The Way We Were: 9 Years Ago in the New York Times

Once McCarthy's Hotel, then Cape Charles Hotel, now Hotel Cape Charles. (1930s penny postcard)

Once McCarthy’s Hotel, then Cape Charles Hotel, now Hotel Cape Charles. (1930s penny postcard)

Cape Charles Wave

September 5, 2013

This week marks the 9th anniversary of the New York Times feature article “Waking Up Cape Charles.”  The story is a useful and interesting benchmark of how far the town has come, how much things remain the same, and how history repeats itself.  Although a 10th-anniversary retrospective would be the most appropriate, we just couldn’t wait another year.  So here are excerpts from the article published September 3, 2004, by Tim Neville and annotated (in italics) by the Wave for today’s reader:

In 1991, houses in this town on the Eastern Shore of Virginia were so cheap that when Barbara Brown found one just four blocks from the Chesapeake Bay, she bought it with a credit card. The house — two stories and 1,500 square feet with three bedrooms — was in terrible shape, said Ms. Brown, who paid $15,000 for it. . . . Ms. Brown, a psychotherapist, gutted the place, rehabbed it and sold it in 1996 for $65,000. . . . Today it might sell for $250,000 or more.

That house, 123 Peach Street, has a tax value of $156,800 today. Barbara Brown has remained faithful to Cape Charles, and last year opened a new office on Mason Avenue, as reported by the Wave (click here to read).

[T]he economic boom is hard to ignore. Houses and commercial buildings that stood falling apart five years ago now sell for $250,000 or more. New homes boasting breezy British West Indies architecture — many approaching the $1 million mark — pop regularly out of the sand. McCarthy’s Hotel, closed for decades, is scheduled to reopen by Thanksgiving under a new owner who is restoring it to its 1930’s roots.

The “restoration” at 235 Mason Avenue, known as Cape Charles Hotel, looked nothing like the 1930s penny postcard pictured above. The Cape Charles Hotel ultimately failed, was sold by the bank, and underwent another extensive remodeling, opening in 2012 as Hotel Cape Charles.


Eating out once meant a $1.50 fried bologna sandwich at Savage’s Drugstore.

Now Rayfield’s, the drugstore remains one of the most popular lunch spots in town.

Flourless chocolate torte and a cappuccino? Head to the Cape Charles Coffee Company, a hip cafe that opened on July 3 in a building renovated to late-Victorian grandeur, complete with brass banisters, chandeliers and sconces.

Now known as the Cape Charles Coffee House, the stunning architecture and dreamy desserts remain.

Despite the new money, Cape Charles can still seem charmingly rural. Oyster roasts at the Cape Charles Historical Society are a community event.

No change there, except the music is probably louder now.

Locals gather at Watson’s Hardware on Christmas Eve for an informal gathering over cigars, whiskey and guitar music by a guy everyone calls ”Freshwater Frank.”

Locals gather six days a week now at Watson’s, although guitar music is rarely featured. Frankie turned 60 this year – to read about his birthday party click here.

The town manager rides to work on a purple bicycle with white-wall tires and a wicker basket.

The fourth town manager since then lives outside Nassawadox, so no bike.

The main force behind Cape Charles’s new economic vibrancy is a Virginia Beach developer named Richard S. Foster, known as Dickie. . . . If Mr. Foster’s ambitions are fully realized, Bay Creek could have 2,500 homes, or more.

That will take a while longer. Home construction in Bay Creek (including Marina Village) recently has averaged about two houses a year.

Plans call for retail shops and restaurants — two of which opened in August — a 100-room hotel and spa, a beach club on the Chesapeake, tennis courts, pool, community center, two 18-hole golf courses, a replica of a historic lighthouse and 113 acres of artificial lakes.

Most of that happened, although Aqua Restaurant and Marina Village Shops went bankrupt and were sold at auction last year. Aqua reopened under new ownership and the Shops are being converted into a banquet facility. The new owner, Robert Occhifinto, plans to construct a 100-room hotel next to Aqua. Over at the golf course development, the beach club is nearing completion, although it moved a bit away from the Chesapeake.

Community center? Not in Bay Creek, and locals’ hopes to use the Old School at Central Park were torpedoed by Town Council. 

Boats regularly dock at Bay Creek’s new 224-slip marina, and roughly 140 new houses have been built.

The Town of Cape Charles subsequently entered the marina business itself, after which Bay Creek Marina suffered bankruptcy along with Aqua Restaurant. Occhifinto bought the whole package for $4.6 million and the marina is now called King’s Creek Marina.

And a state-appointed commission recently voted to change the round-trip toll, now $24, across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel that links Cape Charles to the Hampton Roads-Tidewater area to $17 for round trips completed within 24 hours. The changes have some Cape Charles residents worried their town could become a suburb.

Now that the CBBT is instituting a $5 “commuter toll” for frequent users, some folks again worry that lower Northampton County could become a suburb of Virginia Beach. Didn’t happen last time. For non-commuters, the one-way toll is rising to $13-$15. 

