During the year 2001, were making our way around Virginia, each
issue visiting a small town and meeting some of the folks who make up the heart of
electric co-op country. On this years third stop, well be...
Down Home in Cape Charles By Donna Bozza Rich Eastern Shore News Reporter and Freelance Writer
Download in PDF Format Watercolor sunsets, Victorian charm and friendly residents characterize this
Eastern Shore community.
So cozy is Cape Charles with
the Chesapeake Bay that each day ends with watercolor sunsets. Whether viewed from its
Victorian porches or beachfront pier, spectacular brush strokes of turquoise and pink
paint sky and tide.
Two local schooners
make their way into the harbor at Cape Charles.
There was a time many believed the sun had also set on the glory days of Cape Charles,
back almost a half-century ago. The railroad that built the town had bid farewell, the
grand steamboats and ferries that once filled its harbor were only fond memories.
"Nothing ever happens in Cape Charles" became the pessimistic motto.
But even after decades of decline, the town had its faithful. And in recent years,
life-long residents have joined forces with newcomers, or "come-heres" as they
are affectionately called, to rebuild their community.
The sunset over the Chesapeake Bay from the Cape Charles fishing pier is a glorious sight
to behold. There was a time many believed the sun had also set on the glory days of Cape
Charles, back almost a half-century ago.
When William L. Scott, a wealthy coal tycoon and congressman, shared his vision for a
railroad on Virginias Eastern Shore, none of the Pennsylvania Railroad officials
were interested, except for one Alexander J. Cassatt.
But one was all it took.
Born into an affluent Pennsylvania family (his sister Mary Cassatt was the renowned
Impressionist painter), the brilliant engineer so believed in the venture he resigned as
senior vice-president of the railroad, and, with his partner Scott, forever changed the
Cassatt organized the New York, Philadelphia, and Norfolk Railroad in 1882. By 1884
they had laid tracks from Pocomoke City, Maryland, south through the center of the Eastern
The NYP&N railroad would give birth to a bevy of villages and towns, but none so
grand as the planned Cape Charles "city" near the tip of the rural peninsula.
Here Cassatt dredged a small creek for a deep harbor and closed the watery 26-mile gap
from the Eastern Shore to Norfolk in a most ingenious way: floating train barges.
With his unique design, 18 freight cars carried goods more efficiently since it
wasnt necessary to unload the train cars wares onto ships, then reload them
back onto trains again.
Throughout the elegant age of travel with steamboats and ferries and the romance of the
rails, Cape Charles thrived as the connecting point for both commerce and people heading
to northern cities.
Margaret Carlson, pictured here with her husband Charlie, remembers when the tiny 8- by
8-block town was bustling during the 1930s and 40s.
Margaret Carlson, 80, who grew up in Cape Charles and owns Charmars
Antiques with her husband Charlie, remembers the tiny 8- by 8-block town during the
1930s and 40s.
"It was bustling, everything was busy," she recalls fondly. "You had to
wait for everything from getting your hair cut to getting on the ferries."
In 1950, the vital town took its first blow when the car ferry operation moved further
south to Kiptopeke. Three years later, the last of the passenger steamboats, the Elisha
Lee, left Cape Charles, never to return.
Before the decade closed out, the whistle of the passenger train could be heard no
more. It was now the age of the automobile.
The completion of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, connecting the Eastern Shore to the
mainland in 1964, was not the cure for the towns ills. Travel and time continued to
pass Cape Charles by.
Down but Not Out
When Chris Bannon came
to Cape Charles 13 years ago to open Seagate, a bed-and-breakfast inn, he recognized its
When Chris Bannon came to Cape Charles 13 years ago to open Seagate, the first
bed-and-breakfast inn here, he saw what many others saw a forgotten town. But
unlike others, he also recognized its nostalgic appeal.
"Its Americana, like stepping back in time to the 1950s," says Bannon,
who restored a rundown welfare house back to its 1912 Victorian splendor. "The town
looked tired, but was architecturally spectacular with tree-lined streets."
Some town residents doubted he would succeed, but Bannon did, and later was joined by
four more B&Bs, each flourishing in the small bayside town.
Colleagues were skeptical when Kim Starr decided to open a real estate office in Cape
Charles. She wanted to raise her daughter Katie in the small, friendly town.
Even a scant five years ago, Kim Starr heard more than a few snickers when she
decided to open a real estate office, Chesapeake Properties, in Cape Charles, wanting to
raise her daughter Katie in the friendly small town.
"Most Eastern Shore realtors considered it a no-mans land," says Starr,
who started the business before the Bay Creek development was yet a player. "But I
grew up in another shore town Cape May, New Jersey before the lovely
Victorian homes there were restored. I knew Cape Charles had the potential, and I knew
others would see it, too."
Those others often saw the town for the first time while staying at local B&Bs,
and, succumbing to its small-town charms, moved here, fixing up homes and small
businesses, says Starr.
"It was the B&Bs that really started the towns renaissance," says
Starr. "And we also owe a debt to those who kept the pilot light on during the
towns dark times."
Carlson says there has always been a stubborn determination among natives here to hang
"Cape Charles people never give up never," she says. "We know the
town is coming back, not the way it was, but in a different way."
