Cape Charles Historic District

Cape Charles Historic District

Cape Charles sits on the Chesapeake Bay near the southern tip of the Eastern Shore. The Town was established in 1884 when the New York, Philadelphia and Norfolk Railroad extended its line south through the Delmarva peninsula. Cape Charles was built as the railroad's southern terminus from which steamships carried passengers and freight across the Bay to Norfolk. Incorporated in 1886, the town later became the headquarters for the Norfolk Division of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

With most of its structures built between 1885 and 1920, Cape Charles has one of the largest concentrations of late-Victorian and turn-of-the-century buildings on the East Coast. In 1991, the Cape Charles Historic District was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, Cape Charles retains its railroad heritage as headquarters for the Eastern Shore Railroad, one of the largest shortline railroads in the United States and the only with a rail-barge ferry link to Norfolk across Bay. Visitors come to Cape Charles to experience its history and architecture, Chesapeake Bay beach, and growing number of Bed and Breakfasts.

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Image Credit: Cape Charles Historic District


Cape Charles is a year-round destination. It is open from mid-April through November weekdays from 10 AM to 2 PM, Saturdays from 10 AM to 5 PM, and Sundays from 1 PM to 5 PM. It is also open by appointment.

(Note: Many places fill to capacity on busy, nice weather days, especially holiday weekends. Please call ahead or visit the official website to get the most up-to-date information before visiting.)




Cape Charles offers a range of recreational activities, including a walking tour of the historic district, fishing, clamming and crabbing, boating excursions on the Bay and to Tangier Island. The Cape Charles Museum and Welcome Center presents the history of Cape Charles with early photographs, timetables, written documents, models of sailing vessels, steamships, barges, and ferries, along with old farm tools, commercial items, and other miscellaneous objects.


Captain John Smith and his crew began their first Chesapeake Bay voyage here in the summer of 1608. The supply ship Phoenix towed the crew and their barge Discovery down the Rappahannock River to the Bay’s western shore. From there, Smith and his men headed northeast. They took a short run up the seaside of what is now Virginia’s Eastern Shore before turning back into the Bay. There, they encountered two Accomack fishermen who directed them to their chief’s town near present-day Cape Charles. The Accomack chief received them warmly and told them about the land to the north, which was rich in shells for making beads and had fertile soil for growing crops. But Smith was searching for precious minerals and the Northwest Passage to Asia. He and his crew headed up the shore, where they would face vicious storms and a shortage of drinking water.


Last updated: April 27, 2022
Bay Gateways Captain John Smith Chesapeake Trail