The town’s population, now roughly 1,300, has never topped 3,000.

2010 census for Cape Charles: population 1,009.

In 1964 the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel opened and put the ferries out of work altogether. The town rotted, cut off and stagnant. ”There’s no doubt we were struggling,” said Charles Brown, known as Sambo, who serves the town as both councilman and police officer.

Police Chief Sambo Brown has announced his retirement at the end of this year.

Mr. Foster had been looking for a new project on the Eastern Shore, and in September 1996 he signed a contract to purchase the 1,700 acres that would become Bay Creek. . . . Condominiums run about $280,000, while houses in the development go for $300,000 for a 2,400- to 2,600-square-foot home or as much as $1.4 million for a place as large as 6,000 square feet. Mr. Foster expects waterfront lots in Plantation Pointe, a neighborhood on the east side of the development overlooking Plantation Creek, to sell for as high as $2 million.

The most recent sale in Plantation Pointe was a bankruptcy auction for “Magnolia Plantation,” which went for $950,000. Foster’s own former home, the crème de la crème in Bay Creek, sold at the same bankruptcy auction for $1 million.

Bay Creek properties are not alone in fetching those prices. ”Old” Cape Charles is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and a 2,500-square-foot brick home several blocks back from the beach and still needing central air-conditioning and kitchen and bathroom work, sold in late August for $425,000. Structurally sound, 2,400-square-foot fixer-uppers routinely go for about $250,000. ”You’d probably have to put in another $100,000 in renovations on a house like that,” said Chip Watson, a Cape Charles real estate broker and the owner of Watson’s Hardware.

Renovations cost more today, while house prices are much less.

Mr. Foster said that he wanted to buy a steam locomotive and passenger cars, like those that once rolled into town, to begin running sightseeing trains.

Bay Coast Railroad ran sightseeing and “pizza” trains with a diesel locomotive until last year.

”Being part of a community — and I mean part of — is rewarding at this age in my life,” said Mr. Foster, who turns 61 on Sept. 11. ”I don’t want to see the town dry up.”

Wish Mr. Foster a happy 70th birthday September 11 if you see him.

. . . the most common complaint is about all the new faces in town, people whom the locals call ”come-heres.” ”If they want to be a part of the community, then why is there a gate over there?” asked one man nursing a beer in the Harbor Grille on Mason Avenue. He was referring to Bay Creek, and he asked not to be identified. ”We’re losing our character. The community isn’t the same.”

The more things change, the more they remain the same.

A lifelong resident, Alma Elliot, agreed. A bank teller and 42-year-old mother of three, she does not own her spacious blue two-story house at 541 Mason Avenue. She pays $400 a month in rent, a bargain compared with rates for other rental properties in town. Two doors down is the former home of her octogenarian aunt, Dorothy Bibbins, who moved out as property taxes and upkeep on the house, which had fallen into disrepair, became too much for her. The house more than doubled in assessed value in the last year. ”There’s not much you can do,” said Dora Sullivan, a town councilwoman who considers the poor and elderly among her strongest constituents. ”That’s just life.”

Mayor Sullivan has expressed similar sentiments in reaction to residents experiencing difficulty paying the town’s new $108 monthly water bill.

Carol Stone and her husband, David . . . from Raleigh, N.C., were in Bay Creek’s office on the outskirts of town a few weeks ago picking out ceramic tiles for their 2,700-square-foot home near the marina. ‘We like Cape Charles as it is now,” Mrs. Stone said. ”It will grow and change like every other area near the water, especially when people find out about this community. We hope to enjoy this bit of paradise before it becomes too populated.”

Nine years later, that fear has not materialized.

Click here to read the full New York Times article from 2004.



9 Responses to “The Way We Were: 9 Years Ago in the New York Times

  1. Antonio Sacco on September 5th, 2013 2:01 am

    It could change, maybe something BIG, like a sports center, or a casino, or a Disney Park, or a four year college, or a conference center, or a rehabilitation center for our wounded military, or a Crape Myrtle Festival, or a big and tall Federal building, or a Barrier Island camp ground, or an outlet shopping mall on 13 . . . . There I go dreaming again. Forget it, this purgatory will never change as long as the Celtics are in charge.

  2. Dana Lascu on September 5th, 2013 6:37 am

    Great article. Still remember when I was leafing through the paper version of the NY Times and jumped with delight landing on the article. Thank you for bringing it back with updates. There was so much energy and enthusiasm at that time….

  3. Bruce Lindeman on September 5th, 2013 8:30 am

    There is STILL a lot of energy and enthusiasm in Cape Charles! I love Cape Charles. I love the people, most of all. I love the water. Our beach, harbor, park, and its close proximity by kayak or boat to the Barrier Islands. I love the shops, getting in the car and exploring the backroads of the Shore. I love my awesome neighbors, the restaurants, chatting with the shopkeeps, and, of course, my garden.

