By Stefanie Jackson
The former New York, Philadelphia and Norfolk Railroad (NYP&N) in Cape Charles has been ear-marked for historic preservation and economic resurgence by railroad enthusiasts John Paffrath and Roger Malick of the nonprofit New York, Philadelphia and Norfolk Railroad Resurrection.
The duo from across the Bay have received positive feedback on their ideas from Cape Charles residents, including 160 petition signatures collected in one week.
The railroad organization recently sought support from the Cape Charles town council and the Accomack-Northampton Transportation District Commission.
Their first goal is to establish a Cape Charles trolley system starting at the beach and ending in Cheriton, attracting tourists and locals alike.
The plan is to start out small to see if a new rail system can be economically successful.
But first the group must acquire the rights to use the tracks. “We have to secure the tracks at all costs. All bets are off if there’s no train tracks,” Paffrath said. Some existing tracks would remain, particularly those near the harbor and along its perimeter. Many tracks on the parcel between the harbor and Mason Avenue (the town’s commercial main street) would be removed. Those tracks would be reused to extend the rail line to Cape Charles beach, if permitted by developers building on the land.
Rearranging the tracks and leasing or purchasing a trolley will constitute the project’s first phase.
The trolley would be a propane-electric hybrid to keep pollution at a mini-mum, Malick said.
He recommended a double-decker trolley so tourists could ride on the upper deck in fair weather.
A future project phase could include reconstructing the railway turntable (traditionally used to turn a train around on the track to make a return trip) as an additional tourist attraction.
There is also interest in running a high-speed ferry between Cape Charles and Norfolk.
Malick discussed strategies that would maximize the rail project’s eligibility for federal grant funds.
The Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), enacted in 1998, provides funds to help improve transportation infrastructure, encourage economic growth, and protect the environment.
A TEA-21 grant could fund reconstruction of the Cape Charles train station if the building’s original concrete footers are used (the sections that support the foundation). Paffrath and Malick expect the project will qualify for the grant even if the footers are moved from their original location. They would like the train station to be near the end of Peach Street if that road is extended (across Mason Avenue and approaching the harbor).
The original train station was at the east end of the harbor, near the current location of The Shanty restaurant.
The idea to extend the rail line from Cape Charles to Cheriton is also part of a funding strategy. Connecting the two towns by trolley would be considered a provision of commuter transportation and would open up further federal funding opportunities.
Construction of the New York, Philadelphia and Norfolk line extended the railroad from Pocomoke City, Md., to Cape Charles in 1884.
The NYP&N railroad was built by Alexander Cassatt (the namesake of Cassatt Avenue in Parksley) who Paffrath called a “young upstart executive” for the Pennsylvania Railroad, and William Scott, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Erie, Pa.
They created a shorter route from Pennsylvania coal country to the Hampton Roads coal docks, crossing the Eastern Shore by rail and the Chesapeake Bay by ferry.
Using Scott’s name, Cassatt also bought the 136 acres on which Cape Charles was built.
Decades ago, “it was predicted that the East Coast of the U.S. would become a metropolis from Boston to Norfolk” and “the Eastern Shore would be preserved as a wildlife park,” Paffrath said.
Now the railroad Cassatt and Scott built “is all that is left of their legacy.”
“Times are changing and in order to carry out that ideology very carefully the Shore will have to adapt without exploiting the beauty it is,” he continued.
“If a track cannot be productive, rails to trails (using railroad right-of-ways to build hiking and biking trails) is a great way to preserve the easement,” Paffrath said.
“But wouldn’t it be nice if both coexisted side by side … and the line served as three divisions: pub-lic transportation, tourist rail line, and freight?”
By Stefanie Jackson