York River (Virginia)

The York River is a navigable estuary, approximately 40 mi (64 km) long, in eastern Virginia in the United States. It ranges in width from 1 mi. (1.6 km) at its head to 2.5 mi (4 km) near its mouth on the west side of Chesapeake Bay. Its watershed drains an area including portions of 17 counties of the coastal plain of Virginia north and east of Richmond. Enormously important in U.S. history, it was the scene of early settlements of the Virginia Colony and played a significant role in both the American Revolutionary War and the American Civil War.


The York River is formed at West Point, approximately 41 mi (64 km) east of Richmond, by the confluence of the Mattaponi and Pamunkey rivers. It drains into the Chesapeake towards the southeast, entering the bay approximately 5 mi (8 km) east of Yorktown, which sits alongs its southern shore. U.S. Highway 17 crosses the estuary from Yorktown to Gloucester Point on the George P. Coleman Memorial Bridge.


The peninsula formed by the York and the James River just to the south became the scene of the end campaign of the American Revolutionary War in October 1781. The British Army under Cornwallis at Yorktown found itself cornered by the Americans under George Washington on land by the French fleet at sea. The ensuing American victory at the Battle of Yorktown forced the surrender of Cornwallis and the end of the war in the east. During the American Civil War, the same area became the theater of the Peninsular Campaign of 1862.

The York River was formerly known as the Pamunkey River by the Native Americans, and was originally named Charles River by the colonists of the Virginia Company in the 17th century. On the north bank, in what is now Gloucester County in what is now called Virginia's Middle Peninsula region, the Chief of the Powhatan Confederacy, Wahunsunacock, maintained one of two capitals of the confederacy called Werowocomoco.

In modern times, York River State Park is located along the southern shore northwest of Yorktown in James City County. Also on the south shore are several large military reservations, including Camp Peary and the Naval Weapons Station Yorktown (and Cheatham Annex) of the U.S. Navy, as well as large areas of preserved wetlands and forest considered ecologically important to migratory waterfowl. The National Park Service's Colonial Parkway provides a bucolic passage for motor vehicles through a portion of this natural area between Williamsburg and Yorktown.


The only vehicular crossing of the York River is the George P. Coleman Bridge, a bascule swing-type drawbridge which carries U.S. Highway 17 between Yorktown and Gloucester Point. The toll bridge, which was recently rebuilt and expanded, collects a $2 toll fee for automobile traffic which is northbound only. The bridge has been one of the sites of a special program to establish and encourage nesting locations for the peregrine falcon population of Virginia.

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