Walking, Riding, Boating Through History

There is much more to a visit to the U.S. capital than famous government buildings. Its neighborhoods and suburbs include carefully preserved sections, even a whole town, that give visitors the feeling of going back in time.  

Cities are growing; more people are moving to urban areas today than ever before in human history. In this rush to build and expand, sometimes the identity of the place, its traditions, history, culture, are swamped under new buildings, paved roads and shopping malls. Yet, the history of a city, the memory of why it came to be, who settled there and what their struggles and dreams were, can be important for us to remember, yielding insight into the development of our values.

When on a recent visit to Washington, D.C., I discovered localities that retain their memories—and the physical remnants—of days long gone. I did not expect, so near the bustling business district of the U.S. capital, a quaint locality like Georgetown. It precedes even the city of Washington, having been founded in 1751. George Washington, the first U.S. president, often visited Georgetown, a thriving port for tobacco on the Potomac River, and negotiated land deals to build the future federal city.

Walking down the famous M Street with its boutiques and restaurants nestled in buildings with stone façades was pleasant enough on a June morning. But the best was exploring the many lanes leading to the riverfront. On the way I discovered the Old Stone House, said to be the oldest standing structure within the city limits of Washington, D.C. Taking a tour of the house, which is open to the public, I came to know that it was initially built by a carpenter named Christopher Layman in 1765. The U.S. Government bought it in the 1950s to preserve its heritage.

Another discovery was the C&O Canal (which stands for Chesapeake and Ohio) running through Georgetown. Shaded by overhanging trees and its banks lined by pretty shops and dwellings, the canal seemed like a picture plucked from another century. The canal’s preservation owes much to the efforts of U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who campaigned in 1954 to turn it into a national park. A plaque near the canal quotes him: “It is a sanctuary for everyone who loves woods—a sanctuary that would be utterly destroyed by a fine two-lane highway.” The highway proposal was being advocated at that time. 

Walking down K Street to the promenade, I arrived at a beautiful rotunda with fountains and colorful awnings of restaurants. I couldn’t help gaping at beautiful young girls in fine gowns passing by as I lingered on the steps. Apparently, the church in the area is a popular venue for weddings and often the post-wedding crowd comes here for a photo shoot. 

To get a feel of the place I took a boat ride on the Potomac. As the boatman cum guide described the landmarks along the banks, with the Kennedy Center shimmering in the afternoon light, Georgetown seemed a blend of the old and the new, a nerve spot in the capital’s history.

Alexandria, a pretty neighborhood on the other side of the Potomac, was another discovery. Dating back to 1749, Alexandria’s riverfront was an important port during the Colonial, Revolutionary and Civil War periods. 

The home of George Washington was just across from the suburb, in Mount Vernon. Today Alexandria’s old section has been revived in a way to remind of those bygone days.

As the King Street trolley bus starting from the metro station carrying mostly tourists slowly trundled through the area, the neighborhoods looked breathtakingly beautiful, with an old charm you cannot find in chrome and plate-glassed neighborhoods. Numerous boutiques selling memorabilia from American history and local arts and crafts, plus restaurants of every cuisine, make it a favorite spot for visitors. The local authorities also organize walking tours, even a “ghost walk.” Guides in 18th-century clothes carry a swinging lantern to steer you through the streets of Old Town as they tell stories of romance and never-solved mysteries, even angry ghosts looking for revenge!

But I gave it a pass, being not very fond of ghosts, and spent time savoring the serene beauty of the riverfront as children played on the boardwalk, old couples sat on benches, perhaps reminiscing about younger days, while a musician played an amazing symphony on rows of drinking glasses. Indeed, Alexandria is one of the pleasantest locations in Washington, D.C., with a whiff of history lingering on its cobble-stoned paths. 

Since the history bug had bitten me, I had to make a trip to Williamsburg, about two and a half hours’ drive from the capital. The town marked its 310th anniversary in 2009.

Located between Richmond and Virginia Beach, the historical triangle of Jamestown, Yorktown and Williamsburg is one of the most visited areas in the United States. 

Williamsburg became the hub of colonial English settlement after Jamestown, the first English settlement established in 1607, lost its charm. Moving to higher ground, the settlers chose a site called Middle Plantation, which later came to be named Williamsburg after King William III of England.

By the middle of the 18th century Williamsburg was a bustling town with slaves, people from all professions, politicians and lawyers. It played a prominent role in the events leading to the Revolutionary War. The taverns were the nucleus of the community where heated political debates raged and the seeds of a growing rebellion against colonial rule were nurtured. However, Williamsburg’s importance declined as the capital of Virginia was shifted to Richmond.

Laid out in 1699, Williamsburg was America’s first planned city. Its Historic Area is America’s largest living history museum, spread over more than 120 hectares.  

The first point to touch base at is the huge Visitors Center, which sells tickets for different tours. A good idea is to watch a short film, Story of a Patriot, shown here free of charge, to get introduced to Williamsburg’s history. 

You can either explore the sites by walking or take a hop-on-hop-off bus, which goes on a circular route. From the moment we started out, it was a tour of discovery. A windmill that once ground corn stood on the path to the Governor’s Palace and a horse-drawn buggy was carrying tourists around. 

The “new” historic Williamsburg owes much to Reverend W.A.R. Goodwin, who became rector of the Bruton Parish Church in the early 20th century and campaigned to restore the historic church. The church reflects the solid representation of the community where the likes of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington often attended. It is the oldest operating church in the United States. 

Goodwin’s campaign soon expanded to restoration of the whole town, which was possible as he evoked the interest of the millionaire Rockefeller family. The restoration truly got underway in 1926, and 720 buildings that had been erected after 1790 were demolished.

Fortunately, the restoration has been done so cleverly and tastefully that you don’t feel it is purely a marketing ploy. Only the shuttle buses and the tourists themselves remind us that we are firmly planted in the 21st century. 

The ambience has the effect of a place caught in a time warp. The houses look as if transplanted from an English countryside from the 18th century. It features shops, taverns and open-air markets in colonial style. The Governor’s Palace and the Capitol building that had gone to ruin were reconstructed at the original sites with the aid of period illustrations and written descriptions. Adding to the aura are the employees dressed in the attire of that age. Down the Duke of Gloucester Street, amid old buildings, even the salespeople in the memorabilia shops wear old-time togs. 

There are so many points of interest: Museums like the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum featuring world-class English and American silver, ceramics, paintings, prints and textiles dating from 1600 to 1830; the Merchants Square; and the College of William & Mary, which is the second oldest college in America. In fact, one day is not enough to explore Williamsburg, although some tour-bus companies in Washington, D.C. offer an ambitious attempt at it, with very early departure and late-night returns.

Even though I was somewhat familiar, through history books, novels and Hollywood films, with the nascent years when the United States, as we know it today, was gaining its foothold in the New World, it was this walk through history that gave me a feel of that era. It was good to discover, also, that careful preservation gives a city, and country, the depth of antiquity.


Ranjita Biswas is a Kolkata-based journalist who writes on travel, film, and women and gender issues. She also translates fiction and writes short stories.