By Rebecca Shier
If you drive around the National Capital Region, then you probably have feelings when it comes to Interstate 95.
More often than not, the East Coast’s main highway can look and feel more like a parking lot. But for a handful of residents in eastern Virginia, I-95 is more than just a perennial traffic jam. It’s a threat to the place they call home.
Before I-95 extended through Virginia in the 1950s and ’60s, the fastest way to go up and down the commonwealth was taking U.S. Route 301.
And if you followed that two-lane highway to the Rappahannock River in Caroline County, you’d come upon the town of Port Royal, a colonial shipping port settled in 1652 and chartered in 1744.
Once there, you could immerse yourself in historic sites, like one of the country’s oldest continuously operating post office, the tavern where George Washington spent the night, even the house where John Wilkes Booth tried to take cover nine days after shooting President Abraham Lincoln.
But then along came I-95.
As a result, says Louis Malon of Preservation Virginia, the oldest statewide preservation organization in the country, “This is one of the what we call ‘bypassed towns.’ The traffic, the center of activity, has moved away to the I-95 corridor.”
And that can actually be a good thing for Port Royal, he says, “because it keeps all of that horrible traffic out of here.”
But mostly, he adds, it’s pretty bad, “because it doesn’t bring visitors with the opportunity to see Port Royal.”
Consequently, many of the businesses along 301 have disappeared. A population that once numbered in the 200s is down by about half. And though you’ll find more original 18th-century structures here than in colonial Williamsburg, many are on the verge of collapse.
That’s why Preservation Virginia has just added Port Royal to its 2015 list of Virginia’s Most Endangered Historic Places.
“What we do is react to nominations,” Malon explains. “People bring forward sites, places, buildings that are important to the history of Virginia, and are threatened either from active forces or in this case from being bypassed. And they’re no longer in the center of attention.”
The designation doesn’t come with money, but it does encourage attention — attention that could potentially attract tax credits, easements and grants. Since the Most Endangered list began in the year 2000, Louis Malon says 51 percent of the sites have survived — nearly half through local efforts.
And leading up the local effort here in Port Royal is town native Carolyn “Cookie” Davis. Her family came to Port Royal in the 1730s, and now she heads up Historic Port Royal, Inc., the local nonprofit that’s been working to restore and preserve the town.
Just this year the group opened a Museum of Medicine, “which was the old doctor’s office here in town,” she explains. “And we were able to save it by moving it from a piece of property where it was going to be burned!”
And when Union First Market Bank left Port Royal in 2012 — taking with it roughly a third of the town’s income — Davis’s group turned the bank in to the Port Royal Museum of American History, with local items and artifacts dating back to Native American and colonial times.
“You know, I always say there’s good and bad in everything,” she muses. “Well, I miss my bank, but I love my museum!”
Davis worries about all the historic buildings desperate for repair — like the boarded-up Peyton-Brockenbrough House, whose mistress turned away Abraham Lincoln’s assassin in 1865.
“This was the most gorgeous house in the town,” she says. “It’s come downhill a long way. In the ’50s someone owned it that made it into apartments inside, and it’s never been taken care of and the current owner would like to sell it.”
She’s also concerned about the once-stately Lyceum, Virginia’s second-oldest Masonic Lodge.
“It really in its day was something because it was a brick building and it was here,” Davis says. “But then as the years went on, the roof sort of caved in.”
In a similar state is the Fox Tavern, where George Washington stayed on several occasions before the Revolutionary War.
“The family that owned this started some renovation and sort of quit, and left it to a son who has not really been back to do much to it,” Davis explains.
But not all the buildings in Port Royal are falling apart. Some houses went up just this past decade; though the land where they stand wasn’t officially part of Port Royal until 2014.
That was the year the town sextupled its acreage from roughly 80 to 480. The new boundaries will generate another $60,000 to $70,000 for a community that’s been struggling to hold on, enabling it to apply for grants and start a “rainy-day fund” for future improvements.
One of the houses on the newly annexed land belongs to Sharon and Kent Farmer. Sharon Farmer grew up in nearby Milford, Virginia. But she has fond memories of visiting Port Royal as a young girl, to fish on the Rappahannock with her father.
“I remember Port Royal when it had the businesses lined up on 301, and the neon signs were flashing!” she exclaims.
Farmer volunteers with Historic Port Royal and says she’s thrilled the annexation has officially brought her in to the fold.
“They needed the income and I’m all for it,” she says. “I thought it was a great idea.”
That wasn’t the case for one of Port Royal’s more longtime residents. Cleo Coleman founded Historic Port Royal about 20 years ago. And when she heard her 270-year-old town might be expanded, she says “as a student of history I was initially against that.”
But, she continues, it wasn’t long before she changed her tune.
“I’m no fool!” she says with a laugh. “And I soon recognized that it was necessary!”
After all, more land means more revenue for a town that’s finally gaining attention as one of Virginia’s most endangered historic places.
“Port Royal had a lot of assets,” Coleman says. “And we’re trying to rebuild on those assets now. We’ve come a long way but there’s still a long way to go.”
And in time, she hopes the rich past of this once-bustling colonial port will lead to an even richer future.