One hundred fifty years ago this week, the U.S Army at Fort Monroe demolished one of Hampton Roads' largest and best known landmarks.
Opened at Old Point Comfort in 1822 to accommodate engineers and construction workers laboring on the giant stone fort, the Hygeia Hotel had grown from a handful of rooms to a sprawling waterfront resort that had entertained several presidents and attracted summer visitors by the thousands.
But its prime location outside the bastion's main gate and suspected use by Southern sympathizers and spies made the massive multi-story structure an increasingly bothersome impediment to the Union war effort, prompting Sec. of War Edwin Stanton to issue an order for its demolition on Sept. 1, 1862.
Despite the pleas of Hampton attorney and co-owner Joseph Segar -- a loyalist whose house and farm along the Hampton River had already been taken over by the army for Camp Hamilton -- no one listened when he rushed to Washington, D.C. in an attempt to reverse the edict.
So workmen began tearing the huge structure down beginning on Dec. 1, 1863.
"What can't be cured must be endured," said Segar's partner Caleb C. Willard -- who also owned the famous Willard's Hotel in Washington D.C. -- when a New York Times correspondent at Old Point asked him about the pending destruction of the landmark.
The health and holiday tourist trade that made the Hygeia nationally known may have been the furthest thing from the minds of the Fort Monroe engineers who built the first parts of the structure in 1821.
Though named in honor of the Greek goddess of health, the hotel was originally designed to house engineers and construction workers. But it wasn't long before such guests as Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson and the curious hordes who turned out to see captured Indian chief Black Hawk at Fort Monroe in 1833 confirmed its future as a seaside resort.
Over the following 25 years, various owners catered to that lucrative and increasingly busy vacation trade by constructing extensive wings housing more than 200 rooms as well as numerous detached buildings for billiards, pistol shooting and bowling.
Guests such as President John Tyler and Edgar Allan Poe came to the stately Greek Revival structure overlooking Hampton Roads for the healthful sea breezes, sea bathing and seafood, not to mention a social scene so fashionable that Old Point became a favorite setting for short stories and novels of the period.
By 1858, the Hygeia was entertaining more than 5,000 guests a year, most of them arriving by steamships that docked at the busy Old Point wharves.
Some 10,000 people came in 1860, many of them drawn by the spectacle of a 680-foot-long ship known as the Great Eastern, which the owners had contracted to make a short but profitable visit.
Even after the Civil War started in April 1861, the hotel was taking in receipts of as much as $1,100 a day, the New York Times reported more than 5 months after a March 1862 order commanding Segar and Willard to exclude all unauthorized persons from their hotel.
"Everyone gets the picture about how great Old Point is -- the hotel owners, the steamship lines and thousands and thousands of guests," says John V. Quarstein, co-author of "Old Point Comfort Resort: Hospitality, Health and History on Virginia's Chesapeake Bay."
"It had a healthy climate, great food, good transportation and things to see and do -- and that made it the most popular resort in the South."
-- Mark St. John Erickson
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