There’s a river in our presence that is loaded with history and memories.
First of all, it’s associated with Chesopian Indians who hunted the wild lands north of present-day Norfolk and fished its waters, then with an early colonial settler who farmed near its banks, and finally with a teenage general who very likely saved America from defeat.
You guessed it. We’re talking Lafayette River.
This is a good time to review its history because the river, after hundreds of years of absorbing the insults of development, is facing a new challenge, the restoration of its once-pristine health.
On Saturday the 30th at the Lafayette Riverfest on the Colonial Place waterfront, the Elizabeth River Project and Chesapeake Bay Foundation, along with local partners, will unveil a plan to make the Lafayette swimmable and fishable within three years.
Just like it was way back then.
We don’t know what the Indians called it, but the white settlers named the waterway Tanners Creek after an otherwise obscure fellow named Daniel Tanner. And Tanners Creek it was for a couple of centuries, lending its name to neighborhoods, schools and such. Many old-timers still refer to it by that name.
During the Revolutionary War Col. William Woodford, one of the heroes at Great Bridge, wrote to the Virginia Convention, “We have had a party there ten days, upon Tanner’s Creek, who yesterday had a brush with a tender’s boat, attempting to land at Sprowl’s plantation. They beat her off, and killed one man.”
Tanners Creek was pretty much the northern limit of Norfolk’s growth until bridges were built.
In 1854, a local paper described it as a “deep and beautiful branch of the Elizabeth, extending through thousands of acres of timbered land; while along its picturesque margin are some handsome and well cultivated farms.”
The name wasn’t just Tanners. Historian Irwin Berent, who is preparing a comprehensive history of Norfolk, has found that the creek’s northern branch was known as Indian Town Creek, its eastern branch was Queen Graves Creek and its southern branch was Gater’s Creek – not the reptile but a local man.
As for Tanners, it was awfully big to be called a creek – which is just a tad bigger than a brook. One story has it that the locals wanted it to be considered for grant money and it needed to be called a river to qualify.
For a short while it was called the Northern Branch of the Elizabeth River, but then, at the turn of the 20th century, it got hit by a wave of patriotic pride.
It was that Frenchman they thought of, the dashing Marquis de Lafayette, who was infatuated with the notion of liberty and, at the age of 19, took it upon himself to sail to America, to serve under his hero, George Washington, and distinguish himself as the nemesis of Britain’s Lord Cornwallis, who once declared, “That boy cannot escape me.”
But he did, and at the most crucial point in the war, Lafayette advised Washington, “Should a French fleet now come to Hampton Roads, the British army would, I think, be ours.”
As it turned out, the French, under Admiral Comte De Grasse, arrived just in time to block a fleet of British ships attempting to come to Cornwallis’s aid at Yorktown and the war was all but over.
When Lafayette made a return visit to America in 1824, Norfolk put on a three-day party that was remembered as the biggest celebration in the city’s history. It took three quarters of a century, but eventually the many-branched, much-storied river was named after that dashing Frenchman.
In contrast to its mother river, the Elizabeth, the Lafayette is a placid tributary, the kind of river a young boy – who would one day become a famous author – would remember throughout his life.
In his book QB VII, Leon Uris, who grew up on Gosnold Street in Colonial Place, writes about the days he and his brother would go crabbing on Knitting Mill Creek, just off the river.
“Best of all were the times around the creek. We’d get up early I the morning and take our bicycles down to the docks and buy us a watermelon for a nickel…Then we’d bike to the creek. I had my dog in the front basket and Ben carried the watermelon in his. We’d sit on the bank and put the watermelon in to cool it and while it was cooling we’d walk to a small pier and fish for soft shell crabs.”
Nice picture. Great river.
Photo: A crowd gathered to witness a speedboat race on the Lafayette River in 1928. Courtesy of Sargeant Memorial Collection, Norfolk Public Library.