|Train engine pulls into Cape Charles in 1902. Courtesy|
of Cape Charles Museum
And yet, here’s a story from a Maryland newspaper in January 1884:
“Shanties are now being built for Italian laborers, who have been employed by the contractor to construct the road. A carload of immigrants came down yesterday and will be immediately put to work. . . . Large steamers are to ply between the terminus and Norfolk, and fast trains will be put on the line so that Southern travelers may reach Northern cities as speedily as possible.”
Like a Wild West movie set, Cape Charles grew from nothing to
boom town in just three years. The cause was the sudden arrival of a railroad linking the Eastern Shore of Virginia not only to cities in the North but, improbably, leaping across the Chesapeake Bay.
It was crazy: defying logic and geography, erasing 30 miles of open water and depositing people, cars and freight on the other side. And at the same time, creating a town where none had existed.
We paid a visit to Cape Charles a couple of weeks ago by a terribly old-fashioned conveyance.
After an overnight stay near the concrete ships off Kiptopeke State Park, we weighed anchor and cruised the seven or so miles to the town’s outer markers, then into its welcoming Town Harbor where signs of the past and present abound. The train tracks are still there, and several antique rail cars still rest on rusted rails. And, one still-persisting remnant: a barge that waits for freight cars that are still ferried to Little Creek.
Cape Charles owes its existence to the pluck and ingenuity of two men, William L. Scott, a millionaire congressman from Erie, Pa., who put up the money, and Alexander Cassatt, a Pennsylvania Railroad executive. Scott bought 2,107 acres of land from Sally and Ella Tazewell of Norfolk and set about planning a new town. And Cassatt, brother of the famous America painter Mary Cassatt, engineered and built a rail line straight down the shore from Pocomoke City, Md., to Cape Charles.
The first train, according to Cape Charles: A Railroad Town, by Jim Lewis, reached town in late October 1884 and daily service from New York soon followed. The toughest part was next.
Mud Creek was dredged to a depth of 11 feet and there it was, an instant harbor. Next, that improbable notion: sending freight and passenger rail cars across the not-always-placid Chesapeake. It didn’t seem to faze Scott and Cassatt, though, who named their rail line the New York, Philadelphia and Norfolk (the “Nip’n N”).
In March 1885, The Norfolk Landmark carried a story headlined THE TUG NORFOLK. The new steam tug “arrived at Cape Charles City yesterday, and will be put into service at once. This steam tug is the largest vessel of its kind ever constructed in Wilmington, Del., and is regarded as the most powerful steamboat that has been to that port. It is expected that she will make the run with the float of cars between Cape Charles and Norfolk in three hours.”
Indeed, that very week, the Norfolk, hauling a dozen freight cars, left the harbor at Cape Charles and headed for Port Norfolk on the Western Branch of the Elizabeth River near Portsmouth. There the cars were to be hooked up to southbound trains.
Soon, passenger steamers, ferries and barges carrying Pullman cars would make the crossing, some to Little Creek and others to downtown Norfolk.
All of which caused the fledgling town to explode. Hotels, boarding houses, general stores and taverns sprouted along the waterfront. The town was laid out as a rectangle of 644 building lots and a large central park. Seven avenues named for prominent Virginians, the usual suspects like Jefferson and Washington, were created. North-south streets were named for trees and fruits. Houses in all styles, from Queen Anne to Colonial Revival to Victorian quickly followed.
Almost instantly, Cape Charles had become the economic center of the lower Eastern Shore. But five decades later, the automobile and its bigger cousin, the tractor trailer truck, triggered a slow fade. One by one, the town lost its ferries, its passenger trains, its steamers.
Now, more than a century after its founding, signs of a revival are evident in new shops and restaurants, dozens of restored homes and the place that started it all, an expanded and modernized Town Harbor. Cape Charles seems ready for the next – but perhaps less hectic – chapter in its history.