Thursday, February 4, 2010

On the Waterfront

Truxton Crossing, 2008

One day a couple of summers ago my friend Walt and I decided to go exploring along the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River in Norfolk. Walt was doing a weekly illustration feature for The Virginian-Pilot back then and was always on the prowl for new material. I was interested to see what I could find to photograph.

The Southern Branch, as most people call it, is dominated on its west side by the Norfolk Naval Shipyard (which is actually located in Portsmouth) and a former US Navy ordinance facility. On the east side are a two big commercial shipyards and piers and storage facilities for everything from bulk rubber to Chilean nitrate to petroleum and grain. Down near Money Point, before the river takes a few twists through residential areas and then narrows to canal width at Great Bridge, there’s a big ship-breaking yard.

Walt and I started our day of exploration by snooping around an old foundry just behind the shipyards. Our next stop was a railroad crossing at Truxton. There used to be a big fertilizer plant there. But it’s been long gone and is now the prospective site for a big riverside condo project. Only the project has staggered in search of funding and has never actually broken ground. Speaking of the ground, when Wally and I tried to walk down to the river’s edge, a surveyor working at the site advised us to avoid a broad swath of the property because of the toxic soil. (Maybe the condo developer will put a swimming pool or vegetable garden there?)

A little further down the river we found a Frenchman living on a rusty hulk of an old ship. He said he and a partner had been living aboard and renovating the old hulk for several years, but that the partner had gone back to France “for a visit” and never returned.

Freeman Street, 2008

Further down the river we wove our way through tired neighborhoods and massive tank farms for petroleum and liquid fertilizer. A few months after we were there one of the fertilizer tanks collapsed and flooded the area, displacing families living nearby and killing just about every bit of vegetation and wildlife in sight.

Around lunchtime we found ourselves down by the breakers’ yard. This was just the kind of place we’d have loved to prowl around. Behind tall security fences, giant ships, including former Navy ships and even an old cruise liner, were dragged partially up out of the river. Even on a Saturday, workers with blowtorches were crawling all over the ships, slowly reducing their once mighty profiles down to the oily ground.

Walt decided he wanted lunch about this time. There was a food truck in the parking lot outside the ship-breaking yard serving Mexican fare. I wasn’t convinced of the hygiene of that particular food operation and chose to break out a pack of crackers to tide me over until we could find a decent diner. Walt, ever the road food gastronome, couldn’t be mollified by a pack of Nabs and opted instead for some kind of greasy food truck concoction wrapped in tin foil. It didn’t kill him, though as I recall he did end up giving part of it to a pack of feral cats hanging out at the edge of the street by the river.


  1. Love the simplicity of that little "house". Would be a great one to move and use as a studio behind someone's home.

  2. Fascinating and troubling piece. I always marvel that we put our most toxic and damaging things right next to water. I know it's because we still use water for transport but it's the most efficient way to spread the damage when things get old and go wrong.

  3. That was one of the most fascinating road trips I've ever taken.

  4. Excellent description--I could totally picture the two of you on your rambles. Great photos! Poor cat...