Though it is doubtful that Yorktown would have recovered from the destruction and waste that accompanied the Siege of 1781, it received the coup de grâce in the "Great Fire" of 1814 and declined steadily over the years, becoming a quiet rural village. Although it remains the seat of York County, it never regained its prominence as a seaport and has, like Williamsburg, changed so little that many of its picturesque old streets and buildings (whose walls escaped the fire) have survived intact to this day.
Self-guided or ranger-led walking tours of historic Yorktown -- which includes some places of interest not related to the famed battle -- are available at the Yorktown Battlefield visitor center (call for times). From the visitor center, take the path to:
The Victory Monument -- News of the allied victory at Yorktown reached Philadelphia on October 24, 1781. Five days later, Congress resolved "that the United States . . . will cause to be erected at York, in Virginia, a marble column, adorned with emblems of the alliance between the United States and his Most Christian Majesty; and inscribed with a succinct narrative of the surrender of Earl Cornwallis to his excellency General Washington, Commander in Chief of the combined forces of America and France."
So much for government intentions: The cornerstone of the symbolic 98-foot marble shaft with Lady Liberty atop was laid a century later to open the Yorktown Centennial Celebration. The podium is adorned with 13 female figures hand in hand in a solemn dance to denote the unity of the 13 colonies; beneath their feet is the inscription "One Country, One Constitution, One Destiny" -- a moving post-Civil War sentiment.
A footpath leads from the monument into town, where you can explore:
Cornwallis Cave -- According to legend, Cornwallis lived here in two tiny "rooms" during the final days of the siege when he hoped to cross the river and escape overland to New York. Various occupants of the cave -- which may at one time have included the pirate Blackbeard -- carved out the two rooms. Confederate soldiers later enlarged the shelter and added a roof. The cave is at the foot of Great Valley Road, right on the river.
From here you can follow Water Street along the river and Yorktown's white-sand beach (locals like to sunbathe and swim here) to Yorktown Riverwalk Landing, the town's waterfront dining-and-shopping complex.
The Dudley Digges House -- This 18th-century weather-board house on Main Street at Smith Street is the only wood-frame house to survive the siege. Owner Dudley Digges was a Revolutionary patriot who served with Patrick Henry, Benjamin Harrison, and Thomas Jefferson on the Committee of Correspondence. After the war, he was rector of the College of William and Mary. It's still a private residence, not open to the public.
The Nelson House -- Scottish merchant Thomas Nelson made three voyages between Great Britain and Virginia before deciding to settle in Yorktown in 1705. He became co-operator of a ferry, charter member of a trading company, builder of the Swan Tavern, and a large-scale planter. In 1729, he built this house, at Main and Nelson streets, which is considered one of the finest examples of Georgian architecture in Virginia. His grandson, Thomas Nelson, Jr., signed the Declaration of Independence, served as governor of Virginia during the war, and marched the 3,500-man state militia to Yorktown to help Washington win the victory. The Revolution ruined his health and fortune, however, and he died in 1789.
Though damaged (cannonballs remain embedded in the brickwork), the house survived the Battle of Yorktown, and the Nelson family continued to live in it until 1907. The National Park Service acquired the house in 1968 and restored it to its original appearance.
It's open daily 10am to 4:30pm in summer, daily 1 to 4pm the rest of the year.
The Sessions House -- Just across from the Nelson House, this is the oldest house in Yorktown, built in 1692 by Thomas Sessions. At least five U.S. presidents have visited the house, today a private residence.
The Custom House -- Dating to 1720, this brick building at the corner of Main and Read was originally the private storehouse of Richard Ambler, collector of ports. It became Gen. J. B. Magruder's headquarters during the Civil War.
Grace Episcopal Church -- On Church Street near the river, Grace Church dates to 1697 and has been an active house of worship since then. Its first rector, the Rev. Anthony Panton, was dismissed for calling the secretary of the colony a jackanapes. Gunpowder and ammunition were stored here during the siege of Yorktown. During the Civil War, the church served as a hospital. It's open to visitors daily 9am to 5pm. The communion silver, made in England in 1649, is still in use. Thomas Nelson, Jr., is buried in the adjacent graveyard.
The Swan Tavern -- For over a century the Swan Tavern, at the corner of Main and Ballard streets (tel. 757/898-3033), was Yorktown's leading hostelry. Originally owned by Thomas Nelson, it was in operation 20 years before Williamsburg's famous Raleigh Tavern. The Swan was demolished in 1863 by an ammunition explosion at the courthouse across the street, rebuilt, and destroyed again by fire in 1915. Today it is reconstructed as per historical research, and the premises house a fine 18th-century antiques shop. It's open Monday to Saturday 10am to 5pm, Sunday 12:30 to 5pm.
The Poor Potter -- Constructed on the site of Yorktown's original pottery factory on Read Street, inland from the Custom House, this reconstruction shows how the locals produced pottery of better quality than their English cousins were making back home.
Of Bug-Eyes & Skipjacks -- On Water Street adjacent to the Yorktown Riverwalk Landing, the Watermen's Museum (tel. 757/887-2641; www.watermens.org) displays a bug-eye, a skipjack, a dug-out canoe, and other working boats unique to the Chesapeake Bay, plus oyster harvesting tools and other equipment used by the region's famous "watermen" to earn their livings. Admission is $5 for adults, $2 for students, free for kids 5 and younger. It's open April through December, Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 5pm.
While at the Yorktown Riverwalk, you can get out on the York River on the Alliance (tel. 800/979-3370; www.schooneralliance.com), a 105-foot long, three-mast tall ship schooner that makes three cruises daily between May and October. The 2-hour voyages cost $30 for adults, $18 for children 12 and younger. It also has sunset cruises for $35 per person.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.