Yorktown's Main Street
Historic Resource Study
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When Yorktown was laid out in 1691, the specified 50 acres acquired for the port was surveyed into 85 half-acre lots, each measuring 132 by 165 feet. [1] This left some 7-1/2 acres which (excepting the steeply sloping sides of the Great Valley, not surveyed into lots at this time) was reserved for streets and ways. The axis of the town was a main street that generally bisected the 50 acres from its southeast to its northwest boundaries. This street, some 2,500 feet long, roughly parallel with the river bank, evidently was allotted a width of 33 feet. It was a straight line except for one bend at the spot where Read Street crossed it. [2] Several vales, or ravines, cut up from the waterfront and there was, unlike today, some rise and fall of the street level at various points. This was particularly true at the head of the Great Valley and also where the rising grade of the Read Street vale cut across the street. Both dips are largely obscured now by road grading though the old grades could be established. [3]

On the survey plan, cross streets led off the Main Street giving access to each of the half-acre town lots except Nos. 2 and 3. There were six of these ways on the riverside and seven on the inland side. All were shown as straight lines and evidently (except for the Great Valley) had a width of some 28 feet. This resulted in five direct crossings of Main Street with an additional three entries not producing direct crossings.

Though outside of the survey, the five-acre waterfront that separated the town proper from the York River was generally considered to be a functional part of the town, being referred to at an early time as a common shore. [4] The maintenance of good connecting ways between the beach and the town was recognized as fundamental and a public function from the very beginning. As early as October 10, 1961, Thomas Mountfort was named surveyor of the town's roads and directed to take "Immediate care to see that there be soe mainy good and Convenient Landings made for Rolling or Carrying upp to the said Towne any sort of goods whatsoever that any person or persons shall or may hereafter have occasions to send them by water, and to be Landed and laid in the Towne, as he shall thinks Fitt and necessary." [5]

Repair of roads and ways was a continuing problem and at one point, in 1757, it was necessary to declare an emergency and get special legislation and funding to "widen and support" Yorktown streets even to the extent of using brick walls where necessary to keep them from "being washed away by the hasty showers of rain." [6] But soon more repairs were in order and the court specified that the surveyor get the work done. This was in January 1760, and late in the year Surveyor Patrick Matthews was paid £ 8.8.9 "for the hire of carts &c to repair the Streets in York Town."

There is nothing in any of this to indicate that any structures such as "Bridges and Causeways," which were funded for Williamsburg's "main Street," [7] were ever built or needed in Yorktown where the Main Street topography was less severe. Neither has research produced any reference to pavement, or to any special kind of street surface, or even to the existence of sidewalks, or any form of curbs and gutters in Yorktown in the Colonial and later periods. [8]

In 1720 the inhabitants of Williamsburg petitioned for grading and draining, "complaining of the Irregularitys" in the street alignment and grade. The House of Burgesses authorized £ 150 for the work. Later Hugh Jones wrote of the "considerable sum, which was expended in removing earth in some places, and building a bridge over a low channel; so that it is now a pleasant, long dry walk, broad, and almost level from the College to the Capitol." Hugh Jones, The Present State of Virginia (1724), edited by Richard L. Morton (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1956), p. 70.

In due course Main Street's southeastern terminus curved southwestward along the southeastern edge of the town [9] and then southward for connection with the road down the peninsula to Hampton. At the other end of town, Main Street soon extended beyond the town limits, curving around what became known as Windmill Point, to Yorktown Creek where it formed a connection with the road to Williamsburg. William Buckner was directed, as early as June 24, 1710, to construct a "Good and substantial Bridge" over this creek. Later his son, John, who inherited his Yorktown property interests after his older brother, William, died, continued to keep this bridge in repair as in 1726 when the court awarded him 1,000 pounds of tobacco "for the bridge." Again in 1746 there is the entry "To Majr John Buckner for keeping the Bridge over the Creek," 800 pounds of tobacco.

It is quite clear that not all of the cross streets in Yorktown were opened through to the water even when the town was at its busiest. This is still true of Church Street today. In colonial times there was no street where Comte de Grasse now runs. [10] The opening of Ballard Street evidently was a mid-19th century development. [11]

The first cross streets in use were that down the Read Street vale and that along the Great Valley, with that along the line of Buckner Street coming shortly thereafter. It is of record under date of July 15, 1745, that a court order specified "that the public Landings from York Town down to the River side be for the future that by Thos Nelson [Great Valley], by Richard Amblers [Read Street] down to the Ware house [Buckner Street] and no others." [12] This latter followed down "Tobacco Warehouse Hill" to "Buckners Landing" it was noted in 1783. [13]

In 1781 these same three streets appear to have been the chief, and only, connections between Main and Water Streets. Alexandre Berthier shows them prominently and even sketches their route. That down Great Valley had a turnaround at its river end and Read Street was shown as not on a straight line but rather with the slight "S" curve that it still retains today. [14]

When the Gwyn Read "subdivision," or addition to the town, on its inland side was laid out after 1738 it evidently was separated from the original lots, at least southeastward from Read Street, by a street behind the town parallel to Main, which came to be known as "back-street." [15] Of course the regular "cross streets" perpendicular to Main crossed this back street and led into the Gwyn Read development. [16]

In colonial times, even beyond the period of the Revolution, none of the Yorktown streets seems to have had an established name except Main (this on occasion also being called "Broad Street," at least in the vicinity of the courthouse) [17] and possibly Church Street. Even Church Street was generally used in the sense of the street by, or to, the church (meaning York-Hampton Parish Church on Lot 35). In one instance however, in 1770, there was specific reference to "A Street called Church Street" which formed one boundary of Lot No. 35, the Church Lot. [18] The side streets leading into, or across, Main Street were most often simply noted in deeds and descriptions by the term "cross street." In the early decades there was reference to the "Great Valley"; however, this evidently was more in reference to the topographic feature than to the street that followed it. [19]

In at least one instance in the first half of the 19th century, present Ballard Street was denoted as "Court house street." At this same time Church Street was specifically given as such and presumably "Hill Road to River" was another reference to the Great Valley, with "Street by Rows" seemingly a reference to present Buckner Street. [20]

On a survey document of 1848 a full set of cross street names was given — Buckner, Ballard, Church, Read, Pearl (now Nelson), Smith, and Bacon — and at this time Read Street extended directly south to a crossing of Yorktown Creek. [21] When Benson J. Lossing visited Yorktown in 1866 he commented: "We observe that the names of the few streets in Yorktown have changed, and have those of 'McClellan,' 'Keyes,' 'Ellsworth,' and others." [22] Names continued to fluctuate, however, and in a handbook issued at the time of the Centennial in 1881 only three street names were given in Yorktown — Main, Church, and Keyes. [23] The latter (evidently named for Major General Erasmus D. Keyes who commanded the Fourth Corps in the Union Army that moved up the peninsula in 1862) is now Nelson Street. Most present-day cross street names seem to have been assigned, or reassigned, "officially" at the time of the Sesquicentennial in 1931.

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Last Updated: 22-Jan-2010