Cape Charles, Va., has been working for years toward a comeback. Now, despite
a few rough edges, it's all starting to pay off.
by Wendy Mitman Clarke
photographs by Jay Paul
We're motor-sailing slowly off the long white beach at Cape Charles, Va., when the man in the nearby johnboat starts doing his Billy Graham. Sitting next to his dog, he raises his hands to the heavens and shouts, "Thank you, Lord!" Then, like all the rest of us out here, he watches the sun drop like an enormous cherry Tootsie Pop into the slate horizon. As it lowers it seems to flatten and squat, growing oblong, shimmering, transforming. It sinks until it's just a glimmer, then a neon blink. Then it's gone. Laura Lohse, who with her husband Greg owns the schoonerSerenity, on which we're sailing, has seen this hundreds of times. Yet she still shakes her head in appreciation. "Where else around here," she says, "do you get to see that?"
I can imagine Alexander Cassatt sitting on his horse in 1882 thinking the same thing. He had ridden the 65 miles from Pocomoke, Md., plotting out a railway route proposed by multimillionaire William L. Scott. The place he chose for the southeastern terminus of their railroad down the Delmarva Peninsula was little more than swamp and cornfields. But Cassatt saw potential here—a place where his trains could roll onto barges and steamboats and cross the broad mouth of the Chesapeake to Norfolk, Hampton Roads and beyond. Around the terminus he saw a community of tidy streets, handsome brick homes with broad porches, stores, theaters and schools that would grow to serve the railway. And he must have seen the sunset and felt his heart quicken at that last bright flicker (even while the mosquitoes probably gnawed him raw).
Cassatt's vision was sound; Cape Charles sprang up like sweet corn after a heavy rain. By 1925 about 2,500 people lived here, and the New York, Philadelphia and Norfolk Railroad (NYP&N, later part of the Pennsylvania Railroad) boomed, with 41 locomotives, 2,108 freight cars, 30 passenger cars and 33 ferries, tugboats and other vessels—all passing at one point or another through the rail yard and harbor paralleling Mason Avenue, Cape Charles's main street. You couldn't shop, dine or rest your bones in one of the glamorous hotels without seeing the trains and harbor that built the town; they were its focus and its pulse. Then, as transportation changed—the last steamer,Elisha Lee, left the harbor for the final time in 1953, and the Chesapeake Bay-Bridge Tunnel opened in 1964—it ended. Cape Charles was bypassed; it was, literally, sidetracked. Stores closed, people left and railroad tracks rusted, though some freight continued to travel through here (as it does today).
Still, some things—the heavenly sunsets across all that broad water, those handsome brick homes, that long fringe of beach facing west—remained. The dormant town waited. Location is still location after all. And, while it's clear that Cape Charles is still struggling back from its collapse, it now seems to have something it has lacked since those boom times: people who believe in its future.
"Cape Charles as a town is a spot where every opportunity can be realized," says Dave Burden, owner of the kayaking and retail shop Southeast Expeditions, as we watch the setting sun from the deck ofSerenity. "But there's a lot of untapped potential."
Burden first came here for a Fourth of July celebration while visiting his buddy from the University of Virginia—Bo Lusk, who ultimately became his business partner. "I fell in love with the place," Burden says. His and Lusk's original plan was to start a mobile expeditions business, offering trips and classes all over Virginia. "But we realized our best paddling trips were here," he says, so in 1999 they opened a kayaking and retail shop just south of the town at Sunset Beach Resort. Last year they opened their bright, vibrant, very hip store in Cape Charles. Burden is now on the Northampton County Chamber of Commerce and on the front lines of the zoning, planning, economic and cultural issues facing the town and its surrounding communities.
"Cape Charles is just starting to really experience a rebirth that it's been on the cusp of seemingly forever," Burden says. "There's been a great deal of progress made here in the last thirty years, but it seems slower because we were coming from so far behind."
