History of Norfolk

The City of Norfolk is an important 400-year-old port city and home to the largest naval base in the world. The history of Greater Norfolk coincides with the birth of our nation, and throughout the region, evidence of this important past can be enjoyed today.

norfolk_history2.jpgOn New Years Day in 1776, two-thirds of the city was destroyed during the Revolutionary War. A cannonball from the siege may be viewed today in the wall of St. Paul's Episcopal Church.

World War II hero, General of the Army Douglas MacArthur (1880-1964) and his wife are buried in Norfolk, at the monumental rotunda of The MacArthur Memorial.

Historical Sites:

Cannonball Trail; Civil War Trail; Fort Norfolk, Freemason District; Historic Ghent; Hermitage Foundation Museum; Moses Myers House; The MacArthur Memorial; St. Paul’s Episcopal Church; Norfolk History Museum at Willoughby Baylor House.

Important African-American heritage sites include

Attucks Theatre, The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and West Point Memorial, dedicated to the contributions of African-Americans during the Civil and Spanish-American War.

From 50 acres of land and a population of 1, Norfolk has grown to 61.86 square miles (39,590.4 acres) and a population of nearly 300,000. Here is a look at some of the milestones from Norfolk’s history:

Historical Timeline

1607 – Three English ships landed at Cape Henry. After giving thanks for their safe passage to the New World, the colonists proceeded up the river to establish Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in America.

1610 – Hampton Roads named to honor Henry Wriothesly, Earl of Southampton and Treasurer of the Virginia Company in London

1613 – tobacco is introduced to the colony and becomes the center of colonial economy. It was the dominant crop in what would become Princess Anne County through the 1680s.

1622 – 200 acres of land now occupied by the City of Norfolk was owned by Lewis Vandermill, who in the same year sold it to Nicholas Wise, senior, shipwright.

1636 – William Willoughby granted 200 acres by King Charles I (present-day downtown Norfolk).

1637 – first court for Lower Norfolk County meets. For 25 years, the court met in private homes.

1640 – Elizabeth River Parish completed (site of present Norfolk Naval Station)

1661 – Lower Norfolk County builds its first courthouse on Broad Creek, which was replaced in 1689 by 2 courthouses, one on the Elizabeth River and the other on the eastern portion of Lynnhaven River, on the southern end of Great Neck.

1673 – Half Moon Fort built at Four Farthing Point (now Town Point) in Norfolk.

1680 – The Virginia House of Burgesses orders each Virginia county to purchase 50 acres of land, to be laid out for a town and storehouses. By an Act of Assembly the purchase of 50 acres was authorized for the Town of Norfolk, the purchase price being 10,000 pounds of tobacco. In 1682, in pursuance to the act, land was purchased from trustees of Nicholas Wise, a house carpenter and son of the elder Wise. The deed was recorded and Norfolk Towne was established on the area now bounded by City Hall Avenue on the north, the Elizabeth River on the south and west, and the Norfolk and Western Railroad tracks on the east.

1698 – First church in Norfolk built on Church Street (site is in churchyard of present St. Paul's)

1736 – By charter from George II, Norfolk and its suburbs were incorporated into a borough. Samuel Boush became our first mayor.

1749 – Hurricane lays down Willoughby Spit and forms Willoughby Bay.

1766 – Inhabitants of Norfolk Borough and Norfolk County assemble at courthouse and organize the Sons of Liberty, to oppose and protest against the Stamp Act.

1774 – First Norfolk newspaper published, the Virginia Gazette or Norfolk Intelligencer, edited by John Hunter Holt. The paper was put out of business when its press was seized by British troops in 1775.

1776 – On New Year's Day, English ships under the command of Lord Dunmore opened fire on Norfolk, burning many of the buildings to the ground. The destruction was completed by Colonial troops in order that the British might not occupy the borough. Norfolk was the only American town completely destroyed and rebuilt. A British cannonball in the wall of St. Paul's Church is a reminder of the Revolutionary War.

1783 – British blockade lifted and Norfolk begins to rebuild.

1792 – The Myers House, one of the first brick buildings to be constructed in Norfolk after the Revolution, was built by Moses Myers. Myers was a shipping merchant who came to Norfolk in 1787 from New York.

1800 – First Baptist Church on Bute Street was established in Norfolk as the city's first predominantly black congregation.

1801 – The first Continental Navy Yard was established here.

1810 – Fort Norfolk is constructed on the Elizabeth River, on a site originally occupied by an earthenworks fortification built during the Revolutionary War to protect the harbor.

1815 – the first steam boat, the sidewheeler Washington, arrives in Portsmouth

1824 – French soldier and statesman Marquis de Lafayette, a hero of the American Revolution, revisits visits Norfolk and Portsmouth and is entertained at a Grand Ball.

1832 – First steam ferry between Norfolk and Portsmouth, the Gosport, begins service.

1839 – Prince Louis Napoleon visits Norfolk.

1845 – Norfolk incorporated as a City.

1847 – Cornerstone of City Hall (now MacArthur Memorial) laid.

1851 – Virginia authorized the charter of an 80-mile railroad connecting Norfolk and Petersburg. The line was completed in 1858 and was the forerunner of today's Norfolk Southern Railroad.

1852 – Margaret Douglass, a white woman from South Carolina, is arrested and spends a month in jail for teaching free black children to read and write in a school in her Norfolk home.

1852 – Ordinance passed in Norfolk prohibiting cows to go at large in the city.

