With portions built between 1930 and 1957, the Colonial Parkway joins the three communities with a scenic and bucolic roadway carefully shielded from views of commercial development; a major effort has also been made to keep traffic signs and other modern roadside items to a minimum, and make them unobtrusive where unavoidable. This helps visitors mentally return to the past, and there are often views of wildlife and waterfowl in addition to the river panoramas near each end.
The roadway, a National Scenic Byway, is free of trucks and is a popular (but not the quickest) way to move by motor vehicle between the three points, especially for tourists. Near the James River and York River ends of the parkway, there are several pull-offs, where some families allow their children to feed bread to the seagulls. It is toll-free, and the moderate speed limits and public safety are both well-protected by the United States Park Police.
Between Yorktown and Williamsburg, the initial proposals called for the parkway to follow an inland route along colonial-era roads. However, instead, it was decided to align the road along the York River through U.S. Navy land to avoid grade crossings, extensive tangents, modern intrusions and other "visual junk". This land included the Naval Weapons Station (Yorktown) and the former E.I. DuPont explosives factory and town complex at Penniman, Virginia which later became known as Cheatham Annex.
Following the parkway concept of Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted, designers of New York City's Central Park, the planners of the Colonial Parkway used a model of a limited access highway with broad sweeping curves, set in a meticulously landscaped right-of-way devoid of commercial development. These features, derived from 19th-century Romantic landscape theories, created a safer and more pleasant drive compared to the increasingly congested urban strips. In addition to protecting the views, culvert headwalls and parkway underpasses were clad in antiquated "Virginia-style" brick laid in English and Flemish bonds to promote a "colonial-era" effect. Design features such as molded coping rails, string courses and buttresses followed the historical prototypes found at Williamsburg.
The land for ten miles (16 km) of the route between Yorktown and Williamsburg was given to the NPS free of charge, and construction began on first on this portion. By 1937, the road was completed to just outside Williamsburg. There was some debate over the routing in the Williamsburg area, and eventually a tunnel was selected.
The tunnel under the historic district of Colonial Williamsburg was completed by 1942, but opening was delayed by World War II and some structural and flooding problems. It finally opened for traffic in 1949, leaving only the Williamsburg-to-Jamestown section to be built.
During the early 1950s in anticipation of the 1957 350th anniversary of Jamestown's founding, the park finalized plans to complete the parkway, still following the high design standards. Several long fills were required near the James River and workers rebuilt the isthmus to Jamestown Island which had been severed by weather since the colonial days when Jamestown was actually a peninsula. Other major improvements at the southern terminus included development of Jamestown Island as part of the Colonial National Historical Park and the adjacent Jamestown Festival Park, which was largely state-funded by Virginia.
On April 27, 1957, the Colonial Parkway was opened for traffic along the entire route between Yorktown and Jamestown. Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain and her consort Prince Philip made a state visit that year on October 16. It has enjoyed popular use by tourists to one of the world's most-visited areas ever since.
The Colonial Parkway has been carefully maintained. This also has not been an easy task. Priority is given wetlands ecosystems and the natural growth as well as wildlife and waterfowl preservation. The scenic shoreline areas along the two major tidal rivers present extra challenges with many bridges and fills. Occasionally, East Coast hurricanes such as Hurricane Isabel in 2003 inflict significant natural damage, and require closure of portions of the Parkway for repairs.
It has also been necessary to zealously protect the Parkway from commercial intrusions, especially as the Virginia Peninsula's resident population has more than tripled since 1930, and tourism has greatly increased. Improvements such as the overpass crossings of busy Interstate 64 and upgrades of State Route 199, a semi-circular Williamsburg beltway, and U.S. Route 17 at Yorktown, all major traffic arteries, were accomplished in a manner so as to be virtually unnoticeable to travelers along the Parkway. Even the CSX Transportation railroad line which crosses with Amtrak service to Williamsburg and Newport News is carefully shielded from view.
The Parkway has no painted traffic lane-marking lines (presumably to enhance the historical feeling). Some stretches are posted "Passing With Care", but it is important to be vigilant for oncoming traffic which may also pass and share the center of the roadway. The more popular pull-offs are near the James River and York River ends of the parkway, where there are panoramic views across each river. The moderate speed limits and safety (for all creatures) are well-protected by the United States Park Police.
The middle point of the Parkway is Williamsburg, where the capital of the colony was moved from Jamestown in 1699. The parkway tunnels under the historic district, a good example of the care taken to preserve the ambiance of the restored area. Largely due to the 20th century preservation efforts of the Reverend Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin, rector of Bruton Parish Church, and the generosity of Standard Oil heir John D. Rockefeller Jr., today Colonial Williamsburg is a large living museum of early American life. It has dozens of restored and recreated buildings and reenactors. It is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world.
The Visitors Center (right off the Colonial Parkway) features a short movie and is an excellent place to start. It is also a good place to park automobiles, which are restricted from the restored area. Wheelchair-accessible shuttle bus service is provided from the Visitors Center. From the Williamsburg exits of the Parkway, commercial areas of lodging, fuel, food, etc. are easily accessible as well.
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