroyed. By the end of the Revolution, less than 70 buildings remained and the 1790 census listed a population of only 661. Yorktown never regained its economic prominence. A fire in 1814 then destroyed the waterfront district as well, with additional destruction during the Civil War. You can stroll the mostly empty streets today and imagine Yorktown as the thriving tobacco port it once was through interpretive signs, some remaining buildings, reconstructions, and ruins. One of the major remaining buildings is the Nelson House, which the National Park Service did not acquire until 1968. The Nelson House was the home of Thomas Nelson, Jr., one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. The Nelson House is one of the finest examples of early Georgian architecture in Virginia and most of the house is original.
From Yorktown, we continue south to Newport News, Virginia for our view of the James River, instead of heading to Jamestown. I’ll leave a description of Williamsburg and Jamestown until we get to highway US-60, as they are much closer to it. We cross the river and head through Chesapeake, Virginia and back inland through the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. The old roadbed of 8 miles of US-17 is now a hiking and biking trail, converted in 2005 when the highway was moved onto a new alignment to the east. Beginning at Elizabeth City, North Carolina, we again touch the Atlantic Ocean coast at several fingers of Albemarle Sound over the next 40 miles to Edenton, North Carolina. Then, it’s back inland until New Bern, North Carolina, where we again touch the Atlantic Ocean coast at the estuary of the Neuse River. We can spend a lot of time in New Bern seeing attractions that were here in 1962. The city is home to the New Bern Firemen's Museum, established in 1955, the birthplace of Pepsi-Cola, created in 1889, Tryon Palace, built in 1769, and Croatan National Forest, established in 1936. Tryon Palace is the former home of the colonial governor of North Carolina and later briefly the state capital.
New Bern was originally settled by the Chattoka tribe, who were displaced in 1710 by Swiss and Palatine German immigrants. They named the town after Bern, the capital of Switzerland and the 1st Baron of Bernbert, Christoph von Graffenried, their royal patron. The city still has a lot of historic buildings because it did not experience much fighting during the Civil War. This was due to its continuous occupation by United States forces from 1862 to 1865. It played an important part during the war though, as it was the site of the Trent River encampment, which housed nearly 10,000 former slaves as war refugees. New Bern boasted the oldest chartered fire department in North Carolina, having been formed in 1845, which was 20 years before the New York City Fire Department! But the war interrupted the early history of fire-fighting in New Bern, as members of the city’s fire-fighting companies volunteered for service in the Confederate Army at the beginning of the war. To commemorate this early history, the New Bern Firemen's Museum was established in 1955. Today, you can ride the old firetrucks and check out the old fire-fighting equipment for a step back in time. There is also an exhibit on the local Great Fire of 1922 which destroyed over 1,000 buildings in New Bern, leaving part of the city in ruin.
New Bern is also the birthplace of Pepsi-Cola, my dad’s favorite drink! It was invented by Caleb Bradham at Bradham's Drug Store in 1883, as he tried to create a fountain drink that was appealing and would aid in digestion and boost energy. He originally named it Brad’s Drink and marketed it as an elixir for curing a stomach aches. In 1889, he came up with a new name, Pepsi-Cola, from the word dyspepsia, meaning indigestion. Though many people think otherwise, pepsin was never an ingredient of Pepsi-Cola. Marketing was successful, with growth occurring in both soda fountains and via bottles, and by 1910 when the first bottler convention was held in New Bern there were 240 franchisees in 24 states. Pepsi was not affected by the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act which banned substances such as arsenic, lead, barium, and coca leaves from food and beverages because Pepsi-Cola did not contain any of such impurities. However, the law forced many soft drink manufacturers, including Coca-Cola, to change their formulas. Bradham lost control of the company in 1923 due to his speculation on the price of sugar, which had skyrocketed during World War I. He bought too much at high prices while his competitors were free to buy at lower prices. After that, the company and most of its assets moved out of town and the drug store building eventually housed various businesses. Today, the building is named The Birthplace of Pepsi Store and is owned and operated by the Minges Bottling Group of Ayden, North Carolina. It opened as The Birthplace of Pepsi Store on the 100th Anniversary of Pepsi-Cola in 1998. That’s too recent for us, but we can always celebrate with a couple of Pepsis! That name was finally trademarked in 1961, though people had called it Pepsi for years. The change went along with a new advertising slogan "Now It's Pepsi for Those Who Think Young", which was promoted with a jingle sung by Joanie Sommers.
