On its twisting journey across southeastern Virginia to Chesapeake Bay, the James River flows with subdued yet stately grace through a landscape that would still be recognizable to the families who built their plantation-style homes along its banks in the 17th and 18th centuries. Today their grand houses still stand as dramatic summations testifying to a vanished era, and Rte. 5, the road that links them, serves as a virtual time line through that sometimes turbulent past.
Nowadays modern skyscrapers cast their reflections on the James River in Richmond, where the streets were originally laid out in 1737. Down through the centuries, those streets have witnessed more than their share of history. The British plundered Richmond during the Revolutionary War, and as capital of the Confederacy during the Civil War, it was bitterly contested. Many buildings were destroyed by fire when Richmond was evacuated as Union troops approached in 1865. Fortunately, the state capitol, a graceful 18th-century building designed by Thomas Jefferson, survived, as did many other historic structures, with the result that the city enjoys a pleasing mix of the old and the new.
For a journey into the past, take a drive on Rte. 5, which begins near the capitol and heads to the southeast out of the city. Before long, in Charles City County, the 20th century seems to melt away, replaced by an agricultural landscape — corn, winter wheat, soybeans, and cotton are the principal crops — that has neither traffic lights nor large towns to interfere with its idyllic calm. Weaving through this rural region, Rte. 5 leads to plantation houses that sit, one after another, like a string of pearls along the banks of the James River. Shirley, the first of them, is located off Rte. 5 about 18 miles from Richmond.
Motorists approach the mansion here by driving down Shirley Plantation Road, which becomes a dirt lane that ends at a cluster of 18th-century brick outbuildings, called dependencies. In earlier times guests arrived by boat along the James River, where they looked up to see the front of this perfectly proportioned Georgian Colonial house. The plantation itself was begun in 1613, making it the oldest in Virginia, and to this day its 700 acres are sown with seeds each spring.
Owned by the same family for 10 generations (Robert E. Lee was a member of the clan), the house has an outstanding portrait collection and a stunning three-story staircase that seems to float unsupported in the hallway. Also noteworthy is the wooden pineapple — a symbol of hospitality — perched atop its mansard roof.
Found in the Union troops that bivouacked on the grounds of the elegant brick manor house at Berkeley during the Civil War was a young Scottish drummer boy; some 45 years later he returned to purchase the property, which by then had become an uninhabitable ruin surrounded only by forlorn, neglected lawns.
After decades of restoration, the birthplace of President William Henry Harrison, which was completed in 1726, regained its standing as one of America’s most distinguished landmarks. The rooms feature handsome woodwork and are furnished with a magnificent collection of 18th-century antiques.
The grounds, at their best in late spring, also have been nursed back to health, with roses, azaleas, daffodils, and dogwoods growing on five beautifully groomed terraces that stairstep to the James River.