CAPE CHARLES — The little town of Cape Charles on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay is about as far away from Roanoke as you can go without leaving Virginia. It’s nearly 300 miles distant, farther than Charlotte, Knoxville, or Washington, D.C. But there’s more than a little Roanoke in Cape Charles — 350,000 pounds of it to be exact.
It’s in the form of a 83-feet long Pullman car, a 12-wheel, vintage-1950 classic that two Roanoke railroad men, Chuck Rickman and his brother-in-law Cecil Doss, rescued from the Norfolk Southern scrapyard and converted into a three-bedroom fishing cabin back in the early 1990s. They wanted everyone to know where it was from so they also named and re-lettered it: “Southern Comfort / Roanoke VA.” Now, the old coach is on the move again.
Cape Charles is near the southern tip of the Eastern Shore, the long peninsula that divides the bay from the Atlantic Ocean. It’s on the bay side, several miles north of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel to Norfolk. The Eastern Shore seems an unlikely place for a railroad. Then, I learned that for many years, trains from points north came down a 70-mile long line to Cape Charles, where freight and passenger cars were rolled off the tracks at the harbor and onto barges for the trip across the bay to Norfolk, then rolled back onto the tracks. I visited Cape Charles last fall and was intrigued when I noticed “Roanoke, VA” on the old two-tone blue passenger coach on the outskirts of town.
Like Roanoke, the town of Cape Charles was established by railroad investors who built the railroad in the 1880s. “The purpose was to connect Philadelphia to the Deep South via Norfolk and to compete with steamboats for freight,” wrote Charles S. Landis in The History of Virginia’s Eastern Shore. The old railroad yard is only a few steps from the Cape Charles harbor, the town, and the bay itself: an ideal place to locate a railroad coach converted into a fishing cabin.
“If I had a dollar for every time I sat with a cup of coffee and watched the sun rise over all those boats, I’d be a rich man,” Rickman told the Eastern Shore Post last year. How the coach got to the Cape Charles harbor and where it’s going next make quite a tale.
Doss and Rickman found the old Pullman coach in the Roanoke scrapyard of their employer. Norfolk & Western was merged with the Southern Railroad in the early 1980s and agreed to sell it to them for scrap value. They rolled it to the rail yard of the Roanoke chapter of the National Historical Railroad Society, near Ninth Street, where they remodeled it, keeping as many of the original fittings as possible. It still has its original doors, hardware, air gauge and water tank, for example. It already had a gas main and they partitioned off three bedrooms and added showers and a forced air gas furnace. “It’s solid, it’s a good car,” Rickman told Cardinal News earlier this month.
Rickman downplays the work involved but they still had to get the car to the Eastern Shore. So the railroad agreed to pull it behind a coal train across the state from Roanoke to Norfolk, where it was loaded on a barge at Little Creek and floated about 25 miles across the bay. Bay Coast Railroad officials let Rickman and Doss park the massive car in the old train yard between downtown Cape Charles and the harbor, just behind Main Street. They got away from Roanoke, sometimes with family and friends, as often as they could for 30 years of good fishing and good times and beautiful views. “We thoroughly enjoyed that car, right on the water,” said Rickman, now retired from track maintenance, who eventually bought the car from his brother-in-law.
While the actual geographic Cape Charles at the tip of the Eastern Shore is nearby, the town itself didn’t exist until 1884 when the developers of the New York, Philadelphia, and Norfolk Railroad saw an opportunity for quicker transport of goods to Norfolk. By the early 1900s, up to 300 rail cars a day were uncoupled and rolled onto barges at Cape Charles, floated across the bay, and rolled back onto the tracks in Norfolk. The railroad employed 2,000 people. By 1930 the Eastern Shore Produce Exchange, had agents in more than 600 cities dealing its potatoes and other produce, all shipped by the railroad, according to The History of the Virginia Eastern Shore.
“ … Cape Charles bustled with activity for years. With four trains a day from New York and barges and two or three passenger steamers (later ferries) crossing back and forth, the town was a profitable intermodal transportation hub. Jobs on the trains, steamers, and the large railroad maintenance yard were plentiful and well paying, drawing new residents,” reported the Eastern Shore Post a few years ago.
Cape Charles foundered when the railroad, ferry and barge traffic dwindled after the bridge tunnel opened in 1964. People moved away and homes and buildings became rundown. Today, it’s rebounded into something of a Mayberry At The Shore, a quaint little town featured on HGTV with many restored houses, a nice park, shops, and a thriving tourism trade. Some of the old homes are two-story early 20th century houses with long porches like those in Roanoke. Many are smaller two-story Victorian duplexes where the railroad workers once lived. Some have been renovated, not rebuilt, and turned into vacation rentals. We stayed in one of those: The interior was completely updated, the steps to the upstairs were refinished but still worn and slanted.
