Laid out according to a plan drawn by Gov. Francis Nicholson — who moved Virginia’s capital from Jamestown to Williamsburg in 1699 — the mile-long, 99-foot-wide prospect linking the statehouse with the College of William and Mary was designed to not only catch the eye but also embody the power and authority of the British Crown.
So well did it do its job that — in addition to the millions of tourists who have since shared Roosevelt’s enthusiasm for what he called the “the most historic avenue in America” — scholars still celebrate it as a milestone achievement in early American town planning.
But when workmen began shaping the iconic street in the early 1700s, what they found was a horse path that not only meandered back and forth but also rolled up and down a long ridge cut by ravines and gullies.
And only by probing deep have archaeologists digging just west of the reconstructed Capitol over the past six weeks found evidence of the ambitious colonial public works campaign needed to so dramatically transform Williamsburg’s lost landscape.
“These ravines were hundreds of thousands of years old when the people of Williamsburg decided they wanted to put in a long, straight street that ran from the college to the capitol,” says Colonial Williamsburg archaeologist Andrew Edwards, who’s leading the exploration of the sole-surviving but much-changed gully that visibly butts up against Duke of Gloucester Street.
“What we’re finding is that they filled most of them pretty early on, putting in brick drains to carry away the water. And they were still trying to fill in the sides of this one in the mid-1700s with burned bricks from the fire that destroyed the first capitol.”
You can read more about the Historic Area dig and the transformation of Williamsburg's landscape during the 1700s in my upcoming story.
-- Mark St. John Erickson