As the evening grows dark, Laura Lohse guidesSerenitythrough the Kings Creek channel into Bay Creek Marina, part of the snazzy new residential and golf playground that surrounds Cape Charles to the north and south. The 120-slip marina is state-of-the-art and provides everything a visiting boater might need (except repairs) with its restaurants, beaches, pool, marine and fishing supply stores and clothing, art and gift shops. But the whole resort complex, created by Cape Charles native Dickie Foster, continues to be a prickly subject.
With its aggressively groomed grounds, decorative iron fences and residences in a multicolored Key-West-meets-Nantucket style, the place has earned the nickname "jellybean jungle" among some locals. And indeed, it does look like some kind of exotic garden—a garden of non-native species, that is. The most recent controversy surrounds Bay Creek's attempt to build a new road east of town so golf carts can travel from the residences on the north to the golf courses on the south and bypass downtown entirely. It's the kind of thing that makes people wonder if Bay Creek has actually provided Cape Charles the economic and cultural shot in the arm its backers pre-dicted—and, to some extent, promised—or if it's just looking out for itself.
Still, I'm ravenous and so are my kids, who've come with me on this visit (it's after nine by the timeSerenityties up), and the only place around that's still serving dinner on this Thursday night (not counting the Hardee's out on Route 13) is the Cabana Bar, right here at Bay Creek. For this I am immensely grateful. Despite air conditioning that's set on stun, the food is delicious and quickly served by a pleasant waitress. The view is lovely and the bar, with its sexy metro lighting, is fun and cosmopolitan. And the homemade blueberry pie and apple crisp . . . heck, I'd come back just for those.
When we leave, the sultry air wraps itself around us and the trilling of millions of frogs and peepers fills the otherwise quiet night. We climb into our land yacht, pass through the immaculate grounds of Bay Creek and travel the two blocks and hundred years or so back into Cape Charles itself, to the low-lit, tree-lined streets and funky Craftsman bungalows tucked behind sycamores, willow oaks and towering crape myrtles.
It occurs to me then that what Cape Charles reminds me of is a teenager—awkward yet charming, imperfect, at times contrary and difficult and then surprisingly delightful, undergoing great change and transition with all the conflict and stop-and-go struggle that entails.
We came here last summer, my family and I, during a southern Bay cruise aboard our sailboatLuna, and it wasn't the easiest visit. We'd called the dockmaster ahead of time and he told us to try Bay Creek Marina since no slips were available in the Town Harbor. We were worried about depth—
Lunadraws six-and-a-half feet—but when we called Bay Creek the cheerful voice on the other end of the line assured me they had seven feet at low tide. Well,
not. After bumping our way up to the mark to turn east toward the marina we were well and truly aground in a narrow channel, and not happy about it. The cheery voice said she'd send a boat to escort us in; I told her I didn't quite see how this would help unless it was a dredge barge.
So we backed off the sand and headed back to Cape Charles harbor—deep and safe, as long as you keep an eye out for the tugs and barges heading into Bayshore Concrete on the southern side and the occasional freight train barge on the northern. After a nervous night anchored in a buggy little armpit of a bight back by the Coast Guard station, we moved out toward the jetty at the harbor's entrance the next morning to deeper, cleaner water, a clearing breeze and a splendid view west.
With the exception of the Town Harbor—which is tucked as far back into the harbor as you can go—and the terrific new public boat ramps next to it, Cape Charles harbor is lined with concrete and old bulkheads. There are few welcoming edges; it's all hard, industrial, rough, a direct descendant of its past. But we could see a swatch of beach right next to a fishing pier under construction near the jetty, so I dinghied into it to hunt and gather. We were dead out of fresh vegetables and milk, and I was praying the grocery store on Mason Avenue was still open. Well,not, again; it was boarded up with a few straggly looking guys lurking in its shade. However, there was a gentleman with a minivan parked beneath a tree next to a huge prickly pear plant, and he appeared to be setting up a vegetable stand. . . .