Tryon Palace and the North Carolina History Center is North Carolina’s premier historic site. The building was built for Royal Governor William Tryon and his family in the Georgian style that was popular when it was completed in 1770. Besides being the governor’s residence, Tryon Palace served as the first permanent capitol of North Carolina. In 1798, a fire destroyed the original palace building, but we could have seen the current reconstruction in 1962. That was the result of an extensive 30-year campaign to rebuild the palace and restore the grounds, which was completed in 1959. Besides the palace, you can enjoy the 16 acres of gardens, which are also a reconstruction. The current gardens were designed by landscape architect Morley Jeffers Williams in the 1950s to represent the formal garden style of 18th-century Britain. It is not known how closely they hew to the original gardens, as there are three different plans that claim to show the original gardens. The entrance to the entire complex is through the modern North Carolina History Center, which has historical and hands-on exhibits, a café, and a gift store.
The grounds also feature several other colonial era buildings. The George W. Dixon House was built in the early 1830s when part of the original palace grounds were sold after the fire. It sits on its original site. The Stanly House was built in the early 1780s and may have been designed by the same architect who designed Tryon Palace. The Stanly House has been moved twice, most recently to this location in 1966, but remains one of the finest examples of Georgian architecture in the South. We could have seen it in 1962 as the New Bern Public Library, a function it served from 1935 until 1965. The Robert Hay House was constructed before 1816 and is modest by comparison to the other homes of the Palace complex. It is maintained as a living history museum where you can get a first-hand feel for life in 1835 by talking with in-character interpreters who give hands-on demonstrations. The building and all furniture has been restored to give the look and feel of a home of that era. An additional building featuring history exhibits is located outside of the palace grounds; the 1809 New Bern Academy Museum. It’s located in New Bern's historic residential district and the displays interpret life in New Bern during the Federal occupation, 1862-1865.
Just southeast of New Bern is the Croatan National Forest. The forest was established in 1936 and features Atlantic Ocean coast and hiking through coastal lowland longleaf pine forests, evergreen-shrub bogs, and wetlands. Besides hiking, canoeing and fishing are popular on blackwater creeks and in saltwater marshes. These various habitats provide the opportunity to see a variety of wildlife, including carnivorous plants like Venus fly-trap, sundew and pitcher plants. You can also find endangered species like the red-cockaded woodpecker and the rough-leaf loosestrife. And of course, there is the larger wildlife such as deer, black bears, turkeys, and alligators. Just a few of the many trails are the Island Creek Forest Walk Trail, a 3.7 mile loop near Pollocksville, North Carolina, the Cedar Point Trail through a salt marsh on boardwalks, and the Neusiok Trail. The Neusiok Trail is over 20 miles long, beginning on a sandy beach on the Neuse River and running to a salt marsh on the Newport River. On its way, the trail meanders through cypress, hardwoods, loblolly pines, savannas and swamps. And if 20 miles isn’t long enough for you, the Neusiok Trail is also part of the 900-mile Mountains-to-the-Sea National Recreation Trail that goes all the way to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park!
I often mention hiking somewhere, national parks, state parks, or even railtrails. I’ve been at it long enough that I know what I need to take with me, how long a given trail might take to hike, and other factors that a newby to hiking might not know. If you find yourself in the category of want to try a hike but not knowing how to begin, you might begin with an Ultimate Beginners Guide to Hiking by Jenny at HobbyHelp. She has a lot of helpful ideas. I’m setting off in the Croatan National Forest; see you in a few hours. I’ll choose the Island Creek Forest Walk because it’s closest to US-17. The others are over our 5-mile limit away and closer to US-70, so let’s leave them for that roadtrip.
Highway US-17 next hits the coast at Wilmington, North Carolina. There, the USS North Carolina sits in the harbor as a museum ship. This World War II ship was purchased from the Navy in 1958 and arrived in Wilmington in 1962, just in time for us to see it! We finally reach the coast proper at Crescent Beach, South Carolina, traveling through coastal towns for the next 37 miles to Pawleys Island, South Carolina. Within this stretch, we can visit Myrtle Beach State Park. The Myrtle Beach area is also famous for over-the-top miniature golf courses. I love mini golf and once owned portable courses for party rentals, as I mentioned in the article Putting for Fun - Miniature Golf in 1962. So of course, I’m stopping to play some mini golf here.
Also along this stretch of coast is Brookgreen Gardens at Brookgreen, South Carolina. First opened to the public in 1932, the grounds are the largest and most comprehensive collection of American figurative sculpture in the country. It’s displayed in a garden setting plus three indoor galleries, which contain over 2,000 works by 425 artists. The sculpture gardens are the dream of Archer Huntington and his wife, sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington, to collect, exhibit, and preserve American figurative sculpture. They also established two other missions for the property, which it also achieves: to collect, exhibit, and preserve the plants of the Southeast, and to collect, exhibit, and preserve the animals of the Southeast. The last function is accomplished in the Lowcountry Zoo area. In addition to the sculptures, some of the garden areas are the Live Oak Allée, comprised of 250 year-old Live Oak trees that were planted in the early 1700s, and the Palmetto Garden, completed in 1950 and named for the Sabal palmetto, South Carolina's state tree. The current gardens are completely on the former Brookgreen Plantation, which was owned by Joshua John Ward, America’s largest slaveholder.