The original part of town was laid out on a perfect grid by engineers who surveyed 164 acres of corn fields into 644 equal lots. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places. The streets are named for Virginia presidents and statesmen including Henry Tazewell. (Tazewell is the namesake of the county in Southwest Virginia on the West Virginia line, even farther away from Cape Charles than Roanoke. He was a member of the House of Burgesses, the House of Delegates, and then the U.S. Senate in the late 1700s.)
Not everything there is railroad-related. A new development, Bay Creek, with a golf course, marina, and large modern houses is outside the historic district. A cement plant is across the Cape Charles harbor from the old downtown. Nearby Kiptopeke State Park has a Cape Charles address. The Savage Neck Natural Area Preserve isn’t far away, named for the first white settler of the Eastern Shore, Thomas Savage, an interpreter for the Jamestown Colony and friend of the local Native Americans who gave him land there in the early 1600s.
Rickman, Doss, and the owners of another renovated coach nearby, the Philadelphia Star, had a ringside seat to the revival of Cape Charles. From the railroad yard, they saw golf carts become a preferred method of transportation in the historic downtown, and the old coaches were something of a tourist attraction themselves. Doss and Rickman sometimes had their dinner interrupted by people knocking on the door, and they maintained a guest book with signatures from all over the world. None of this revived the fortunes of the Bay Coast Railroad. With the town’s resurgence, the old yard with its outdated passenger cars and engines was regarded as something of an eyesore. Rickman realized the party might be over for the Southern Comfort “when they started building those brick condos. I thought, ‘if I came down here and built a new condo and had to look at these cars, I believe I’d do something about it.”
Nonetheless, new railroad owners told Rickman he could keep his car in place. “The next thing I know I was getting a letter from a lawyer saying they wanted the car off the property.” He was not happy about being instructed to move a behemoth like the Southern Comfort within 30 days but he got busy and the Pullman coach began its not-quite-final journey a couple of years ago. Turns out the owners of the Philadelphia Star own a 400-acre farm near Cape Charles. They worked out a deal with Rickman for him to move both cars, and in return, to park the Southern Comfort there permanently with their car.
First, the railroad pushed the cars to tracks behind the Cape Charles brewery a few miles away. That wasn’t ideal, especially when the cars began to attract beverage-imbibing curiosity seekers, so last fall Rickman used a backhoe to push them farther along the tracks headed out of town to another temporary location. There, the real work began: He built six sections of tracks and ties, each 33 feet long, on moveable (by crane) platforms. He bought some lumber in Roanoke, bought the ties in Cape Charles, towed his air compressor to the site, and got some rails from the railroad. In something of an understatement, Rickman said, “It was a job.” The first crane he hired wasn’t powerful enough to do the job, so he found a bigger one.
He moved the track sections into place on the farm, three for each car, but then the crane broke down. It has been repaired and Rickman is ready to resume the operation this spring. That will involve unattaching the “trucks” — the car’s wheels and axles — from the chassis. The crane will lift the body of the coach off and the trucks will be moved to the farm first. Then, the crane will lift the car itself and lower one end onto the rear of a tractor-trailer (without the trailer), with the other end supported by a wheeled dolly. Then the whole thing will travel 2.5 miles to its “final resting place,” as Rickman calls it. The process will be repeated for the Philadelphia Star. Part of the route includes U.S. 13, the main highway on the Eastern Shore, and Rickman joked that the operation would be “the biggest thing in Cape Charles that day.”
The final step will be lowering the cars onto the wheel trucks and attaching them. I said this sounded like a good way to lose a finger or a hand and the railroad veteran chuckled and replied, “Been quite a few of them lost that way.” (Not his though). A native of Buchanan, Rickman went to work for Norfolk & Western after he graduated from James River High School and stayed with the railroad until he retired a few years ago after 39 years: “It was a good living.” He lives in the Garden City section of Roanoke with his wife, Darlene.
Rickman said he was thinking of repainting the Southern Comfort in the old N&W brown, and mentioned several times how glad he was to find a “final resting” place for the car. But he sounds more than a little wistful about the loss of the great location on the bay, a prime fishing spot. After driving five hours from Roanoke, he said, all he had to do was get bait, get a cooler, and get on the boat, a 24-foot Sea Ox — a solid, tough craft, just like the Southern Comfort. As for the old railroad itself, the latest owner is removing all the tracks down the Eastern Shore to sell the steel, and the path will be turned into a rails-to-trails bikeway.