His name was Sam Abraham and he told me how he delivered fresh produce to towns all over the lower Eastern Shore. I was in luck; Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning were his Cape Charles days. I bought zukes, pattypan squash, half a dozen ears of corn, red potatoes, cucumbers, and some oranges and nectarines (the fruit, he admitted, he'd bought at the store; all the rest he and his sons had grown).
From there I headed another half a block down the street to the B and B Quick Mart, where I stocked up on milk, bread, bacon, cheese, a bottle of wine and some Tastykakes for the kids. I was hoping to find a fly swatter too, but a large woman with long grayish hair said nope, no fly swatters. "We got the paper though," she said. "You can read it and then use it to swat 'em." So I bought the SundayVirginian Pilot, and it worked fine.
Most of the rest of that brief visit we spent at the public beach, just around the corner from our anchorage and a quick ride by dinghy. This is an amazing beach—clean, white, long and often nearly empty. A couple of sandbars make it easy for kids to wade safely a long way out; at low tide in the tidal pools between the bars the kids found a conch and piles of little shell-dwelling crabs. There's a small, tidy public bathroom at the southern end of the beach with two outdoor freshwater showers, and while we rinsed off there I met Dora Sullivan supervising her grandkids. She and her husband came to Cape Charles seven years ago from Virginia Beach and opened an office supply store. "I never want to leave," she told me—and she may not, because she was recently elected mayor.
I told her railroad towns always intrigued me; my grandfather was an engineer on the Pennsylvania Railroad. Later that evening, when Johnny and the kids returned to the beach, Sullivan gave him a fragment of cream-colored china with the garnet, Art Deco lettersPRRentwined in a keystone—the Pennsylvania Railroad's logo. It was a little piece of Cape Charles's past that she had found while beachcombing over the years, and she wanted me to have it.
And there it was, I thought, the nature of this place in a nutshell. If we had gotten into Bay Creek Marina, where we saw big powerboats and shoal-draft sailboats running in and out all day as we lounged on the beach, I probably wouldn't have met veggie man Sam Abraham or mayor-elect Dora Sullivan. The kids probably would have been swimming in a pool instead of finding critters in tidal ponds off the beach. It may have been immaculate and new, I wouldn't have had to worry about provisioning, and it certainly would have been a far more secure anchorage than our little spot at the edge of the harbor. But it wouldn't have been slightly quirky, a little difficult and, in its less than perfect state, quite real.
We've come back early this summer, this time just the kids and me in the land yacht, and we're staying at one of Cape Charles's wonderful bed-and-breakfasts. This one is Sea Gate, a block from the beach in a restored 1912 home that blends late Queen Anne, Victorian and Colonial Revival styles. The oleander and palms pressing against its wraparound porch give it a distinctly Carolina low-country feel. It's owned by Chris Bannon, a Norfolk native who moved here in 1987 from Connecticut and the following year opened the first B&B in town. "It's the most exciting town I've ever lived in, truthfully, if you get involved," he tells me over coffee on Friday morning after a delectable breakfast of French toast and fresh fruit. He acknowledges the debate over Bay Creek but says matter-of-factly: "If Bay Creek hadn't come here, Cape Charles would still be what it was when I got here—changing very, very slowly."
When Bannon moved here, real estate prices were, as he puts it, "ridiculous." There are many stories of people in the 1980s and early '90s buying the Colonial Revival, Neoclassical, Gothic Revival and Craftsman style homes for "a briefcase full of cash," as Dave Burden had told me the evening before. Many of the homes needed renovation, but they were still practically giving them away. All that started to change in the mid-'90s, and real estate speculation became both boon and bane. The problem was that most people bought properties as short-term investments, not to actually live here and participate in the community or its future.
"About five years ago the real estate prices went crazy," Bannon tells me. "Most of the houses you see in town for sale now have been flipped three or four times, and this last group got caught with their pants down, which is kind of nice. Some of the older people are making good money on their houses."
Burden says while the higher real estate values have driven up assessments and property taxes, they're also helping the town. Property is now a long-term investment, and people are beginning to buy to stay. "Even people who only spend part of the year here are getting far more involved in the community," he says.
