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   Chapter 4 A RUN AROUND JAMESTOWN ISLAND

Virginia: The Old Dominion By Frank W. Hutchins and Cortelle Hutchins Characters: 9390

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Now Gadabout, her engines slowed down, drifted almost unguided among the shallows beside Jamestown Island; for our eyes were only for that close-lying shore and our thoughts for what it had to tell us.

The end of the island toward us was well wooded though fringed with marsh. All of it that could be seen was just as we would have it-without a mark of civilization; wild, lonely, and still. In keeping with the whole sad story seemed the gloom of the forest, the loneness of the marsh, and the surge of the waves upon the desolate shore.

When we took Gadabout in hand again, we did not keep along the front of the island to where the colonists "tied their ships to the trees" and made their landing; but, instead, we turned from the James and ran up Back River in behind the island. Our plan was to sail up this stream to a point where the chart showed a roadway and a bridge, and to tie up the houseboat there. That would be convenient for us and for Gadabout too. The roadway we should use in crossing the island to visit the chief points of interest, which were on the James River side; and Gadabout would have a more protected harbour than could be found for her in front.

Though nothing serious came of the matter, we were not taking a good time to run up the little stream behind Jamestown Island, as the tide had long since turned and we were going in on a falling tide. We did not relish the idea of running aground perhaps, and of having the ebbing waters leave our craft to settle and wreck herself upon some hidden obstruction. So Gadabout took plenty of time to run up Back River, feeling her way cautiously with a sounding-pole, like some fat old lady with a walking-stick.

There must once have been a better channel here; for in the early days of the colony, vessels did not always land at the front of the island, but sometimes ran up Back River as our houseboat was now doing. Indeed, we were expecting to come soon to the wooded rise of land once called "Pyping Point," where of old a boat in passing would sound "a musical note" to apprise the townspeople of its coming. And but a little way beyond that again, near the present-day bridge where we expected to stop, we should find the site of the ancient landing-place which was called "Friggett Landing."

As Gadabout slowly moved along, she occasionally got out of the channel into the shallows, in spite of chart and sounding-pole; and more than once she struck bottom. But she always discovered the channel and scrabbled back into it before the soft mud, even aided by the falling tide, could get a good hold of her. No, not quite always was she so fortunate. For at last, in following a turn of the channel toward the island, she went too far; her stern swung about and grounded in the shallows; her propeller clogged in the mud, and she came to a stop.

We accepted that stop as final. No attempt was made to put out a kedge anchor and to "haul off" with the windlass. We simply walked around the houseboat on the guard taking soundings. Finding that the boat was settling upon fairly level bottom, and feeling that the farther she went the worse she would fare, we took our chances as to what might be under her and made no further effort.

Nautica had a good motto, which was, "When in trouble, eat." So the next thing was dinner. Then Nautica and the Commodore embarked in a shore-boat on a voyage of discovery, a search for the lost channel. By this time the water was but a few inches deep around the houseboat. Evidently, the explorers would not dare to go far or to be gone long for fear the ebbing tide would prevent their getting back. But it was not necessary to go far to find the channel. Indeed it was found unpleasantly near. The houseboat had stranded on a safe, level shoal, but almost on the edge of a steep declivity leading down into twelve feet of water. We felt that if Gadabout had to go aground, she at least might have done it a little farther away from precipitous channel banks.

Sitting on the upper deck, we talked and read, and watched the water slowly drawing away from our houseboat until all about us was bare ground; to starboard a narrow strip of it between us and the channel, and to port a wide stretch of it between us and the shore.

We thought most and talked most of the historic island on the edge of which we had become squatters. It was a small stage for the world-shaping drama that had been enacted upon it.

Toward evening the tide turned again and the truant waters came back, lapping once more the sides of our boat. The Commodore had to see that anchors were run ahead and astern, and all made snug for the night. Then, in the enjoyment of one of

the most charming features of houseboating, an evening meal served on the upper deck, we watched the sun dip down behind the island and the twilight shadows gather in.

Still about us was no sight or sound of human life. The shadows deepened and darkness came. Then gradually a faint silvery light stole over water and marsh and wooded shore; and the stillness was broken by a burst of faint, high, tremulous tones, as though a host of unseen hands swept tiny invisible mandolins. The silvery light came from the rising moon; the rest was just mosquitoes.

Next day, as soon as Gadabout was afloat, she started up stream again to find the bridge and a landing-place. There was no trouble about the channel this time. The waterway, as if taking pity upon indifferent navigators, suddenly contracted to a very narrow stream, deep almost from bank to bank, so that we could not well have got out of the channel if we had tried. In such a place, we were stout-hearted mariners and the good houseboat stemmed the waters gallantly. Already we were thinking of how we too, in passing "Pyping Point," should sound a blast most lustily. Perhaps it would not be exactly a "musical note" such as the townspeople were used to; but being two or three centuries dead, they probably would not notice the difference. However, we did not subject them to the experiment. Instead, we suddenly reversed our engine; Gadabout tried to stop in time; the ladies tried to look pleasant; the Commodore tried to shun over-expressive speech. There, just ahead, was a row of close-set pilings, blocking the stream from shore to shore.

There was nothing to do but to turn back, run around the island, and attempt to get in behind it at the other end. We probably should have tried the upper entrance in the first place had it not been that our chart showed by dotted lines some sort of obstruction there, while it did not at all indicate the barrier we had just encountered. Fortunately, as the tide was now rising and as we had got some knowledge of the channel, Gadabout made good progress in returning down the stream, and was soon out in the wide James again, sailing along the front of the island.

As we proceeded, the marshes gave way to a bank of good height edged with a gravel beach. Buildings were now in sight, and horses and cattle grazing. We passed a pier with a warehouse on it, bearing a sign which read, "Jamestown Island, Site of the First Permanent English Settlement in America, 1607."

Now, a glimpse could be had of a relic of old James Towne, the ruined church tower, deep-set among the trees. Could our eyes have pierced the water under us, we might have seen more of the ruins of the ancient village. For Gadabout was holding in quite close to shore where no vessel could have gone in James Towne days, as the place was then solid land and a part of the settlement. Now, that part lay buried at the bottom of the river, and our boat was passing over it.

Coasting around the end of the island, we came upon a tree standing out in the water a hundred yards from shore. It was the famous "Lone Cypress," once growing on the island, now spreading its green branches in the midst of a watery waste-silently attesting the sacrifice of historic soil to the greedy river. A little way beyond the tree was what we were seeking, the upper entrance into the waterway behind the island.

In the days of the old settlement, there was no such entrance at this end; for here the narrow isthmus extended across, connecting with the mainland. But the same resistless wash of waves that had carried part of James Towne into the bed of the river, had broken down and submerged the isthmus too; and our chart showed that there was water enough for our houseboat to sail over where the colonists used to walk dry-shod.

As to the obstruction we had seen indicated on the chart, that proved to be the ruins of an old bridge extending out from the mainland along the submerged isthmus. But the island end of it had been carried away, and we readily passed through the opening left and got again into Back River behind the island. Following this for a few hundred yards, we found ourselves at last beside the bridge we long had sought. Standing on the upper deck, we could look down stream to the place where our houseboat had been stopped by the row of pilings. We had practically circumnavigated the island.

While making Gadabout fast to some convenient pilings, we heard gay voices and the rumble of wheels on the bridge.

"Look! Look!" cried one of a carriage-full of hatless girls in white muslins. "There's a houseboat. How in the world did it get in here?"

And we rather wondered ourselves.

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