Cape Charles Va. is a gem on the Eastern Shore

August 29, 2018

Sometimes spontaneous moments are the best ones. My wife, Kathy, and I recently set out on a road trip to the Eastern Shore of Virginia to Chincoteague, Va., and nearby Assateague, places we have visited several times. On the drive south, we changed our minds and ended up in Cape Charles, Va., which is almost as far as you drive without going over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel.

It was a wise decision, because we now love the town.

It was the railroad that led to the development of Cape Charles in 1884. Congressman and railroad tycoon William Scott proposed a rail-sea line to Pennsylvania Railroad officials that would link the Eastern Shore with Norfolk. At that time, the railroad stopped at Pocomoke, Md.

Only Alexander Cassatt was interested. He resigned from the railroad and worked with Scott to bring the dream to reality. He personally laid out the 65-mile route and selected the southern terminus at Cape Charles. He dredged the harbor at his own expense, and in 1853 Scott purchased more than 2,600 acres of farm and timberland for $55,000. He laid out the town of about 135 acres in 644 lots, each 40-by-140 feet.

It didn't take long for the town to prosper as a true railroad town. Within six months of the first train, 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 City, and small towns along the rail line prospered as their farm produce could easily be shipped to northern cities.

It took another two years for the town to be incorporated as the economic center of Northhampton County with paved streets, electricity, central water and sewer and telephones.

At the town dock, trains and steamers exchanged passengers and freight until 1953. Freight service continues to this day with railroad barges towed across the Chesapeake Bay on barges – including one that brought the USS Missouri gun barrel to Lewes.

The dualization of Route 13 and increased trucking of goods with the opening of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel in 1964 hurt the town's economy.

But over the past few decades, it's seen a rebirth with a renewed interest in protecting the town's historic buildings and at the same time fine tuning its place as a tourist town. New restaurants and trendy shops are opening and the town has its first hard cider pub and brew pub, both opening this summer.

“The character of Cape Charles is being appreciated once again,” states a brochure from the Cape Charles Historical Society.

The town has continued to grow in size over the decades including an annexation in 1992 for the Bay Creek Resort and Club, a community of homes, restaurants, shops, marina and Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus signature golf courses. Oyster Farm at Kings Creek is a similar large development.

The main drawing card for the town is its pristine, pure white sandy beach, the only public beach on the western shore of the peninsula.

Among its accolades, the town was named by Southern Living Magazine as one of the top 10 small towns on the Chesapeake Bay and named by Travel magazine as one of the top 10 beaches on the East Coast. Incidentally that list also includes the nearby Virginia barrier islands and Assateague. Cape Henlopen State Park is also on the list.

Bayshore Concrete Products, located on a 90-acre site along the town's waterfront, is up for sale after the company announced it was closing by the end of the year. The company got it start in 1961 providing concrete for the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. The company, a subsidiary of Shanska, did not get a bid for concrete work on new tunnel construction.

What happens to that large parcel of land could have a major impact on the town. I have to believe that a big-time resort developer has to be eyeing the parcel unless there is major environmental clean up involved.


  • Ron MacArthur has lived and worked in Sussex County all his life. As a journalist for more than 40 years, he has covered everything from county and town meetings to presidential visits. He also has a unique perspective having served as an elected official and lived on both sides of the county.

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