The Eastern Shore of Virginia, one of the earliest colonized areas in North America, remained a seafood and agricultural region with scattered small towns until the 1880s. At this time, the land that became the Town of Cape Charles consisted of farmlands and wetlands. The construction of what is now the Bay Coast Railroad led to the evolution of the area from a small agricultural community to a bustling railroad town.
In the late 1870s, the Pennsylvania Railroad served many of the large cities on the east coast. However, along the Delmarva Peninsula, the railroad only came as far south as Pocomoke, Maryland. Extending the railroad farther south was only feasible if a barge and steamer link could be built near the southern end of the Delmarva Peninsula, where freight and passengers could then transfer across the Chesapeake Bay to Norfolk. When William L. Scott, a congressman from Erie, Pennsylvania with vast rail interests in the West, proposed this rail-sea link to Pennsylvania Railroad officials, very little interest was generated initially.
Despite a lack of support, Alexander Cassatt, then an engineer and Vice-President of Traffic with Pennsylvania Railroad, was interested in Scott’s proposal. In 1882, Cassatt resigned from his position to work with Scott on his proposed project. Traveling by horseback from Pocomoke, Cassatt personally laid out the 65 mile route the railroad would take and chose the spot for its southern terminus, harbor, and connecting channel, which he dredged at his own expense. At the southern terminus, Scott envisioned a town that would meet the needs of the railroad and its passengers. This led to the creation of Cape Charles.
In 1883, Scott purchased three plantations comprising approximately 2,509 acres from the heirs of former Virginia Governor Littleton Waller Tazewell. Of this land, 136 acres went to create the Town of Cape Charles. From its very conception, Cape Charles was a planned community. Scott commissioned two engineers to do the official mapping of the Town in 1884. The original Town was approximately 136 acres divided into 644 equal lots. Seven avenues which extend from east to west were named for Virginia statesmen; the streets which extend north and south were named for fruits. The original layout of the Town is still visible today.
By October 1884, the railroad's first passenger and freight trains began running and within six months, two passenger steamers, as well as specially designed railroad freight barges, were regularly making the 36 mile Bay crossing. Trains soon arrived daily from New York, and the Eastern Shore’s towns prospered as their produce could easily be exported to metropolitan areas. By 1885, the first residential and commercial buildings existed in Cape Charles along with a volunteer fire department, a newspaper, a school, and multiple churches.
Incorporated on March 1, 1886, Cape Charles quickly became the economic focus of Northampton County. Paved streets, electricity, telephones, and a central water and sewage system made the Town more cosmopolitan than other Eastern Shore towns. Members of older county families were attracted to the Town and built their homes among those of the railroad employees.
Many houses in Cape Charles were built by William H. Lambertson, who came to the Town from Pocomoke. It is said that when he arrived in the 1880s, there were fewer than 50 houses, and by the time of his death in 1948, he had built more than half of the structures in Cape Charles.
In 1911, wetlands near the Chesapeake Bay were drained and filled. The original east-west avenues were extended west, and two more north-south streets were added: Bay Avenue along the edge of the Bay and Harbor Avenue between Bay Avenue and Pine Street. The additional 38 acres of filled land provided 97 new building lots in the Sea Cottages Addition.
The Town continued to grow and develop throughout the golden age of railroads, through World War II with its mission of ferrying troops and supplies, and into the 1950s until the auto ferry was moved to Kiptopeke. At the Town’s peak period of development in the early 1900s, as many as 300 cars per day were transported through the Town’s harbor. In 1958, the last passenger train left Cape Charles. The railroad is still in operation for commercial and industrial purposes, as it has been continuously since 1884.
With the decline of the railroad industry following World War II and the increase of local truck shipping resulting from the opening of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel in 1964, the Town experienced an economic downturn. The Cape Charles economy endured several decades of decline. However, the Town has recently seen an increase in its economic prosperity, and has experienced a great deal of growth in the past several years. Please view the Community Profile for a general description of the Town's existing conditions.
Cape Charles Museum and Welcome Center