Town of Cape Charles

History

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.

Community Profile

The Town of Cape Charles is located in Northampton County on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. The Town is situated on a small peninsula, bordered by the Chesapeake Bay to the west, King’s Creek to the north and Old Plantation Creek to the southeast (see map). With a land area of 2,817 acres and a population of approximately 1,000 residents, Cape Charles is the largest of Northampton’s five incorporated towns in terms of both land size and population. Since its inception in 1886, Cape Charles has evolved into a dynamic town capable of meeting the needs of a diverse array of residents, visitors, and businesses.

While significant new development has occurred in recent years, Cape Charles also has one of the best collections of historic buildings of any community on the Eastern Shore. The Town strives to preserve this rich architectural heritage. An architectural survey that identified historic properties in the Town led to the listing of the Cape Charles National Register Historic District in 1989. In 1997, the Town adopted a Historic Preservation Plan and in 2001 adopted Historic District Guidelines. A Historic District Review Board administers the guidelines and oversees new construction and renovations in the Town’s Historic District.

There are many excellent examples of Victorian, Colonial Revival, Craftsman, and Neo-classical styles of homes in the Historic District. The oldest houses, dating from the 1880s to the early 1900s, are found in the center and eastern sections of the Historic District.

Most commercial land uses are concentrated in the historic downtown area along four blocks of Mason Avenue between Peach Street and Harbor Avenue, and along the first blocks of Strawberry Street and Peach Street where they intersect Mason Avenue. This downtown commercial core is characterized by the historic character of the buildings. Commercial activity consists of retail and service establishments and specialty shops catering to local and regional customers as well as tourists and visitors. Historic buildings make up the north side of Mason Avenue, while across the street is the railroad area and two retail stores. Sidewalks line the north side of Mason Avenue. The commercial area has historically developed with brick facades and a pedestrian orientation.

In 1992, the Town annexed 2,191 acres of land from Northampton County. Most of the property was owned by Brown and Root. Part of the property was also owned by Bayshore Concrete, a major manufacturer of prestressed and precast structural components. The annexed land’s proximity to the Chesapeake Bay and other nearby amenities made the area a prime location for a new residential community. In 1998, the Brown and Root property was sold to Baymark Construction for the creation of the Bay Creek development. Two large tracts of land, consisting of 1,750 acres surrounding the original Town, are currently being developed. As of July 2007, Bay Creek has completed approximately 10% of 3,000 planned residential units. Two upscale golf courses designed by Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus have also been constructed, as well as a marina and commercial areas.

An abundance of natural resources exist in Cape Charles. Critical wildlife habitats, such as wetlands and natural areas, are present within the Town’s boundaries and nearby. In addition to serving an important ecological function, the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries are important to the local economy and lifestyle. The Town’s concern for its natural resources is illustrated by projects such as the recent beach replenishment and the careful usage of ground water.

Today, Cape Charles is governed by a Mayor and Town Council, and is served by a Town Manager and 32 employees. The fiscal year 2008-2009 budget is approximately 2 million dollars. Town services include public water and wastewater treatment, a five officer police force, a library, public works, and financial and administrative staff. As Cape Charles enters a new era of revitalization, the Town seeks to preserve its historic character while growing to meet the modern needs of its citizens. Please browse the Town web site to learn more about Cape Charles.

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