After these beach towns, US-17 heads back inland again, though only a few miles off the beach and sometimes within view of the Intracoastal Waterway. Its companion route, US-17 ALT, goes even further inland between Georgetown, South Carolina and Yemasee, South Carolina. I’ll let that road go where it may; our next stop is near Charleston, South Carolina. Just before we cross the Cooper River, at Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, is Boone Hall Plantation. Boone Hall has been open to the public since 1956, shortly after the McRae family purchased the plantation and furnished the house with antiques. Boone Hall Plantation was founded in 1681 and is one of America’s oldest working farms. They have been continuously growing and producing crops for over three centuries: once primarily cotton and pecans, currently fruits and vegetables including pick-your-own crops. Across the river is Charleston, the oldest and largest city in South Carolina. I didn’t talk about historic Charleston when we looked at news along US-176, which ends in town. But during 1962, the centennial of the Civil War was being commemorated around the country, and we could have visited the place where it all began.
Fort Sumter is most famous today because Confederate States of America forces fired the first shots of the Civil War upon Federal troops at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. Fort Sumter National Monument comprises several sites in Charleston Harbor, including of course the fort. After its capture by Confederate forces, the fort secured the harbor against Federal invasion for the duration of the war. Besides the fort, Fort Sumter National Monument incorporates Sullivan's Island, which provided Charleston Harbor's first line of defense against disease or foreign invasion. Its quarantine stations checked every person that came into the harbor, including newly-arrived slaves from Africa. It’s estimated that forty percent of slaves imported to the United States came through the port of Charleston. After the War of 1812, Congress ordered the improvement of the United States’ coastal defenses, building 34 forts from Maine to Louisiana, including Fort Sumter in 1829. Since 1961, you’ve been able to take a tour boat over to Fort Sumter and spend time wandering around. The ride over includes a trip around the harbor and you might even see dolphins! You can also tour Charleston’s many historic homes, cemeteries, churches and waterfront buildings. In addition to harbor tours on various types of boats, you can take horse-drawn carriage tours, bus tours, and even narrated walking tours.
Between Charleston and Savannah, Georgia, US-17 heads inland because the rivers cut deeply in from the coast, so that there is no good route to stay on the coast. Mostly sandwiched between US-17 and US-17 ALT, which approach Savannah from separate bridges, lies the Savannah River National Wildlife Refuge. It is largely freshwater marshes, tidal rivers and creeks, and bottomland hardwoods, composed primarily of cypress, gum, and maples. Because access to these areas is by boat only, I haven’t been there even though it was established in 1927, so it’s plenty old enough for my roadtrip. If you stop in, you will find hiking and bicycling opportunities along the many dikes that were originally built during the 1700 and 1800s, when the area was formerly plantations’ rice fields. The city of Savannah lies across the Savannah River and is Georgia’s oldest city. You can still find cobblestone streets among the 21 historic squares and period architecture. As with Charleston, the best way to see the historic district is by carriage tour.
Beyond here, we never hit the coast again throughout Georgia except at Brunswick, where we come to the bay and estuary of the Brunswick River. This is where we find Jekyll Island, long popular as an oceanside resort for the rich. In the late 1800s, Jekyll Island became an exclusive hunting club for families with names like Rockefeller, Morgan, Vanderbilt, Pulitzer, and Goodyear. The Jekyll Island Club National Historic Landmark District s now one of the largest preservation projects in the southeast. It’s now open to everyone, as in 1947, the Georgia state legislature established Jekyll Island as a State Park. Many of the homes have been restored to their former glory; the first one was Indian Mound Cottage in 1954. Also that year, the drawbridge to the island was opened. The next year the road around the island was paved and a beach pavilion was constructed at one of the few beaches open to Negroes in the south during the segregated period. In 1962, we would have seen a brand new, full-fledged tourist resort area, with the Peppermint Land Amusement Park opened in 1956, and the Aquarama and first 18-hole golf course opened in 1961 and 1962, respectively.
