Bay Coast Railroad

the Bay Cost Railroad floats rail cars across the water from the Eastern Shore to a railyard on Little Creek near the Norfolk International Airport
the Bay Cost Railroad floats rail cars across the water from the Eastern Shore to a railyard on Little Creek near the Norfolk International Airport
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

Chincoteague was the first Eastern Shore community to acquire a railroad connection. In 1876, the Worcester Railroad (which was controlled by the Pennsylvania Railroad) built the Delaware, Maryland and Virginia Railroad south from Snow Hill, Maryland. It ended at Franklin City, on the edge of Chincoteague Bay just south of the Maryland/Virginia boundary. The line served the Chincoteague area until 1955.1

In 1879, an article in Harper's New Monthly Magazine highlighted how the presence/absence of railroad connections shaped the economy and lifestyle of the northern part vs. the southern part of the Delmarva Peninsula:2

The northern part of the peninsula, along the line of the railroad which is the connecting link between it and the great cities north and south of it, has a progressive manufacturing community...

For sixty-five miles of the lower length of the peninsula there is no railroad, and that in a country rich in natural products, easy of cultivation, and delightful in climate; there are but few steam saw or grist mills in a region abounding in valuable timber, and where corn meal is the staff of life; there are no steamboat lines on the Atlantic side, and but few on the Chesapeake, where almost the only means of being reached from the outside world is by water travel.

Thus the southern peninsula, the garden spot of the country, to whose shore Nature seems to have invited man by every bounty she could lavish upon 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 which separates it from outside modern life, and undesirous of joining in the race toward the wonderful future.

the Delaware, Maryland and Virginia Railroad (in red) reached Franklin City in 1876, providing an outlet for shipping seafood from Chincoteague to customers in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York
the Delaware, Maryland and Virginia Railroad (in red) reached Franklin City in 1876, providing an outlet for shipping seafood from Chincoteague to customers in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York
Source: David Rumsey Map Collection, Cram's Railroad & County Map Of Virginia, W. Virginia, Maryland & Delaware

Another rail line - the New York, Philadelphia and Norfolk Railroad - built 66 miles of track through Accomack County to near the southern tip of Northampton County in 1884. That railroad was organized by a former Pennsylvania Railroad executive, who saw the opportunity of extending that railroad's line beyond Pocomoke, Maryland to tap into potential freight and passenger business on Virginia's Eastern Shore.3

The New York, Philadelphia and Norfolk Railroad provided direct railroad connections to Maryland, Delaware, and points north. Rail was a more cost-effective way to ship compared to steamboat, even for some coastline communities. Improved access to markets spurred an Eastern Shore boom in seafood, lumber, and farm produce exports (especially potatoes) to northern cities:4

In the early twentieth century Accomack and Northampton became the richest agricultural counties in the United States. Opportunity kept young people on the peninsula and attracted new settlers. Between 1870 and 1910 the combined population of the two counties grew by 87 percent.

the New York, Philadelphia and Norfolk Railroad (in blue) was built south from Pocomoke City and connected the entire length of the Eastern Shore of Virginia to the national railroad network, unlike the Delaware, Maryland and Virginia Railroad (in red) built earlier from Snow Hill to just Chincoteague Bay
the New York, Philadelphia and Norfolk Railroad (in blue) was built south from Pocomoke City and connected the entire length of the Eastern Shore of Virginia to the national railroad network, unlike the Delaware, Maryland and Virginia Railroad (in red) built earlier from Snow Hill to just Chincoteague Bay
Source: Library of Congress, Transportation lines of Chesapeake Bay serving the port of Baltimore MD (1926)

The location of the railroad also triggered growth of the communities in the middle of the peninsula, away from the shoreline. The initial nine railroad stations were expanded to include eleven more; most communities on Route 13 today were spurred originally by the railroad. Melfa was named after a railroad official. Parksley, home of the Eastern Shore Railway Museum now, was planned by the Parksley Land and Improvement Company as a railroad town in 1885. Its Victorian architecture reflects the time the railroad was constructed.5

The locations of the railroad stations, in the center of the Delmarva peninsula, reflect the topography of the Eastern Shore. The rail line was designed to follow the watershed divide between the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. That route minimized the expense of bridging various creeks at the price of bypassing the coastal towns already established by the 1880's.

