|Photograph by Jay Paul|
Cape Charles, Va., has been working for years toward a comeback. Now, despite a few rough edges, it’s all starting to pay off.
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 schooner Serenity, 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?"
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).
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).
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.
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 of Serenity.
"But there's a lot of untapped potential."
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.
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."
the evening grows dark, Laura Lohse guides Serenity through 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.
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 predicted - and, to some extent, promised -
or if it's just looking out for itself.
I'm ravenous and so are my kids, who've come with me on this visit
(it's after nine by the time Serenity ties 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.
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
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.
came here last summer, my family and I, during a southern Bay cruise
aboard our sailboat Luna, 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 - Luna draws 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.
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.
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. . . .
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).
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 Sunday Virginian Pilot, and
it worked fine.
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
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 letters PRR entwined 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.
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.
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
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.
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."
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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."
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."
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.