This is true in the business end as well. As we walk downtown it's clear that things have picked up considerably, compared to what we saw last summer. There's a new Irish pub that everybody's talking about, in part because it's going to be open seven days a week with later hours. The Victorian style Cape Charles Hotel on Mason Avenue, built in 1884, has reopened after a three-year renovation that earned the seal of approval from the state's Department of Historic Resources. It now includes a restaurant, art gallery, historic photos and a library of Eastern Shore history. Several new coffeehouses and cafes have popped up, and down at the end of Mason Avenue is Southeast Expeditions' new store with its playful, colorful exterior and bright umbrellas, skim boards and kayaks out front.
The rail yard in front of Mason Avenue is also looking spiffier. The grass is neatly mowed and several of the old railcars in the yard are getting a fresh coat of sky-blue paint. This is the other big news; Dickie Foster of Bay Creek Marina recently purchased a 30-year lease on the Eastern Shore Railroad, which operated freight service between Pocomoke and Norfolk. Foster changed the name to Bay Coast Railroad, and along with continuing the freight run he's planning excursion passenger service (the Eastern Shore Railroad Museum is in nearby Parksley). He also bought the Onancock Carnival's rides and equipment and plans to move the carnival to a field (what is now the town baseball diamond) just east of the Town Harbor.
Town Harbor in fact, is where we're headed as we cruise down Mason Avenue to "the hump," the local name for the overpass first built in 1912 over the rail yards. It's worth a pause at the top to look west. From here—the highest point around for miles except for the water tower to the east, painted to replicate the 1893 Cape Charles Lighthouse on Smith Island—the town's layout is straightforward. The tracks stretch out below all the way to the main harbor's edge, broadening to sidetracks and sidings along the way. Mason Avenue's business district faces the tracks and harbor. Behind Mason the residential streets crisscross in their pragmatic grid, hidden in the trees. And beyond all of it is the Bay, sparkling benevolently.
We trundle down the hump and make the right turn into the harbor, where things are bustling. Watermen are offloading the morning's catch of crabs, fish and scallops, recreational anglers are launching boats at the ramps. And Harvey Wooster, the assistant dockmaster, is overseeing work on the latest addition—a brand new fuel dock and real bathrooms and showers. "It's past due by about a hundred years," Wooster tells me. A few years ago Cape Charles refurbished its pocket-size Town Harbor to make 51 slips, but that's pretty much where the amenities ended. Boaters had to make do with a portable toilet and little else but mosquitoes. The new addition isn't affixed to the dirt, per se—it's in a clean, well-lit, air-conditioned trailer, half of which is the dockmaster's office, the other half two showers and bathrooms. Still, it's a huge improvement.
Wooster came here last September from New York. There he had owned a retail wine and liquor store and a Trojan 36, but he wanted to retire. His wife had grown up in nearby Eastville, Va., so she said, let's go home. "This is a great little harbor, I was so impressed with it," he tells me. "I wish people were half as nice up in New York when I had my boat." (He sold the Trojan when he moved.) The ramp is always busy—"I come here at five in the morning and the place is full. They tell me it's the closest ramp to the [bridge-tunnel] which is where everybody fishes, probably twenty minutes for a small boat."
Like everyone else around here, Wooster weighs in on the debate over recent developments: "Cape Charles has changed a lot with Dickie Foster and in many respects it's good, everybody needs change," he says. "But the town is trying hard to balance it."
It's mid-afternoon by the time we finally get back to the beach. We park the land yacht under a shade tree on Mason Avenue and walk half a block to that alluring strip of sand. Offshore an LNG tanker lumbers south, its enormous profile unmistakable. The menhaden boats and spotter planes that were out this morning are gone. In the shallow green water, a mother bobs her baby while a pack of older kids splash around joyfully. The horizon here is huge, there's no end to it, no hint of the noise, highways and press of humanity on the other side of the Bay. I was planning to leave by now, but what the heck. It'll be sunset soon, and I wouldn't want to miss that.