1861 – Slaves fled from Norfolk to Fortress Monroe and Union General Benjamin Butler labeled them as "contraband".

1861 – Vessels at Norfolk Navy Yard, including the Merrimac, burned and scuttled.

1861 – The first local encounter of the Civil War took place at Sewell's Point

1862 – The Merrimac, rebuilt as an ironclad and renamed Virginia, was built at the Norfolk Navy Yard. The first battle between ironclads - the Virginia and the Monitor - was fought in Hampton Roads.

1862 – Mayor Lamb surrendered the City to Union troops. Federal forces under the command of General Benjamin Butler occupied Norfolk until 1865.

1870 – End of Reconstruction in Norfolk. Union occupation troops withdrawn and Virginia is readmitted to the Union. African-Americans throughout Hampton Roads are elected to state and local offices. After the Civil War, Norfolk County's rich waterways and fertile farmland enabled it to recover quickly from the destruction of the war. In Norfolk, industries and railroads opened the way for transportation of coal to our port, the beginning of trade that made Norfolk the greatest port in the world.

1870 – Horse-drawn trolley introduced in Norfolk.

1894 – Electric trolley introduced in Norfolk. Within ten years, they link Norfolk with Sewell's Point, Ocean View, South Norfolk, Berkley, Portsmouth and Pinner's Point.

1894 – Classes begin at Norfolk's first public high school.

1903 – News of the Wright Brothers' historic first flight at Kitty Hawk NC is "scooped" by a Norfolk newspaper reporter

1907 – The Jamestown Exposition, celebrating the 300th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, was held in the Sewell's Point area of Norfolk.

1907 – The Abraham Doumar family moves to Norfolk and sets up an ice cream concession at Ocean View Park. In 1904, at the St. Louis Exposition, the Doumars were credited with inventing the ice cream cone. In 1905 they made the first ice cream cone machine, which is still in use at Doumar's Restaurant today.

1907 – The Great White Fleet - 15 U.S. ships on a peace mission around the world - sailed from Norfolk.

1909 – Virginian Railway opened for business.

1910 – Eugene Ely makes aviation history when he successfully launches his Curtiss biplane from the deck of the cruiser Birmingham and lands on the beach at Willoughby Spit.

1917 – 600 German sailors, crew of the interned raiders Kronprinz Wilhelm and Prinz Eitel Friedrich, are held at the Norfolk Navy Yard in Portsmouth and build a German Village to pass away the time. The village is a popular tourist attraction - entrance fees and revenue from the sale of baked goods and souvenirs are sent to the German Red Cross. After the United States enters the war, the sailors become prisoners of war and are sent to POW camps in Georgia.

1917 – The U.S Naval Operating Base and Training Station was established on the old Jamestown Exposition grounds. 1400 sailors from St. Helena Training Station in Berkley marched to the new base.

1919 – Crispus Attucks Theatre opened; designed, financed and developed by African-Americans.  The theater is named to honor African-American Crispus Attucks, who was the first American killed by British soldiers when they fired into a crowd of demonstrators in Boston in 1770. The event, which closely preceded the American revolution, became known as the Boston massacre.

1926 – The Schneider Cup Race between American and Italian aviators is held in Norfolk and receives international publicity. The race is won by an Italian aviator, flying at an average speed of more than 246 mph.

1938 – Norfolk Municipal Airport opened on the former Truxton Manor Golf Course tract. A new terminal building was dedicated in 1951. In 1976, Norfolk International Airport opened, with overseas flights.

1941 – World War II, with heightened defense activities and hundreds of families moving into the area, doubled Norfolk's population. At the end of the war, Norfolk Naval Base and Air Station remained the largest military installation in the world.

1952 – SACLANT, Supreme Allied Command Atlantic, western arm of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and only international command in the western hemisphere, was established in Norfolk.

1952 – The Downtown Norfolk-Portsmouth Bridge-Tunnel opened. A modern engineering marvel, it was followed by the Mid-Town Tunnel in 1962 and a second Downtown Tunnel in 1986. Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel opened in 1957, Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel in 1964 and a second Hampton Roads Tunnel in 1976. In 1992, the $400,000,000 Monitor-Merrimac Bridge-Tunnel opened, connecting Suffolk and Newport News and completing the loop of interstate highways in Hampton Roads.

1959 – Norfolk's public schools were desegregated when 17 black children entered 6 previously all-white schools in Norfolk. Norfolk Virginian-Pilot editor Lenoir Chambers' editorials against massive resistance earn the Pulitzer Prize.

1960 – Norfolk was one of eleven U.S. cities to receive the All American City Award, granted jointly by LOOK Magazine and the National Municipal League.

1964 – General Douglas MacArthur Memorial opens in Norfolk. Death of General MacArthur.

1966 – Norfolk International Terminals are built. This huge complex of one of the most complete and modern operations in the U.S. for steamship, rail and truck carriers serves international cargoes.

1971 – Donation of major art collection of Walter P. Chrysler, Jr. to the Norfolk Museum of Arts and Sciences.

1975 – Professional Opera arrived in Norfolk as the Virginia Opera Association opened its premiere season at the Center Theater. In 1993, the renovated theater was rechristened the Edythe C. and Stanley L. Harrison Opera House in honor of the company's founders.

1976 – Operation Sail began as a tall ship celebration for the American Bicentennial. It developed into the annual Harborfest.

1981 – Birth at Norfolk General Hospital of first baby in the United States conceived by in-vitro fertilization (Elizabeth Jordan Carr)