What is Western Branch?

Published 10:56 pm Tuesday, December 20, 2016

There was a time — not all that long ago, depending on one’s perspective about such things — when there was no place called Western Branch.

There was no mall, fast food restaurants were still a thing of the future and communities of farmers and watermen had only begun to give way to the suburban advance of Norfolk County.

A little more than 50 years ago, amid a flurry of annexations and mergers that would finally come to a close in 1974 with the merger that formed what we now know as the city of Suffolk, the area to the west of the Elizabeth River suddenly faced an identity crisis.

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Much of that area had long been known as Churchland. Some of it still is.

But the new city boundaries that existed when the annexation mania was over — after the city of Suffolk had swallowed up Nansemond County and after the merger of Norfolk County and the city of South Norfolk created the city of Chesapeake — left many residents in limbo about their civic identity.

The area in Chesapeake to the west of the Western Branch of the Elizabeth River came to be known as — wait for it — Western Branch.

But not everyone was impressed with the name.

“Western Branch is a made-up name,” area resident Susan Comer said in an interview for the book “Truckin’ on the Western Branch.”

For many, old habits die hard.

“We live in Western Branch, but we tell people Churchland,” Realtors Pat and Frank Orgain said in the book.

One of the challenges of the amorphous area known variously today as Western Branch, Churchland and North Suffolk is keeping track of just where one happens to be at any given time.

Route 17 turns from Bridge Road to Western Branch Boulevard to High Street with little notice as it stretches from North Suffolk through Chesapeake and into Portsmouth.

Residents of Chesapeake along Taylor Road have little in common with their fellow Chesapeake taxpayers in Great Bridge. The same can be said for folks in the Pughsville or Harbour View portions of Suffolk, which can seem a hundred miles and as many years apart from the Whaleyville or Holland communities of the same city.

For residents of this area — whether they live in Chesapeake, Portsmouth or Suffolk — their civic identity often has more to do with neighborhoods and communities than with the municipality in which they pay taxes.

Harbour View. Dunedin. Bowers Hill. Sandy Pines. Belleville. Churchland.

Not all of these communities would be considered, even in the modern parlance, to be part of Western Branch.

But there are commonalities among these dozens of different communities. Folks in this area live, shop, work and attend church right here. They might stray across a bridge or through a tunnel for one reason or another during the week, but many of them find that the vast majority of their lives is spent tooling from one familiar spot to another in an area bounded, roughly, by Bowers Hill, the Western Branch of the Elizabeth River, Route 164 and I-664.

One day, some marketing genius will come up with a name for that area, recognizing the benefit of giving it an identity.

Until then, we’ll just call it all Western Branch.