For more information on Jacksonville, Florida, see my posts about the end of US-23. After Jacksonville, US-17 moves increasingly inland: so much that it eventually ends on the other coast! On the way across the state, we can visit Palatka Ravine Gardens, now Ravine Gardens State Park, in Palatka, Florida. The ravines are a natural feature created by a spring-fed creek, which supplies underground water that bubbles up and carries the sand and soil downstream, eroding the ravine banks. Beginning in 1933 and running through at least 1936, the ravines were transformed into this garden by the federal Works Progress Administration. The project kept up to 300 men busy each year and resulted in construction of an administration building, concessions building, entrance station, limestone fountain and gardens, suspension bridges, dams, a sprinkler system, terracing and construction of retaining walls, and road improvements. For the gardens, the men planted over 40,000 azaleas and 270,000 other plants on the slopes of the ravines. The city operated the park for many years, however, as the 1960s ended, the Gardens became increasingly difficult and expensive, resulting in the closure. The City offered the park to the State of Florida and in 1970 Ravine Gardens officially became a Florida State Park. From the 1.8 mile trail system, you can see the creek and plants of the garden. The garden's peak flowering period is still azalea season, from January to March. But you can also see some of the hundreds of remaining azaleas earlier and later, as they experience a "rolling bloom”.
Highway US-17 also goes through Orlando, Florida and Kissimmee, Florida, right through the neighborhood of Walt Disney World. It’s really hard to imagine as you drive through the massive development of the area that stretches for probably 20 miles, with theme parks, motels, restaurants, more theme parks, gift stores, and more, that back in 1962, none of it was here! This was still a flat area of forests, cattle pastures, and swamps. The Walt Disney Company didn’t even begin purchasing land until 1964. The only tourist attraction we would have seen in the area was Cypress Gardens, 30 miles southwest of Kissimmee in Winterhaven, Florida. Cypress Gardens has been called Florida’s first theme park, and since it opened in 1936, that might be true. It began as a botanical garden planted by Dick Pope Sr. and his wife Julie. In 1932, Mr. Pope convinced the local branch of the federal Works Progress Administration, the same US government office that funded Ravine Gardens up the road, that it would be better to pay the men to beautify and rebuild the local canals and chain of lakes. But after spending about $5,000 of government money, local opposition to the project became so heated that it was canceled. Mr. Pope repaid the funds and continued on his own, and when Cypress Gardens opened it had 8,000 varieties of flowers from over 90 different countries.
During the World War II era, he introduced water skiing exhibitions as entertainment for servicemen stationed in Florida. By the time the war was over, Cypress Gardens was on its way to becoming the "Water Ski Capital of the World". Many of the sport's landmark firsts were made here and over 50 world records were broken. Movies were filmed at the park, including portions of “This is Cinerama”, a wide-screen format I discussed in my article on highway US-16 in Detroit, Michigan. During the 1950s, the third unique attraction of the park debuted: the women dressed as colorful Southern Belles in the crinolines reminiscent of the Antebellum South, who posed around the garden. During the American Civil War Centennial, including 1962, young men dressed in Confederate Army uniforms posed with them. By that time, Cypress Gardens was at its peak. Mr. Pope even welcomed the announcement of the construction of Walt Disney World, figuring that anything that brought more visitors to Florida would also help his business. But by the time Walt Disney World opened in 1971, travel patterns and demographics began to change as people took shorter trips to a single destination. The gas shortages of the mid-1970s hurt him even more. Visitors came to the new Orlando theme park, stayed a few days there, and often left Florida without coming south to Cypress Gardens. Cypress Gardens tried to respond to the competition by expanding and adding some theme park-like attractions, but they couldn't match Disney. I first visited in both parks in 1975, when Cypress Gardens was still at the height of beauty and relevance, during that transition period.
By the mid-1980s, Mr. Pope’s son sold the park to the Harcourt Brace Jovanovich publishing corporation, who was on a theme park buying spree at the time. Along with acquiring Cypress Gardens in 1985, they also bought the Sea World parks, Circus World, and Stars Hall of Fame. But new owners, who poured a lot of money into new attractions, did not help enough. Passing through a couple of other owners, Cypress Gardens closed in 2003 and again in 2009. It’s now reopened as a part of Legoland Florida, which opened in late 2011. Buried in the new theme park are Cypress Gardens' most popular features, including its lovely gardens and a water ski show. The gardens still hold a magnificent collection of native plants, including azaleas and camellias. Even the huge Banyan tree that was planted as a seedling way back in 1939 is still standing. The water skiing show is a bit different, with acts such as water skiing LEGO soldiers. They’ve also constructed LEGO sculptures of their famous Southern Belles and other familiar Cypress Gardens sights.
Our trip down US-17 ends at Punta Gorda, Florida, on the Gulf of Mexico side of the state instead of the Atlantic Ocean side where we started. If it were still 1962, we could have visited Everglades Wildlife Park and fed a deer, looked at some alligators, and bought some useless gifts. Oh well, I guess I don’t really need any of that anyway, so I’ll see you next time on Roadtrip-'62 ™ for something different. And sorry you didn’t get to see Disney World on this trip!
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