Cruiser's Digest: Cape Charles, Va.
It's about 17 nautical miles from Old Point Comfort at the entrance to Hampton Roads to Cape Charles. Once across the Bay look for the 39-foot, 4-second flasher and accompanying flashing green "1" to the north that denote the entrance to the bar channel northeast. The channel into Cape Charles harbor is deep, straight and clearly marked; it's also routinely used by tugs and barges. At red "2" bear slightly north and follow the succession of marks until you see the jetty ahead. The harbor entrance is to starboard. Just inside to port is the new fishing pier near flashing green "11"; this is a cozy fair-weather anchorage as long as you tuck close enough to the beach to avoid the tugs and barges coming to the railroad freight pier.
To find the Town Harbor, continue eastbound in the main harbor until you see the public ramps to port and the Coast Guard station straight ahead. The Town Harbor entrance and fuel dock is to port past the ramps.
The approach to Bay Creek Marina is trickier and not for the deep-keeled faint of heart. Laura Lohse, who runs the schoonerSerenitythrough this channel routinely, does not recommend trying it for the first time at night since it's only partially lit and there's no room for error. "The good thing," she says about the shallow bottom, "is it's mud and it's soft." (
Serenitydraws 51/2 feet. Lohse says she has gotten her other excursion boat
Alliance, which draws 8 feet, in on a high tide).
Rather than turning east into Cape Charles harbor, continue north past the jetty and the town beach to starboard. Ahead you'll see green "1CB". Just south of this mark is a hump about 5 feet deep at low tide. "It's short," Lohse says, "but there's no real way to avoid it." After that hump the channel drops to between 11 and 13 feet MLW. Ahead to the north at red "2" and green "3" there's a sign pointing you east into Kings Creek channel; the colorful houses of Bay Creek are to starboard. You'll also see a red daymarker bearing northeast; disregard this as it's for the entrance to Cherrystone Inlet just to the north. After turning east at red "2" and green "3," hug the red marks (the southern side of the channel). A line of PVC poles with red tips helps keep you on the right track here. At low tide it's anywhere between 6 to 8 feet deep, but the channel is only about 60 feet wide and beyond it blue herons don't even get their knees wet. At red "6" there's a left jog of about 30 degrees to red "8" and green "7"; these unlit marks are at the narrowest part of the creek's entrance. To the north close aboard are the PVC pipes that mark Cherrystone Aquaculture farm, to the south is a beach. By now the marina is visible to the right. There's a slight right turn south at red "10" and 10 feet of water, and it's a straight, short shot here into Bay Creek Marina's floating docks.
Bay Creek Marina(757-331-8640,
www.baycreek.net) is the only marina in or near Cape Charles. It can take boats up to 150 feet and offers 30-, 50- and 100-amp power. There are two restaurants (Aqua Bar and Cabana Bar, 757-331-8659), a pool, shops, marine and fishing store, gas and diesel, showers, laundry, wireless and cable internet, paddleboat, kayak and bike rentals, and two 18-hole golf courses. No repair service.
Cape Charles Town Harbor(757-331-2357) has 71/2 feet MLW and transient slips for boats up to about 60 feet. There's diesel and gas, showers, bathrooms and a free launch ramp. Harvey Wooster, the town's assistant harbormaster, says if no slips are available it's fine to tie up to any open bulkhead.
Blue Sky Cafe (at Cape Charles Hotel, 757-331-4000); Cape Charles Coffee House (757-331-1880); The Chesapeake (757-331-3123); Harbor Grill (757-331-3005); Kelly's Gingernut Pub (757-331-3222); Rayfield's Pharmacy (757-331-1212); Veneto's Pizzeria (757-
Cape Charles Hotel (757-331-3130;www.cape charleshotel.com); Cape Charles House (757-331-4920;
www.capecharleshouse.com); Chesapeake Charm B&B (757-331-2676;
www.chesapeakecharmbnb.com); Sea Gate B&B (757-331-2206;
www.bbhost.com/seagate); Sterling House B&B (757-331-2483;