The Pagan River is well-marked from the James River to the town. Beyond that, it's ripe for exploring in small boats. Photo: Kendall Osborne

Explore the Pagan River, Find History on Display in Smithfield, VA

The town of Smithfield, Virginia, and its adjacent Pagan River, has the Chesapeake Bay appeal of a small town along a beautiful waterway. You’ve seen a snapshot of the Smithfield community in this week’s CBM Neighborhoods with local Realtor Greg Garrett. Smithfield and its river also hold a lot of appeal (and amenities) for visitors coming by land or by water.

Native tribes lived in what is now Smithfield since prehistoric times. European settlers began settling near the river in the 1630s. The Pagan is only 12.5 miles long, and the west side of the river is largely undeveloped to this day. The channel is well marked from its intersection with the James River to the town.  Beyond that, the river is less developed and there is no marked channel. This is a place for small boats to explore at a slow pace. When Chesapeake Bay Magazine explored the area on Dec. 8, a pair of eagles soared overhead.

The river’s name, Pagan, doesn’t have the origin you’d expect. The river is likely named for the Algonquin word for pecan, as natives and settlers both noted the abundance of pecan trees along the waterway.  

Smithfield itself began in 1752, when a farm was subdivided into 72 lots along four streets. It was a prosperous town with merchants and ship captains moving into the conclave. Many of its historically significant buildings remain today. There are still 70 structures of architectural importance. The Wentworth-Grinnan House dates to 1780. The original jail and courthouse remain, with the courthouse going back to the 1750s.

One of the more unusual attractions is the Isle of Wight Museum, which is famous for housing both the world’s oldest ham and the oldest peanut. The peanut dates to 1890, while the ham dates to 1902. The ham was cured, then hung in a corner of a storage facility where it was forgotten. According to the Isle of White County’s website, “One of P.D. Gwaltney Jr.’s cured hams was overlooked, and for 20 years, it hung from a rafter in a packing house. By 1924, the pet ham was kept in an iron safe which was opened daily for guests to view, and it was advertised as the world’s oldest Smithfield ham.”

The ham even has its own webcam, though you can imagine it isn’t very eventful. You can see it here.

Windsor Castle Park features outdoor activities among its history. The oldest part of the beautiful house was started in the 1700s. The house is surrounded by restored outbuildings such as a corn crib and kitchen. The 208-acre park surrounding it has something for everyone. There is a dedicated mountain bike trail (pedestrians are not allowed). There are other paths for hikers, along with a dog area, kayak rental and launch, and a fishing pier. That fishing pier is in a prime fall location for red drum and speckled seatrout.     

Smithfield has plenty of dining options, including waterside. Smithfield Station, on the downtown waterfront, is accessible by boat. They have won awards for both their food and marina. Up the hill in the town, you will find a variety of restaurants, shops, a brewery, the Museum, and all the wonderful historic structures.  

Smithfield claims to be a “visit to a simpler time” when the pace was slower and people greeted one another in the street. The peace of its river and its notable history are still alive and well.