‘Jewel’ of the Neck
Many Northern neckers believe that the 1,300 acres, which make up Westmoreland State Park, are the jewels of the Neck. From the height of its Horsehead Cliffs – some 115 feet above sea level – to the beaches below, folks search for million-year-old fossils.
Westmoreland State Park is one of the six original state parks opened in June 1936 and was built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Most of the roads and trails found in the park were originally dug by hand. Located on the Northern Neck Peninsula, the park is just minutes away from George Washington’s birthplace and Stratford Hall, the birthplace Robert E. Lee.
Of all the acreage making up the Northern Neck, there are about 1300 acres that many believe are unlike any other on the Neck. It’s Westmoreland State Park and I re-discovered Park during the recent Idea Stations fund-raising campaign. A listener suggested I do a commentary on Horsehead Cliffs. Well, I knew some significant bits of history about the state park, but as a result of the listener’s gentle prodding, well, I’ve learned much more about Virginia’s park system and the cliffs.
Westmoreland was one of six state parks to open in Virginia in 1936 as a kind of demonstration project for the whole state park concept. And the story goes that President Roosevelt, who created the Civilian Conservation Corps to put jobless young men to work in those bad old Depression days, met with Virginia’s chairman on the State Commission on Conservation and Development, who suggested to President Roosevelt that these young men would be perfect for developing a system of state parks. Well, a kind of a deal was struck: the government would provide CCC men and materials. In return, Virginia would hopefully show the country the positive impact a state park system could have.
The six parks were located so that each was just about one hour from most Virginians and they were a spectacular success. Virginia now boasts about 90 state parks. Westmoreland is honest-to-goodness Indian country, Chief Powhatan’s Indian country. They hunted and fished there in those long ago days and descendants much of the wildlife they hunted can still be found there: raccoons and fox, deer, beavers, nutria, and wood ducks living in the swamps. Horsehead Cliffs, high above the Potomac, climb to 115 feet above sea level and overlook what has come to be called Fossil Beach. Yes, million-year old fossils are still being found there, ancient sharks’ teeth, considered the great fossil prize of the day.
Now, unfossilized, alive and swimming and trying not to get caught by the fishermen in the surf or in boats or on the fishing piers, there are striped bass and spotted bluefish; freshwater fish abound in the ponds. When you visit the park and you become exhausted from hiking and biking and picnicking, swimming, boating and beach-combing, well, camping may be on your must-do list and auctions, too, abound. From simple campsites to cabins, and they go from almost posh to primitive -- the cost reflecting your choice of, well, roughing it or going for a bit of camping pampering.
Now then, how did Horsehead Cliffs get its name? Well, ahem, I really don’t know. But I suspect that when you look up from your fossil hunt on the beach below, you just might see your answer. This is Thea Marshall.