One impact of the railroad was to transform the existing Eastern Shore road network, which had developed since colonial times:6

Before the coming of the railroad, the Eastern Shore's road pattern had resembled a grid with the north to south roads (known as the seaside, middle, and bayside roads) crossing those running east to west from sea to bay. Now it more closely resembled a sequential series of webs emanating from each of the railroad towns. So intricate had the pattern become that an architectural historian writing in the 1970s mistakenly attributed its origin to medieval England.

No railroad bridge was feasible for crossing the Chesapeake Bay and connecting to the south. To connect to Norfolk and points south, a barge ("car float") carried railroad cars acoss the Chesapeake Bay. On the Eastern Shore, the railroad dredged a new landing and laid out the new town of Cape Charles, dividing 136 acres into 644 parcels.7

the Town of Cape Charles is 11 miles north of the Cape Charles tip of the Delmarva Peninsula
the Town of Cape Charles is 11 miles north of the "Cape Charles" tip of the Delmarva Peninsula
Source: Cape Charles Comprehensive Plan Update, Map 1 - Location of Cape Charles

Initially, the barge floated railroad cars south to Portsmouth (Port Norfolk). The new railroad had difficulty getting other Hampton Roads railroads to interchange and transfer loads on rail cars to other destinations, or to ship cargo north by rail rather than steamship.

The resistance came in part from inter-railroad rivalries, and in part because those old railroads had financial interests in the steamships that traditionally carried traffic north. In 1898, the New York, Philadelphia and Norfolk Railroad orchestrated the creation of the Norfolk & Portsmouth Belt Line Railroad, a "neutral" terminal switching company that interchanged rail cars between the various competing railroads near the Elizabeth River and still operates in south Hampton Roads.8

In 1929, the New York, Philadelphia and Norfolk Railroad moved its southern connection to a landing on Little Creek, located at that time in Princess Anne County. The shift reduced the length of the water transportation to the current 26 miles between the Town of Cape Charles to the landing on Little Creek. Four miles of track are located on the railroad's southern end, through Virginia Beach and Norfolk. That short stretch connects the Little Creek landing to the Norfolk and Portsmouth Belt Line, which provides connections to the Norfolk Southern and CSX railroads.9

The town of Cape Charles thrived until passenger cars and trucks replaced use of the railroad after World War II. The passenger ferry to Norfolk moved its landing to Kiptopeke Beach in 1950, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel opened in 1964, and the Pennsylvania Railroad (which controlled the New York, Philadelphia, and Norfolk railroad after 1920) merged into Penn Central and went bankrupt in 1970.

When Conrail, the successor to Penn Central, prepared to abandon the track south of Pocomoke, Northampton and Accomack counties purchased the track. The counties operated the Virginia & Maryland Railroad on that stretch, including the car float to Virginia Beach, to provide rail service. In 1981 the counties transferred operating rights to the Eastern Shore Railroad. In 2005, the counties switched operators again to the Bay Coast Railroad.10

the Bay Coast Railroad (highlighted in yellow) curves from the middle of the Delmarva Peninsula to a carfloat in the Town of Cape Charles, on the Chesapeake Bay side of the Eastern Shore
the Bay Coast Railroad (highlighted in yellow) curves from the middle of the Delmarva Peninsula to a carfloat
in the Town of Cape Charles, on the Chesapeake Bay side of the Eastern Shore
Source: US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), Wetlands Mapper

In 2010, the Bay Coast Railroad stopped operating the car float when structural weaknesses were identified in the barge. Some cargo was carried via truck across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, in the short run. In 2010, after finding $1 million in funding ($700,000 in state funds and a $300,000 match provided by Accomack and Northampton counties/Bay Coast Railroad), the barge was repaired and the car float service restored.11

