In a town with a story that reaches back 400 years, it can be hard to single out any one spot as the most important.
But when it comes to picking a place that has figured prominently in the history of Hampton time and time again, you can't do better than the South King Street waterfront.
As early as the 1620s, this landing near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean was the center of a settlement that boasted more people and more fortified houses than Jamestown. A century later, Hampton ranked as one of Virginia's foremost ports — and its prosperous citizens were constructing a landmark church that ranked among the colony's largest and most impressive.
All but destroyed by a Confederate fire during the Civil War, the King Street shoreline persevered to become the primary engine of the town's revival — first as an indispensable lumberyard and then as the hub of the seafood industry that gave Hampton the nickname "Crabtown."
Though largely erased and remade again in the name of urban redevelopment, it's still making news — this time in the form of a new Hampton History Museum exhibit celebrating the ancient town's 400th.
"When you stand at South King Street today, there are precious few reminders of the workaday bustle of Crabtown and the long history that came before it — and we're trying to invoke that story," curator J. Michael Cobb says.
"This has always been the gateway to Hampton. It's always been the place that shaped us — where people and goods flowed in and out.
Even today, it's where we decided to put the historic Buckroe Carousel and the Virginia Air & Space Center."
Just how far back the waterfront reaches can be seen in the exhibit's earliest artifact — a 12,000-year-old Paleo-Indian projectile point unearthed by archaeologists at the site of the Air & Space Center before construction started in the late 1980s.
Combined with a second dig at what is now the Buckroe Carousel, the scientists mapped much of the property just in from the shoreline, exploring the remains of structures that reached back from the 1900s to Hampton's beginning.
Though warehouses and commercial wharves crowded the waterfront, they generated so much business and traffic that this adjacent strip of land developed quickly, too.
"We found a lot of evidence of what you'd expect to find," Cobb says. "There were taverns of all sorts on and around King Street — and they ranged from the rough-and-ready to the refined."
Even after the decline of the port and surrounding town in the years just before the Revolution, there were still more than 500 mostly colonial and Federal-period structures radiating out from the wharf and along King and Queen streets when Confederate soldiers burned Hampton to the ground in 1861.
Virtually every dwelling and place of business was lost in the blaze, forming a vast subterranean layer of charred debris that has yielded such artifacts as a lockplate from an 18th-century house that once stood near the waterfront.
Despite the catastrophic scale of the loss, the King Street docks recovered quickly after the war and played a key role in the town's resurrection. Among the most critical figures was lumber tycoon Jacob Heffelfinger, a thrice-wounded Union prisoner of war who returned to the South and built a thriving company from the business of reconstruction.
"He was a hero in the rebuilding of Hampton," says museum historian Wythe Holt, scanning the early 1900s house plans and insurance maps showing the vast expanse of Heffelfinger's enterprise.
"His lumber yard and planing mill were where the carousel is today."
Seafood provided the cash and many of the jobs behind the town's continued revival, leading to a teeming mass of packing houses and related businesses centered on the King Street wharf.
As late as the 1950s, crab pickers and oyster shuckers crowded the factories during the season — and fleets of small boats filled the river next to the docks.
"I used to walk through it every day on my way to school," Holt recalls. "It was shops. It was houses. It was a flourishing town. And little did I think that it wouldn't be there when I grew up."
Among the largest group of objects on display is a sprawling collection of work-a-day artifacts from the Crabtown period, most of them loaned by Graham & Rollins Inc. seafood, L.D. Amory & Co. seafood and I. Cooper's Marine Supplies — all of which still operate on the King Street docks.
They range from vintage brass piecework tokens issued to the crab pickers at Graham & Rollins' predecessor — S.S. Coston — to a crab meat bowl, scales and a giant metal crab steaming basket as well as a crab-picking table.
Wooden crab barrels, a vintage crab shovel, a deck broom, a barrel hoist and even spare parts for old crab and oyster boats are also on exhibit.
Equally evocative is an old buy boat nameplate — not to mention the stack of old ledger books recording the sale of crab meat to a seemingly endless array of nationally prominent dining spots.
"It's hard to imagine now, but crab meat was going from Hampton all over the eastern part of the country." Holt says, scanning the entries from 1923.
"It's just page after page after page of hotels — including places like the Waldorf Astoria in New York."
Hampton History MuseumWhat: "Hampton's Legacy as Seen from South King Street" Where: Hampton History Museum, 120 Old Hampton Lane, Hampton When: Through Aug. 15 Cost: $5 Adults. $4 Children 4-12 Info: 727-1610Hampton Landing DayWhat: Hampton Landing Day, A commemoration and re-enactment of the English settlers' first landing in Hampton and their meeting with the Kecoughtan Indians. Free. Where: 30 Strawberry Banks Blvd. When: 3 p.m. Sunday, April 25. Cost: Free Info: 727-8311Celebrate Hampton's 400thNext Sunday: A special section of stories and pictures exploring Hampton's 400 years.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun