Chris Dickon

Eastern Shore Railroad

Introduction

It wasn’t until the 1960s that the sum total of all of the world’s bridge-building technology could accomplish what Alexander Cassatt had accomplished with the railroad and maritime engineering of his day in 1884. Soon after the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel opened its 17.6 miles of length across the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay on April 15, 1964 it was deemed “One of the Seven Engineering Wonders of the Modern World”. It took cars, trucks and buses across thirteen miles of trestle and four miles of tunnels from Cape Charles at the tip of Virginia’s Eastern Shore to Virginia Beach and Norfolk on the southern shore of the Bay. And it made obsolete much of what Cassatt had created 180 years earlier – a small railroad with a remarkable audacity.

Cassatt was a wealthy railroad magnate. He would later go on to head the Pennsylvania Railroad, build the railroad tubes beneath the Hudson River, then Manhattan’s classic Pennsylvania Station on Eighth Avenue. But in 1882 he had looked at a map of America’s east coast and seen the solution to a geographic puzzle: how do you create a direct rail link from the northern commercial hub of New York City down to the southern commercial hub of Norfolk? The two cities were less than 500 miles apart, but there was that 18 miles of open water to be crossed at the journey’s end – not just any stretch of water, but roiling tidal water, the point at which the great Atlantic Ocean met the nation’s largest natural estuary.

The task could have gone undone, after all. Virginia’s Eastern Shore had been a geographic cul de sac since its first settling in the early 1600s. In 1879 an article in “Harper’s New Monthly Magazine” said of the Shore that “it appears to be cut loose from the rest of the world, sleepily floating in the indolent sea of the past, incapable of crossing the gulf that separates it from modern life, and undesirous of joining in the race toward the wonderful future.” That future was one in which post Civil War America was ready to develop its industry and agriculture, to trade between once antagonistic states and export its bounty to the rest of the world. The population and commerce on America’s mid-Atlantic coast was developing exponentially, but because the portions of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia that formed the Delmarva Peninsula were surrounded on three sides by water eastern population followed a bypassing arc from Baltimore, inland to Richmond, and down the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay.

Cassatt saw it differently, and in 1882 he got on a horse, laid out a route for a railroad and determined the location for a port from which the railroad would continue by barge and passenger steamers to the port of Norfolk. The site he chose was described by one historian as “a cornfield beside a brackish pond.” But Cassatt figured it would be the most practical tidal harbor with closest access to the deep waters of the Bay, and so it was there that the town of Cape Charles was built from scratch and put in business.

Cape Charles proved to be not just another small American town. As Cassatt intended, it became the point of intersection between land and sea; industry, agriculture and the aquaculture of the surrounding waters; and the north and south of postwar America. In the years since 1884 the railroad and the town that gave it access to the sea have ridden all of the ups and downs, booms and busts, and transportation trends of American history up to the present day. The era of the passenger steamers across the Bay has long since ended, motor vehicle traffic that parallels the railroad has increased, the town of Cape Charles is always redefining itself, and the railroad still travels down the Shore and across the Bay, but, like many small railroads, never quite certain of what its future holds.

Selected Works

History
Coming mid-2017. A biography of the World War I American poet killed in action with the French Foreign Legion on July 4, 1916.
A survey of American war dead still buried abroad since the Revolutionary War.
A sailing USN frigate, now a watermill in England: . . . a gem of a book. Virginian Pilot, Norfolk.
"Readers seeking untold tales of dedicated Americans serving under foreign flags during the world wars will read this book avidly, wondering perhaps why they’re learning about these adventures for the first time."
At the end of the 19th century an audacious railroad sets sail across the Chesapeake Bay.