A New Day Dawns
Pharmacy serves down-home cooking seven days a week. The old-fashioned soda fountain at
this corner drugstore is straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting.
So remarkable is the towns ongoing transformation, that a walk down any street
reveals row upon row of homes finally receiving the TLC that they have long deserved.
Verandas are returning to the one-sided main street, better to view the towns
former life the railroad and the harbor that still captivates today.
Here, the Eastern Shore Railroad, a short-line freight operation with spunky bay blue
engines, works from the town, and many a train barge can be seen silhouetted on the
At the harbor, watermen bring in the days catch, passing a visiting tall ship.
Juxtaposed with the restoration of stately houses and quaint cottages are the mainstay
corner drugstore and hardware store, joined by a variety of shops working to fill in the
blanks that were once unfillable in the Cape Charles downtown. They include a gourmet
cookie mix manufacturer, three new eateries, and a bookstore.
So remarkable is the towns ongoing transformation, a walk down any street reveals
row upon row of homes and businesses finally receiving the TLC that they have long
"There is no question that the Bay Creek Development and its plans for two
championship golf courses are playing a big part in the towns revitalization,"
says Cape Charles native and mayor, Alex Parry. "Coupled with the Sustainable
Technologies Industrial Park and the incentives for business to locate here, the future
looks pretty good."
Bay Creek, a 1,700-acre golf-marina community when complete, will hug the historic
district of the town. The Arnold Palmer Signature Golf Course is set to open in June.
"People say you could have done this anywhere," says developer Richard
Foster, "but you cant create what God created, not the Chesapeake Bay, not
beautiful Plantation Creek. What makes Cape Charles and the Eastern Shore so unique is
what makes Bay Creek so special."
The town also has high hopes for the Sustainable Technology Industrial Park, located on
200 acres south of the towns harbor, to attract light industry that protects the
Eastern Shores fragile environment while providing family-wage jobs.
It is Americas first eco-industrial park and one of only four demonstration
models recognized nationally for sustainable development.
Finally, after years of hearing things were going to change in Cape Charles, even the
staunchest naysayers have begun to believe.
Mayor Alex Parry, a native of the community, believes that the changes in sight for the
small town may in some ways restore it to its prosperous past.
Will Endearing Character Change?
But many wonder if even welcome changes will change the towns endearing
Will people stop talking to each other at Rayfields Pharmacy soda fountain? Will
a smile to a stranger still come as easily as one to a friend when the town of 1,400
In its heyday, points out Parry, Cape Charles had 4,000-5,000 people, and the changes
ahead, he believes, will in some ways bring it back to its prosperous past.
"You have to remember, there was nothing here before the railroad, and this town
was built with progress, industry and forward thinking," says Parry. "The same
holds true today."
Between town events that bring people together and great community spirit, he feels
change will be anything but negative. "I believe strongly we will keep that small
town feel," says Parry. "Well just be a bigger small
If You Go
hospitality is served at all of the bayside towns B&Bs. Each has its own
distinct personality, from Sea Gate Bed and Breakfast (757-331-2206;
www.bbhost.com/seagate), to Chesapeake Charm (757-331-2676;
Arts Enter Cape Charles teaches the visual and performing arts.
Dining has expanded in the downtown area. Straight from a Norman Rockwell painting is
the old-fashioned soda fountain at Rayfields Pharmacy, serving down-home
cooking seven days a week (757-331-1212).
New Southern cuisine is featured at the comfortably elegant Bay Leaf Café. Call
757-331-4800 for dinner reservations or stop on in.
Or visit Julie at her cozy bistro, the Harbor Grille (757-331-3005), for
breakfast, lunch or dinner.
To truly immerse yourself in a Chesapeake Bay sunset, set sail on the Schooner
Serenity with your hosts, captains Laura and Greg Lohse. Call 757-331-4361 or book
your passage via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Like the town, the 1940s art deco Palace Theater, once the home of vaudeville,
big bands and the Miss Americas Miss Virginia Pageant, is being lovingly restored. Arts
Enter Cape Charles teaches the visual and performing arts while the marquee is ever
changing. Catch a local production of "Our Town" or enjoy the Virginia Symphony
in the intimacy of a historic theater. Call 757-331-ARTS.
To learn more about the towns intriguing history, visit the Cape Charles
Museum and Welcome Center located at the towns entrance in a lofty
brick-and-glass building. It opens for the season on April 28. For more information, call
Two gift shops located on Mason Avenue are worth a visit as well: Eves Gallery
and the Cape Charles Trading Company. The Stage Door Gallery on
Strawberry Street is the place to purchase Eastern Shore artwork.
Charmars Antiques also features a tiny country store museum.
Summertime is a great time to visit Cape Charles. The 4th of July celebration is
quintessential small-town USA and its informal Harbor Parties feature food,
sunsets, and dancing under the stars. Dates are June 9, July 7, Aug. 4 and Sept. 1.
The Cape Charles-Northampton County Chamber of Commerce can provide more information on
these events and other places of interest, call 757-331-2304 or check out the Web site at