Links

the Bay Coast Railroad (formerly known as the Eastern Shore Railroad) barges rail cars to Little Creek, and the ESRR rail line through Virginia Beach connects to CSX and Norfolk Southern railroads
the Bay Coast Railroad (formerly known as the Eastern Shore Railroad) barges rail cars to Little Creek, and the "ESRR" rail line through Virginia Beach connects to CSX and Norfolk Southern railroads
Source: Norfolk & Portsmouth Belt Line Railroad Map

References

1. "History of Franklin City, Virginia," GreenbackvilleVA.org, http://greenbackvilleva.org/Franklin_City_History.html; William G. Thomas III, Brooks Miles Barnes, Tom Szuba, "Oystering" in "The Countryside Transformed: The Eastern Shore of Virginia, the Pennsylvania Railroad, and the Creation of a Modern Landscape," Southern Spaces, July 31, 2007, http://www.southernspaces.org/2007/countryside-transformed-eastern-shore-virginia-pennsylvania-railroad-and-creation-modern-landsc (last checked June 8, 2013)
2. Howard Pyle, "A Peninsular Canaan," Harper's New Monthly Magazine, Volume 58 Issue 348 (May 1879), pp.803-804, http://ebooks.library.cornell.edu/h/harp/harp.1879.html, digitized in "The Making of America, Cornell University, http://ebooks.library.cornell.edu/cgi/t/text/pageviewer-idx?c=harp;cc=harp;rgn=full%20text;idno=harp0058-6;didno=harp0058-6;view=image;seq=0811;node=harp0058-6%3A1 (last checked June 8, 2013)
3. "History of the Rail Line," Bay Coast Railroad, http://www.baycreekrailway.com/history.html (last checked June 8, 2013)
4. "The Countryside Transformed: The Railroad and the Eastern Shore of Virginia, 1870-1935," Virginia Center for Digital History, http://www2.vcdh.virginia.edu/eshore/topic.php (last checked June 8, 2013)
5. Eastern Shore Railway Museum, http://www.easternshorerailwaymuseum.org/; Chris Dickon, Eastern Shore Railroad, p.8, p.25, http://books.google.com/books?id=MumqjoJHEsUC (last checked June 8, 2013)
6. William G. Thomas III, Brooks Miles Barnes, Tom Szuba, "The Countryside Transformed: The Eastern Shore of Virginia, the Pennsylvania Railroad, and the Creation of a Modern Landscape," Southern Spaces, July 31, 2007, http://www.southernspaces.org/2007/countryside-transformed-eastern-shore-virginia-pennsylvania-railroad-and-creation-modern-landsc (last checked June 8, 2013)
7. "History of Cape Charles," Town of Cape Charles, http://www.capecharles.org/history.htm (last checked June 8, 2013)
8. "The New York, Philadelphia and Norfolk," Railroad Age Gazette, Volume 45, Issue 10, pp.682-683, August 7, 1908, http://books.google.com/books?id=GWQgAQAAMAAJ&pg=PA682; Amy Waters Yarsinske, The Elizabeth River, The History Press, 2007, p.281, http://books.google.com/books?id=SlyhjXcK17wC&pg=PA281 (last checked June 8, 2013)
9. "New York, Philadelphia and Norfolk Railroad (NYP&N)," Norfolk, Virginia History, http://www.norfolkhistory.com/ngnypnrrhist.htm (last checked June 8, 2013)
10. "History of the Rail Line," Bay Coast Railroad, http://www.baycreekrailway.com/history.html (last checked June 8, 2013)
11. "Bay Coast RR Car Barge Set to Resume Service," Port of Virginia, December 7, 2010, http://blog.portofvirginia.com/my-blog/2010/12/bay-coast-rr-car-barge-set-to-resume-service.html (last checked June 8, 2013)


Railroads of Virginia
Eastern Shore
Virginia Places