|Winter scene at the shipyard in 1875 by|
Casey Holtzinger. Courtesy of Raymond Harper
Charles J. Colonna grew up on a family farm in Accomack County near Pungoteague. His father had served as first mate on a steamship between the shore and Baltimore, and his grandfather owned several sailing vessels.
But the war just about wiped out the family’s fortunes, and he had to seek work elsewhere. After serving as crew on several ships sailing from northern ports, he signed on with the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. With Colonna aboard, one of the Survey’s ships, the side-wheel steamer Bibb, put into Graves Shipyard in Norfolk for repairs.
The 21-year-old Colonna never left.
This is the pivotal event in the new History of Colonna’s Shipyard and its People by Raymond L. Harper, the author of a dozen books on local history, mostly about South Norfolk and Chesapeake. The book describes more than 130 years of the prominent family owned yard on the banks of the Eastern Branch of the Elizabeth.
Charles quit the service and signed on as a carpenter with Graves. He found a room in a nearby boarding house – possibly one operated by his sister Elizabeth, who had preceded him to Norfolk.
Collona learned everything he could about shipyards, from hauling ships onto rails to caulking and repairing them. It was surely that knowledge, plus encouragement from his older brother, Benjamin, that emboldened him to take the next step.
With the help of an $1,800 loan from his brother, he leased waterfront property owned by Thomas Asbury Hardy on the opposite side of the Eastern Branch in what is now Berkley. It was the end of the era of wooden sailing vessels, and there were still plenty of them to repair. Early invoices and letterheads refer to “Chas. J. Colonna – Shipwright, Spar Maker and Caulker.”
It was tough going at first, and he confined his work to pier-side repairs, but soon added a railway capable of hauling boats up to 40 tons out of the water. The pulling power was provided by a pair of horses rotating a turnstile.
“During the fall and winter of 1876/77 my brother Charles has built a marine railway at Norfolk, Va., and his prospects of succeeding are well,” Benjamin wrote in his journal. Eventually, with more loans and investments from his brother, Charles began to prosper.
The property included a circa-1735 farmhouse, on land the brothers named Pescara for the port city and river in Italy. Charles and his wife, Margaret, and growing family lived upstairs while the business operated out of the downstairs rooms.
Generations of Colonnas have run the company for 137 years. Hundreds of tugboats, barges, yachts and Navy and Coast Guard ships later, it now claims to be the oldest family owned, full-service shipyard in America.
The book includes a story about Charles and Margaret’s first child, John Wilkins Colonna, who left work at a Brooklyn, N.Y., shipyard to come home for the wedding of one of his sisters in September 1899. But he never showed up and never was heard from again. His disappearance was a mystery for almost 50 years.
From an account related to the family in 1948, John had arrived in Norfolk a few days early and hitched a ride on a Norfolk and Southern train to Edenton, N.C., so he could visit a girlfriend and return the next day. In the middle of the night, half asleep, he apparently stepped from the train and fell, and was then crushed as train cars were shifted.
The railroad employees who found him panicked at the thought of being implicated in his death and buried him in what might have been a wooden toolbox beside the tracks. An extensive dig turned up some bones but no definitive remains.
One measure of Charles Colonna’s wealth was that he became owner of the second automobile in Norfolk. (The first had been Peter Wright in 1900). In 1909, the car– apparently a Rambler – had an unusual mission.
William Howard Taft, the nation’s 27th president, made a train trip to Cape Henry that year – apparently to add to his 335-pound girth by eating dozens of oysters at the famous O’Keefe’s Restaurant. Waiting at the train station was Colonna’s car, which carried the huge fellow – springs no doubt complaining – from the station to the restaurant.