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Small Towns of Virginia Series - Cape Charles

The Pavilion Gazebo is the centerpiece of Cape Charles Pier and Boardwalk
Once the hub of all of Virginia's Eastern Shore transportation modes, Cape Charles today is a quieter  shadow of its once hustling self adjusting to find a new niche along the Eastern Shore.  Located approximately 11 miles north of the southern tip of the Delmarva Peninsula, Cape Charles was founded in the mid-1880s when a Pennsylvania Congressman by the name of William L. Scott purchased the land for a sum of $55,000.  The reason for the purchase was that the location was to be the southern terminus of the Delmarva branch of the New York, Philadelphia and Norfolk Railroad.  Immediately after tracks were laid ferry service began transporting passengers, freight, and mail to the mainland in Norfolk; but just as importantly, commerce from the urban areas in the North.  To some Cape Charles was a southern expansion of its Northern brethren as the town was a complete opposite of the sleepy agricultural villages along the peninsula.

The Palace Theatre (1941) was once the regular home of the 'Miss Virginia' pageant

The early days of the automobile era added to the prosperity of the town.  The automobile ferry "Virginia Lee" began operation in 1928 and within five years three round trip excursions occurred daily.  Also, a second ferry to Ocean View began operation.  In the years after the Second World War, it is estimated over two million people a year passed through Cape Charles.  The ferries were a key part of the Ocean Highway, a highly publicized route from New York to Florida.  The image at right shows the Cape Charles Ferry and how it was the key connection from the Peninsula to Norfolk.  However, this brief period would be the peak of Cape Charles role as the Eastern Shore's transportation hub.  In 1950, the Virginia Ferry Corporation moved the ferry terminal six miles to the south to Kiptopeake Beach.  The automobile ferry era on the peninsula would end fourteen years later when the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel opened and provided a continuous link between the Eastern Shore and the Mainland.  The town received another blow in 1953 when passenger rail service was discontinued.  The town still serves as a ferry terminal for freight rail.  But the lost of passenger revenue, auto and rail, has removed the once "City of Cape Charles" from a gateway to the industrial North and transformed it to a quiet fishing, agricultural, and tourism driven town like many of its sister Eastern Shore communities.


The Harbor Grille, an example of Cape Charles redefining itself.
Today, Cape Charles is a village .  Its downtown has emerged from the shadows of its bustling heyday.  This rebirth is anchored by the Hotel Cape Charles, a boutique hotel that has attracted many new visitors into town.  Meanwhile, the residential areas of the town glow in the charm of the Eastern Shore's laid-back atmosphere.  Many homes are nearly 100 years old with a good number dating back to the turn of the 20th century.  Many of these older homesteads have joined the cottage industry of Bed & Breakfast's.  Others are sought out for summer and year-round homes.  Much of the town has been designated a 'Historic District' which has added to the town's new 'tourist' charm.

One of the many older homes of Cape Charles.
To get to Cape Charles, take US 13 from either direction and take VA 184 (Old US 13).  This road will take you directly into the town.  US 13 has many modern amenities (gas and food).  Also, the Tidewater area is only a 30-45 minute drive to the south via US 13 and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel.

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