This scenic and historic route travels through unspoiled farmlands and country crossroads, passes by modest farmsteads and imposing homes, crosses the Little Wicomico River on the Sunnybank Ferry and provides glimpses of farmers and watermen pursuing their traditional way of life. Over three hundred and fifty years of Northumberland County’s heritage are encompassed in this 30 mile route.
Begin on Route 360 in Heathsville, the county seat of Northumberland County since colonial times. Northumberland County is often referred to as the “Mother County of the Northern Neck.” From its boundaries were born Lancaster County to the south in 1652 and Westmoreland County to the west in 1653. Settled by the English in 1640, Northumberland County was officially established by an act of the Burgesses in Jamestown in 1648.
Rice’s Hotel/Hughlett’s Tavern is located on Route 360 in the heart of the Historic Town Square. The Tavern sits directly behind the Old Court House and is one of the oldest surviving wood structures in Virginia’s Northern Neck. The original three-room tavern was built by John Hughlett about 250 years ago, and is on both the Virginia and National Registers of Historic Places. The Tavern is home to heritage guilds, including spinning & weaving, woodworking, blacksmithing, and quilting. The Tavern Café is open for lunch Thursday through Saturday with homemade soups, sandwiches, and baked goods. The Heritage Arts Center is a site on the Northern Neck Artisan Trail with a wide variety of hand-crafted items for sale, ranging from stained glass to woven items to furnishings and decorations.
The Ball Memorial Museum and Library is also located near the Courthouse and houses the Northumberland County Historical Society.
From Heathsville, follow U.S. Route 360 east for 5.7 miles to the Northern Neck Farm Museum on the left with a large “LOVE” sculpture in the front. In the Fall, the Farm Museum hosts a corn maze and is open for Threshing Day, Farm to Fork dinners, and Harvest Festival. The Museum is open Saturdays 10AM to 2PM & Sundays 1PM to 4PM, May through October.
Turning left/east onto Route 360 from the Northern Neck Farm Museum, take the first left onto Hull Neck Road to right onto Folly Road. Take a left onto Hack’s Neck Road – named for the Hack family who settled here in 1688. The road follows the high ground between the headwaters of the Little Wicomico River and the Potomac River.
Follow Hack’s Neck for 1.4 miles, turn LEFT onto VirMar Beach Road for .7 miles to Vir Mar Beach on the Potomac River. At this public access site, visitors can picnic or just sit on the beach and enjoy the view. Watch for the fishermen tending their fish traps just downriver (that’s what those stakes are in the water).
Return to Route 644, turn LEFT and follow it for another 1.4 miles to Afton United Methodist Church. There has been a Methodist church on this site since the 1850s. Local legend has it that the first church was a mud-plastered log cabin. The present church was built in 1937 after a fire destroyed the 1902 building.
Continue along Route 644 to the crossroads village of Ophelia. The village was named for its first postmistress when the post office was established in the late 1800s. Send a postcard from the Ophelia post office still in existence.
Turn LEFT onto S.R. 649 and follow it about 2 miles to where the road makes a 90 degree bend. By looking downriver (to your right) from this vantage point you can see the Smith Point Light at the mouth of the Potomac River where it enters the Chesapeake Bay. In 1802 the first lighthouse was erected on land near the present Smith Point with the first keeper being appointed by Thomas Jefferson. But because of continuous erosion along the shoreline this first and then subsequent lighthouses had to be moved and rebuilt. The present lighthouse you see, known as a screw pile lighthouse, was built offshore in 1897. It was manned until 1971 when the automatic light was installed.
Return to Ophelia on Route 649 and resume your trip along Route 644/Ferry Road for 1.6 miles to the Sunnybank Ferry landing. Just before arriving at the ferry landing, you will see a charming building once a country store and the former Kayan post office.
One of two remaining free ferries in Virginia, the Sunnybank Ferry was established in 1906 by Northumberland County. By the early 1900s the menhaden fishing industry was flourishing in Reedville (see below) and the new ferry reduced the trip from 15 miles to 5 miles allowing the residents of Hack’s Neck to work in the new fisheries. The first ferry boat was pulled by hand on a cable stretching across the river. Over the succeeding years, first a motorboat was employed to push the ferry then the motorized ferry was instituted. The current cable ferry is operates, weather-dependent, during the following hours: Monday – Friday: 8 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.; Saturday: 8 a.m. – noon; and is closed Sunday.
While crossing the Little Wicomico River you might catch a glimpse of a Great Blue Heron or of one of the ospreys that nest on the channel markers up and down the rivers. The many colored floats you see in the water in the summertime mark the locations of crabpots. Local watermen in their traditional “deadrise” workboats are often seen “fishing their pots”.
On the Sunnybank side of the river, after 1.5 miles, turn LEFT onto Gaskins Beach Road and right onto Blackberry Road to left onto Fleeton Road. Follow Fleeton Road for 3 miles out to Fleeton Point where Cockrell’s Creek and the Great Wicomico River flow into Chesapeake Bay. Fleeton is one of the most picturesque villages on the Northern Neck. In the early 1900s Fleeton was a bustling little town and a stop on the Baltimore to Norfolk steamboat line. There was a hotel, stores, fish canning factories, and a bottling works! The Great Depression, fire, and shoreline erosion have taken their toll and all that remains now is a beautiful unspoiled village. As you drive around the loop you will be rewarded with panoramic waterviews and a feel of bygone times as you pass by the imposing Victorian homes and the modest bungalows built in Fleeton’s heyday.
Return on Route 657 to Reedville and turn LEFT onto Route 360 – Reedville’s Main Street. About .5 miles down, you will reach the Reedville Historic District, a Victorian treasure. Founded in 1874 by Elijah Reed, the father of the menhaden fishing industry in Virginia, Reedville prospered and during its “golden age” laid claim to having the highest per capita income in the country! As their wealth grew, the ship captains, fish factory owners and wealthy merchants built imposing mansions which line Main Street.
At the foot of Main Street note The Gables, a 3 1/2 story brick mansion built by Captain Fisher (1909) and the Morris House, a Queen Anne Victorian built by his business partner, Capt. Morris (1900), and the Bailey-Cockrell House (1884). Next to The Gables is the George Reed home (c. 1897), built by the son of Reedville’s founder.
Returning back up Main Street past the monument to Elijah Reed is the oldest building in Reedville, the Walker House built in 1875, which is now part of the Reedville Fishermen’s Museum & Visitors Center. Here, learn about Reedville and the menhaden fishing industry which fueled its earlier prosperity. Learn too how many of the residents in the Northern Neck still rely on the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries for their livelihoods.
If you’d like to stay near Reedville to catch the ferry to Tangier Island from late April through October (tangiercruise.com), make reservations at Ma Margaret’s House Bed & Breakfast (mamargaretshouse.com).