A Brief History

The Town of Cape Charles was laid out in 1884 to be the southern terminus of the newly formed New York, Philadelphia & Norfolk (NYP&N) Railroad and the transfer point to elegant steamers traveling across the Bay to Norfolk. The town was a busy place for many years: four trains a day from NY, with automobile ferries added in 1931.  But in 1950 the ferries moved to Kiptopeke Terminal seven miles south; Pennsylvania RR steamer service ceased in 1953, passenger trains in 1958.  Freight passage via the link to tug and railroad barge continues to this day in one of the few such operations in the United States.

The architecture of Cape Charles houses has surprising aesthetic and historic interest thanks to a wide variety of styles and gingerbread ornamentation on the older houses.  There are also fine examples of Sears Roebuck mail order houses from the 1920s.  A walk or bike ride through Cape Charles is a good complement to a Museum visit. Walking Tour Brochures are available at the Museum.

Built by  the Eastern Shore Public Service Company in 1947 to house two diesel powered electric generators and subsequently  acquired by Delmarva Power, the Museum Building served as a peaking unit facility into the 1980s.  One of the engines, a 16 1/2″ bore Busch-Sulzer diesel fuel injection model, remains in the building as a permanent exhibit.  It has been re-engineered to run as a demonstration unit, and the motion of the pistons and crankshaft can be viewed through Plexiglas windows.


The diesel which fueled the engines was delivered by rail from the line which runs behind the Museum. Freight trains still pass by to be loaded on barges at the railroad dock in Cape Charles Harbor and drawn by tug across the Bay to Little Creek in Norfolk, as implemented by Alexander Cassatt and William Scott, the town’s 19th century founders. Scott, a wealthy Pennsylvania rail and coal magnate and close associate of Grover Cleveland, created a large and successful truck farm beside the new town.  This farm is now the Bay Creek development and golf course.

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1902 Baldwin Locomotive at Cape Charles

Alexander Cassatt was the brother of Mary Cassatt, the noted American Impressionist painter who spent most of her life in France.  Following his stint on the Eastern Shore, Cassatt rejoined the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1899 as president and introduced a number of technical innovations including the introduction of the air brake.  His crowning achievement was the construction of the Pennsylvania Terminal in Manhattan, which required tunneling under the Hudson River.  Unfortunately he did not live to see its completion, and the terminal was razed in the 1960s replaced by the Madison Square Garden complex.

The Society’s locomotive and six historic railroad cars are now located on the Museum siding, following the 2002 construction of a connecting switch to the Eastern Shore Railroad line.  You can now visit our historic railway freight car display! We have on site a heavily modernized 1956 General Motors GP 9 diesel Locomotive, Nickle Plate Railroad caboose, Richmond Fredericksburg and Potomac Baggage car, former GATX (General American Transportation Corporation) Tanker, mid-century short boxcar, 1953 army surplus flatcar, and mid-1930s steam-era short-sided gondola car. The former Bloxom passenger station, dating from the early 1900s and donated to the Society in 1999, has been reconstructed just east of the Museum building. The pilot house of the Captain Edward Richardson railroad carfloat barge will also make a permanent home on the Museum site in May of 2019.

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Ferry DelMarVA – 1940s or 50s

Exhibits and Collections: The Historical Society has a rich collection of early postcards, photographs, timetables, documents, and objects which encompass the beginnings of Cape Charles in the 1880s, its houses, churches, schools, harbor and beachfront, commercial enterprises, railroad, ferries, barges, and ships.

Local history is presented via “story boards” and models of Eastern Shore sailing vessels, steamers, workboats, barges, and ferries; railroad china, switch locks; Indian artifacts; school memorabilia including a 3-foot megaphone used at 1950s football games. An exhibit from the Museum’s “Country Store Collection” features a set of old hand tools. Visitors may also learn about the Chesapeake Bay Impact crater, the largest in the U.S., created 35 million years ago, including  a collection of rocks from the 1 mile core sample taken near Cape Charles in 2005, and a number of handouts from the USGS.  Google “Chesapeake Bay crater” and you will find lots more about it.

The Arlington Foundation Home Site and Custis Tombs: Of important historic interest is the site a few miles south of Cape Charles of a large 17th century house originally built by the Custis family.  Now owned by the Arlington Foundation and the subject of several archeological digs, the site is open to visitors; artifacts and a model of the house have been assembled into an exhibit permanently housed at the Museum.

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Potato Buyers at Arlington Inn, Cape Charles – July 4, 1912
Other Resources.  The Museum has a small shop with Eastern Shore postcards, books and other items, including DVDs of a 1947 film entitled, “The Story of Mr. Hobbs.”  This was the last film of Nell Shipman, a notable Canadian silent film actress and producer of the early 1900s, and it was shot in Cape Charles, giving us an animated portrait of the town in mid 20th century.  Among the books are many by local authors providing history and travel information for the area.  In its welcome center role, the Museum stocks brochures and maps to assist travelers, as well as handouts on a variety of subjects. Museum workers are knowledgeable and always ready to help and advise.

To explore a large and growing collection of online Eastern Shore archival photographs, go to the website of the Eastern Shore Public Library,  http://www.espl.org

As part of its mission, the Society collects and records memories of older residents and notable events.  Fifteen interviews have been transcribed, and are available for reading at the Museum.  Digital copies may also be requested: please send an email to capecharlesmuseum@gmail.com We welcome donations of documents, artifacts, postcards, etc. related to the history of the area.