When it comes to waterfront towns and cities in the greater Washington region, we could classify them into several categories.
Prosperous and shining like stars are Alexandria, Georgetown and Annapolis. Smaller, but special are places like Occoquan and Chestertown. Holding appeal with their quiet isolation are Tangier Island and Smith Island. “What might have been” goes to Dumfries and Port Tobacco. Archaeological heaven is found in Jamestown and St. Mary’s.
Then there’s Kinsale, an unincorporated community, smaller and forgotten, but deep with roots and salty stories to tell.
My guess is you have never heard of Kinsale. Quite frankly, neither had I.
I came to discover this place, located on Virginia’s Northern Neck, when I was reading some of Frederick Tilp’s classic, “This Was Potomac River.” He points out Kinsale is the oldest river town in Virginia on the Potomac. That may or may not be the case, but nevertheless, this is a history worth exploring.
Named for an Irish seaport, Kinsale lies peacefully at the tip easternmost tip of Westmoreland County, not too far where the long and mighty river flows into the Chesapeake Bay. Fishermen love the way the crooked fingers of the Yeocomico River reached into the land and created scores of small peninsula tips and coves.
With only one restaurant and no other commercial or retail places, Kinsale is more of a village than anything else. Its shining star is its tucked away, deep water port. Even today, captains and their boats ply the waters. A granary is still active, loading up corn, wheat and soybeans on the small ships bound for Baltimore and Norfolk.
Getting to Kinsale makes for a fun two-hour trip. We’ve talked several times about taking this back door approach, so to speak — slipping past Waldorf, crossing the Potomac for a second time, the pit stop at Sheetz in Dahlgren, and entering the Northern Neck.
Highway 3 takes you past the birthplace of George Washington and Robert E. Lee, and into a rural landscape that has not changed that much. For those of us who remember such places (My Dad grew up in eastern NC where the road into was dirt into the 1960s), it can all bring back memories -- the passing zones, the farms and fields, rotting barns and rusting farm equipment -- that somehow seem to add something nostalgic. Conformity and the lack of traffic are comforting.
Kinsale’s history is rich but has not been definitively told. Recent research by Edward J. White (“Kinsale, The Middle Period”) shines new light on the early periods of the town. For that reason, we will not talk about anything until the War of 1812.
Places like Alexandria are fortunate in that its homes and businesses survived the War of 1812. Sadly, this is not the case for Kinsale. In July 1813, three British ships chased the Asp, commanded by James Sigourney. Some accounts show Sigourney fought bravely on the deck before being killed.
The following August the Redcoats came back and torched the town. An American officer wrote, “…every building at Kinsale is laid in ashes…”
With its isolated locale away from the battlefields in the other parts of Virginia, one would guess Kinsale’s involvement in the Civil War was minimal. That’s not the case, however. Kinsale became the southernmost point for smuggling. Its deep water port was an invitation to the Union Navy during the war.
Tilp tells us:
Merchants, speculators, adventurers, Northern draft dodgers, Southern sympathizers from the North, pro-Unionists trying to reach the north, ladies of the evening, all rubbed elbows in Kinsale.
According to the National Register for Historic Places, Kinsale played a prominent role during the war. Confederate naval forces tried to blockade the Potomac. In response, the Union formed the “Potomac Flotilla,” which conducted raids at Kinsale. They captured the CSS Favorite in 1861.
Some sources say that the Union Army damaged or destroyed buildings in Kinsale. White’s research found this not to be the case. In the dying days of the war, however, they did attack the town and injured four Confederates.
After the war was over, more and more passenger boats and freight ships made Kinsale a port of call. It was a natural for steamboats and their packet routes. Baltimore was a favorite destination for many years. Seafood and agriculture from the coastal plain’s rich soil were shipped out on the boats.
In his book, “The Life of Pi,” Lee Rice tells us his mother loved to watch the big steamers arrive in Kinsale, with “smoke belching from the giant stacks” and “loud blasts from their large brass whistles.” These sights and sounds inspired her to “dream of taking journeys around the world to exotic destinations.”
Kinsale lacked a theater, but that did not stop them from becoming a stop for the James Adams Floating Theater (1914-1940). In 1924 the novelist Edna Ferber took a ride on the 700 seat barge (officially named the Playhouse) and was inspired to write the hit Broadway musical Show Boat.
In the first half of the 20th-century, the Northern Neck became its own version of “cannery row.” Kinsale became the largest tomato cannery and pulpwood center on the Potomac. Processing the tomatoes was hard and sweaty work, and even dangerous with the boilers and their steaming hot waters.
A research paper at the museum points out Kinsale had five canneries. They served as social halls for oyster roasts and crab feasts.
By 1940, Kinsale was in decline. As White told me, the Hurricane of 1933, the Great Depression, and the end of the steamboat era combined to draw the curtain.
The town, however, retained a mariner’s feel. Tilp writes river pilots and sailing captains lived there, more than even in Alexandria and Washington.
The canneries held on, but closed down in the 50s. The town became a residential community, as it is today. The small stock of white-painted homes makes up most of the historic district. Today the only cash registers are found in the marina restaurant, the museum, and Post Office.
Kinsale has a great opportunity to further record its rich history. White's research reveals the need for a second look at the early days.
New historical markers could touch on African American history. For example, in his Pulitzer Prize winning book, “The Internal Enemy,” Alan Taylor tells us about Dr. Walter Jones (1745-1815), the five times Congressman who studied medicine in Scotland.
Jones, considered a “benevolent master” was “the leading man of Kinsale,” and a friend of Thomas Jefferson. Several of his slaves ran away to the British in 1813. One of them, Presley, assisted the British during an attack on Kinsale. Presley and his family were liberated.
Kinsale is a quiet, special place worth visiting. As far as we can tell, it’s in a category of its own.
BBQ lovers should check out The Barn in Montross. Like the museum, they are only open on Friday and Saturday.
My thanks to Lynn Norris, Director of the Kindle Museum, who answered our questions, gave us some handouts, and regaled us with stories and lore.
Mr. White was generous with his time and cleared up muddy waters.
The Kinsale Foundation is having an anniversary this coming Saturday.