ORAL HISTORY: How Harbor Avenue Got its Skew

101 Tazewell Ave.

101 Tazewell Avenue, corner of Harbor, was “right on the beachfront” when built by Capt. Sadler c. 1912. Later, Harbor Avenue layout was skewed to accommodate the house.

May 19, 2014

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Cape Charles Historical Society has for more than a decade been recording oral histories of the area’s earlier days.  A grant from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities enabled 15 interviews to be transcribed, and the Historical Society has made this one available for readers of the Wave.  All the transcriptions may be read at the Cape Charles Museum.)

1990 Interview of Virginia Fitzhugh conducted by Virginia Savage


VIRGINIA SAVAGE:  I am talking to Virginia Fitzhugh, who was born and raised in Cape Charles.  Virginia, what was your maiden name?

Virginia Sadler.  I was raised in Cape Charles.  I was born next door to the old Virginia Hotel and the Henderson Travis House. [Across from the Post Office, on the southwest corner.  Her father was Capt. Sadler, a NYP&N steamer captain.]

West side of Virginia Hotel?  Which would be right across from the Post Office on the corner of Strawberry and Randolph.

That’s where I was born.  And then Daddy bought the house up in the middle of the block on Randolph.  I don’t know who lives there now but he bought right in the middle.  Alva Stiles used to live there.  And then Daddy built the first house that was built this side of Pine Street other than the house that was back in the woods.  And he bought the lot from the Scott Estate and built down there.  And we thought we were right on the beachfront.  The corner of Tazewell and Harbor.

Did he have to build that house on pilings?

No.  He happened to get the house part of the land that was down there.  And see, the beach came right up to Harbor Avenue.  Sand and everything.  That’s a built in place from Harbor right up to beachfront.  That was sand that was blown up and built up all that up there.  Daddy thought he was right on the beachfront.

Isn’t that amazing!   I knew that Jeannette Edgerton’s house, for one, was built on pilings.

Well, all those apartments across from us, they’re all built on pilings.  And we used to watch them and the pile driver would hit one and it would go out of sight and they’d have to put another one right on top of it.  You see, that’s all swamp there.  And because it had the cat o’ nine tails and the grass that grows on the beach and all that stuff.


Mrs. Von Canon told me her daddy, Mr. Hogwood, built the house at 518. We lived at 512 Tazewell, we lived in the Brownley house, and it was down about three doors.  And she said she could remember when her mother walked out the back door and picked cattails to put in the house.

Yes, that’s right.  See, all that was a swamp that just went right on up.

So it actually went all the way down what is now Monroe Avenue.  How far down did it go?

Like where the alley is.  You know the alley behind 101 Tazewell, where we live.  And Monroe, it just went up that way. There was a great huge ditch, because I used to walk to school and we jumped that ditch.  And I guess that’s where the drainage ditch that was as high as my head that went down that alley.

You told me one time that the reason that street was not straight, Harbor, is because of your house.  Now how did that happen?

Well, see when Daddy bought that lot and the house was built, they built it on the contour of the beach.  See, how the beach came up.  So after Daddy built and they began to build up around there, then they made that next block down where Jeannette and all them live.  Then, they had surveyors come to make a street!  And one of the surveyors came and told my Daddy, “Captain, I hate to tell you but your house is not setting right with the street.”  And Daddy said, “It isn’t?”  He said, no.  And he told them, “you have my permission to move it anywhere you want to!”  So that’s why the street comes this way and then goes a little bit like that.

Your Daddy built that house when you were two years old.

And I’m eighty.

How many other houses were there on Tazewell up to you at that point.

Not any.  We were the first ones this side of Pine Sreet.

Mrs. MacMath told me that when she built her house on Tazewell, she was the furthest one west.  Do you know when her house was built?

No. I really don’t.  I know we built and then Mr. and Mrs. Chandler built.  That was where Verna Carrol lives.  And then the one on the corner was built by a Captain Burton. And then where Carolyn lived, another Burton built that.  Carol Burton.

Were they all captains of the ferries and tugs?

All the tugs.  Mr. O.V. Tilghman built right across from us where Andy Bodner lived.  And on the corner, that was where Mr. Wilson, Clara Hall’s father, built that.

And they were built in what period?

I would say from the time Daddy built, in 20 years it had built up like that.

So your Daddy actually built around 1911.  And all those houses across from you, you think were built in the next 15 -20 years.

And Mr. Legg was the contractor for our house.  And you know where the undertaker place is now?  Well, that was where he had his place of business.  The Legg Building it was called.  And he was the contractor.

When do you remember that they filled in the marshland and start building in to the west of you?

I would say I was about 8 or 9.  I would say 8, because we used to sit, my brother and I, in the window in the dining room and watch them.

Where is your brother now?

He died.  Got drowned.  My brother, Donny.  I was 8 or 10 years old.  He was out there fishing and his boat swamped.  And nobody could believe that he drowned because he was an excellent swimmer.  And he’s supposed to have one of the boats that never sunk.

You told me one time that the house that the Miller’s live in, I think it’s probably 6 Randolph Ave or something, that house was built for May Beth Taylor when she was married.  Tell me about that again.

Well, I’ll tell you all I can remember!  Mrs. May Beth Long, her husband was in the produce business.  And they come up here in potato season and so forth.  So they built that house more or less as a summer home.  Because then they went back down to Florida or somewhere.  And my grandfather had been a cabinetmaker.  And he used to go, he retired, and he used to go around and watch where different homes were being built.  And he always said that was really a typical summer home, that it was not built for winter weather.  But of course then the man who worked for Webster, Emerson Cochran, they had it all winterized and all fixed up and had more rooms added to it.




4 Responses to “ORAL HISTORY: How Harbor Avenue Got its Skew”

  1. Joseph Corcoran on May 19th, 2014 7:14 am

    Very interesting . I had never considered that Cape Charles city was built on land fill over a swamp . ( I just wonder if it is sinking like Norfolk is now ?)

    Two questions I have had for years now :

    1.What was the structure built on the pilings at the north end of Harbor Avenue ?

    2.What was the big brick structure on Sandy Island and when was Sandy Island abandoned ?

  2. Allison Mills Duncan on May 23rd, 2014 9:15 pm

    Now I know why the house in which I grew up always flooded in the basement!

  3. Marion Naar on May 29th, 2014 7:32 am

    Answers to Joseph Corcoran’s questions:
    Visit the Cape Charles Museum and you will find exhibits with information and photos in answer to both your questions. Briefly:
    1. The Peninsula Ferry company had a terminal there and operated briefly in the early 1930s.
    2. Sandy Island housed a naval base during WWI and later was a fish processing plant.

  4. Andy Dickinson on May 29th, 2014 1:22 pm

    Regarding the pilings at the north end of Harbor Avenue, that originally was a ferry terminal operating back in the early ’30s carrying passengers to the western shore, maybe around Reedsville. Failed and in the late ’30s, early ’40s an excellent restaurant opened up in one of the buildings in existence at the time and in a larger building, an indoor skating rink and dance hall, quite popular during the war.

    Sandy Island, the small island off of the entrance to Bay Creek, was home to a brick Army barracks during the First World War. Legend has it that doughnuts were being cooked in lard which caught on fire and burned it all down. I think Billy Smith’s father was stationed there during WWI.