With news that President Biden plans to overhaul the Northeast Corridor Amtrak railway system with an infusion of $80 Billion as part of his infrastructure proposal, it was good timing to meet historian and author Lorett Treese and learn about the history of railroads on the Eastern Shore.
Even if the infrastructure plan prevails, however, the Eastern Shore will never see another golden era of railroad transportation, and except for a few small spurs still operating, railroad history will languish on the shelves of museums or found piecemeal as artifacts like the 1902 Chestertown train station.
Treese, who holds a master’s degree in American History from Villanova University, spent twenty years as a Bryn Mawr archivist, and has long had a fascination with railroads. Three of her books describe a complicated growth, countless changes in rail ownerships (and names), bankruptcies, mergers, buyouts, and blue-sky dreams that never materialized as railroad companies large and small tried to connect
In her newly published Railroads of the Eastern Shore (The History Press), Treese writes an extensive history of the Delmarva Peninsula’s many bids to create north-south rail lines between the Eastern Seaboard and Norfolk, Virginia via a line southward through the Shore to Cape Charles, 60 miles south of Chincoteague.
The America of the early 19th-Century sought a faster and more reliable transportation system than the rough overland stagecoaches, canals, and steamships. As early as the 1830s, plans were made, and State “charters” were given to independent railroad companies to connect the Shore with mainland markets. Most of the rail lines were never built but exceptions like the 16-mile railroad New Castle and Frenchtown Railroad was completed in 1832.
Treese says that the earliest evidence she found for an Eastern Shore railroad was an 1833 plan for a rail line that would have run from Elkton to Tangier Sound near Crisfield. “Unfortunately, it was one of the many, many chartered railroads that were never built. It would have been called ‘The Eastern Shore Railroad,” and would have been the first of the railroads to bear that name.”
Planned for decades and interrupted by the Civil War, it wasn’t until the 1880s that a north-south railroad was finally built to traverse the Eastern Shore.
The New York, Philadelphia & Norfolk Railroad carried freight and passengers to a steam ferry connecting Cape Charles and Norfolk. Eventually, the massive Pennsylvania Railroad acquired the line. This system and an ever changing network of “feeder” lines connecting towns on the Shore endured almost a century.
The building of the Bay Tunnel Bridge and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in the 60s brought the rail system to a close. Aside from the Amtrak station in Wilmington, DE, still connecting the Northeast Corridor, Baltimore, and Washington, only a few small feeder lines continue to operate in the region.
Lorett Treese’s book is a great lesson in historical explication: her three years of research uncovered original documents clarifying the intricate puzzle of rail plans and ownerships. She employs a clear narrative to document the story. Even if you are not a railroad buff, the story holds interest for its portrayal of American commerce and its effort, failures and successes
The historian tells the Spy that many of her historical discoveries were gleaned from rummaging through countless cardboard boxes found in the Pennsylvania Archives, Temple University, and Hagley Museum and Library in Wilmington, to name a few.
“The old records of the Pennsylvania Railroad were split up, but The Hagley had the records of the subsidiaries I wanted, including the NYP&N and the PWB, and none of that stuff is online or microfilm. It’s in big cardboard boxes, and I would go down a couple of times a week, and I would say, give me box number this, this, and this, and I would take out the files one at a time and look at every piece of paper.”
Only vestiges of the railroad era remain today—a restored station here, a small museum there— but for a century, the iron-horses and diesel locomotives were an integral part of the transportation landscape. Still, a few local connector trains will trigger flashing red lights and bring down a crossing gate to stop highway traffic.
“Trains are still running on the old Kent County Railroad, thanks to its modern-day successor, called the Maryland and Delaware Railroad but only as far as Worton. Originally, the train traversed the Shore form Chestertown to Woodland Beach (Smyrna) Delaware where it met steamboats from the Delaware City, Salem, and Philadelphia Steamboat Company.
For us, the 117-year old Chestertown passenger station—and the short run in Worton— remain our only link to the Shore’s railroad past.
Treese writes, “At the base of Chestertown’s Cross Street, there’s a passenger station built circa 1902-03, a time when the Kent County Railroad had been liberated from its New Jersey connections to come under the control of the Pennsylvania Railroad.”
Lorett Treese’s other books include, The Storm Gathering; The Penn Family and the American Revolution, Valley Forge: Making and Remaking a National Symbol, A Serpent’s Tale: Discovering America’s Ancient Mound Builders, Railroads of New Jersey, and Railroads of Pennsylvania. She has also published widely in magazines.
This video is approximately eight minutes in length. Railroads of the Eastern Shore may be found on Amazon and at historypress.com.