Fort Boykin holds surprises, secrets

Published 8:37 pm Tuesday, January 5, 2016

There is a small, historic jewel in Western Tidewater that is or should be of interest to us all. Historic Fort Boykin Park is on the western fringe of Smithfield. It has everything going for it — history, views, wildlife and trees.

First, a geography and history lesson. The Mighty James, as we call it, has been logistically important since the founding of Jamestown in 1607.

This fort, originally called “The Castle” when built in 1623, commanded the view of the lower James and allowed warning of approaches of Spanish vessels. On a scarp 30 to 40 feet above a bend in the river, it was again manned in the Revolutionary War when the bad guys were British, not Spanish.

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It was named Fort Boykin at this time after a local merchant who served on George Washington’s staff. In the War of 1812, the British landed and tried to capture it, but were repelled.

Its primary prominence came during the Civil War, when the fort was expanded and heavily garrisoned to protect from Union soldiers to the east. Its earthworks housed 10 guns, encampments, parade grounds and so on.

Unfortunately, the combination of ironclad ships and guns with longer range allowed the Union forces to capture it in 1861, and by 1862 its powder magazines were blown up, and its well was filled in.

Today, the earthworks and encampments, parade grounds and the well are all still in good shape. Cannon have been removed from the site, but the commanding view of the James remains.

From the last of the Ghost Fleet and Jamestown in the west to the James River Bridge and Newport News Shipbuilding to the east, the high land continues to offer panoramic vistas.

So why is this place of interest to naturalists? The wildlife and trees are the draw. For birders, there are many nearby bald eagle and osprey nesting sites, which almost guarantee daily sightings in the summer months.

Also in summer there are many, many zebra swallowtails (usually found only near pawpaw trees). From high above the water, it is easy to spot schools of baitfish and the terns and gulls working them.

Speaking of trees, the second-largest/oldest black walnut tree in Virginia — at least two centuries old — is there. And then there are several “Osage Orange” trees there, also known as “hedge apples” or “horse apples” or “monkey balls.” Imported from Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas area by Thomas Jefferson in 1804, they’re the only ones I know of in Western Tidewater, though I’m not a tree person.

The four- to five-inch fruit, rough and yellow-green in the fall, contains a milky white liquid. The roots are orange, and the wood is orange, but the fruit bears no resemblance. Go figure.

The park is maintained by the Isle of Wight Parks and Recreation, which cuts the grass, but the plantings are controlled by a group from the Virginia Master Naturalist Historic Southside Chapter. They trim the ivy and grapevines, which can’t be eradicated as they control erosion.

The VMN group is also preparing tree identification signs to be installed shortly. The group is there the third Saturday of each month.

There’s one other facet of this jewel — perhaps its most inviting — that endears it to all who visit, but we’re not telling what it is. Visit, and you will find out.

Susan and Bradford “Biff” Andrews are retired teachers and master naturalists who have been outdoor people all their lives, exploring and enjoying the woods, swamps, rivers and beaches throughout the region for many years. Email them at