JAMESTOWN — Back in 1807, several hundred people gathered at Jamestown Island to take part in a “Grand National Jubilee,” with a small flotilla of ships, theatricals and speeches, with the event ending with dinner and toasts at Williamsburg’s Raleigh Tavern. A hundred years later, in 1907, about a million people showed for a grander $1.4 million affair, featuring Teddy Roosevelt and Mark Twain, as well as the roll-out of a 103-foot monument.
In 1957, Queen Elizabeth II arrived in her first official trip to the U.S. as monarch, a trip she repeated last weekend, fifty years later.
This weekend, to celebrate Jamestown’s 400th and the discovery of America, an even more spectacular event is on tap, the capstone of 18 months of events in Virginia, the East Coast and England, and more than a decade in the planning.
On the docks of Jamestown, where replicas of the Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery are docked, their sails fluttering in a spring wind, historic interpreters ready themselves for a glut of more than a million tourists and VIP’s this weekend.
“People love these ships,” said Scott Krogh, a historic interpreter. “We do lots of hands-on demonstrations which really get the tourists involved in tying knots, setting sails and hauling up the anchor. We try and make history fun.”
Dennis Parris, a former technology manager who moved from North London, married a Virginian and now gives tours of the Susan Constant, readied a knot and reflected on the queen’s visit last weekend. “She’s my queen and we’re proud to have her here,” he said. “It’s tremendously exciting at Jamestown these days. There’s a real depth of history here.”
Back in 1607, the Jamestown settlement almost didn’t make it. After an Atlantic crossing of more than 3,000 miles, the three English ships carrying 144 passengers and crew members finally landed here in April, 1607. “Almost everything that could go wrong did,” said Parris, noting that the earliest settlers faced crime, corruption, starvation, medical horrors, econonomic struggles and hostile natives. “But they held on.”
In the last decade, thanks to more than $100 million in capital projects and site improvements, the Jamestown Settlement has been transformed into a 21st century facility with new state-of-the-art facilities, exhibits and programs which planners hope will appeal to a generation of young people hooked to their iPods and to blockbuster movies at the neighborhood cineplex. “We’ve really sharpened our focus on making this a family event,” said Debby Padgett, a Jamestown spokesperson. “We have something for everyone here.”
There’s a new story line and a growing collection of artifacts and exhibits in new 15,000 square foot exhibition galleries, as well as a 143,000 square-foot visitors services and gallery complex, recently completed. The complex houses classrooms, visitor information and ticketing, gift shops, a cafe, theater and exhibition galleries. Flags of the 50 states greet visitors at a parking area which has been doubled to accomodate 500 vehicles.
Recent scholarship has provided the basis for a comprehensive examination of 17th century Virginia’s Powhatan Indian, English and African cultures in new exhibits. A new introductory film, “1607: A Nation Takes Root,” brings to life the events and environment of 17th century Virginia with vivid images and personal narrative.
“The founding of Jamestown 13 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth sparked a series of cultural encounters that helped shape the nation and the world,” said Nancy Egloff, historian of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation. “Although Jamestown ceased to exist as a town by the mid 1700s, its legacies are embodied in today’s United States.”