    Yes, you can poke Cape Charles with a stick every time it stumbles, but if that’s what you enjoy, then you’re not living. It’s a small town with hard working people trying to make a go of it, mixed with part-timers (myself included), and vacationers. There’s always going to be friction between all of us and room for improvement in how our town operates.

    Frankly, I’m over the bashing of this town. I have no stake in the old school, the waste water treatment plant/Rt. 13 sewerage line, the bank building, and, most of all, the town council. I’m simply a historic district home owner who loves this town. No, my head is not buried in the sand. No, I’m not a Pollyanna (nod to my friend, Wayne). I understand the issues. I get it. But, enough bashing. You can call this journalism if you like. I don’t care. I call it largely editorial and one-sided.

    Build up. Don’t tear down. Fix the problems. Don’t just throw stones. Be objective. Be fair. Don’t name call and toss out accusations. We’re all neighbors trying to make this town a great place to live. Yes, even the people you have issues with. Instead, get in the arena yourself and fight the fight. Don’t sit on the sideline and complain about it. If you can do better, then get yourself elected and see what you can do. I’m all for that. But, the negativity and hate is appalling and is not helping. It’s dividing. And I’m over it.

  4. Kathy Bonadeo on September 5th, 2013 10:03 am

    Thanks to both Dana and Bruce for the positive comments about our Town. I believe in Cape Charles and those that help to keep it a wonderful place to live, to work, or to visit.

  5. Anne Hallerman on September 5th, 2013 5:23 pm

    I too believe in Cape Charles. I remember reading this article a year after I built in Bay Creek. While I know the Wave is Cape Charles-focused, the compare-and-contrast from 2004 could have been written about many communities that thought the housing boom would go on forever. If the financial sector, the economic pundits, and the U.S. government all bought into the housing dream, why then wouldn’t a beautiful, coastal town like Cape Charles — and a man like Dickie Foster — do the same? I don’t like what happened with Bay Creek, I don’t like that the town banked on real estate development, but you know what? Housing prices are coming back to realistic levels and perhaps the real estate market is picking up. Cape Charles has benefitted from the spending dollars and the business acumen of those who “came here” during the boom, and, no, the town would not be better off if we had just stayed home. Like Bruce and Dana said, let’s work together and value each other’s unique contributions and make a better town. We can’t go back to the “good old days” because they really weren’t all that good, and we will do much better to look ahead to what we can accomplish. And one more thing: Given the constant theme of the posts, I suggest that the “Wave” is an inaccurate name. A wave is something that fluidly moves to and fro with the changing currents. It doesn’t stand in place. A wave is also a gesture of greeting and welcome. It is a symbol of inclusion. Why don’t you call this what it is? “Three Degrees of Old School Cape Charles.” Because no matter what the topic, we always come back around to the school building and the basketball court. The reference in the above article to Bay Creek’s community center is completely irrelevant to the Old School, but hey, you made it work. There it is! And if I were a traveling salesman selling portable basketball goals, I would dribble my way to the Eastern Shore and make a drive up the middle right into Cape Charles, where the demand for basketball hoops greatly exceeds the supply.

  6. Marc Batchelor on September 5th, 2013 11:39 pm

    I believe in keeping it positive. I, too am invested in the success of Cape Charles since 2007. We had friends visiting from Hamilton, NJ for Labor Day Weekend and the entire family loved it. It was the small charm feel, along with the fishing, not so crowded beach and the food. They enjoyed Shanty, Aqua and the Chinese Restaurant next to Food Lion. To top it off, we got around in a golf cart and saved filling up the car tank. Cape Charles is diamond in the rough. Tear it down to build it better…but always lift us up!

  7. Wayne Creed on September 6th, 2013 9:31 am

    “Even if we’re in a state of hopelessness, a sense of expectation is an integral part of our relationship to time. Hopelessness is possible only because we do hope that some good, loving someone could come. If that’s what Heidegger meant, then I agree with him.” –Jacques Derrida.

    Now for the Positive!

    The NYT’s article certainly highlights the Faustian bargain the Town entered into, selling off moral integrity in order to achieve an illusion of wealth, power, and success (can’t hide from Marlowe and Goethe any more though, as the Devil always gets his due).

    The Dora Sullivan quote regarding the plight of the poor, “That’s just life,” was most enlightening. Pretending to care from one side of the mouth, selling them out with the other. Perfect, just perfect. It was heartening to see that all the shifty, two-faced trickery Old School Cape Charles has had to endure when dealing with this crowd was not so much a Natural Born talent, but an art and craft borne after years of practice, hard work, and experience.

    ”If they want to be a part of the community, then why is there a (apartheid) gate over there?” Nursing a beer can bring clarity — this guy saw the writing on the wall way back then. Even if not all of them live behind it, the gate has achieved its aim, successfully dividing the town along distinctly philosophical, spiritual, and financial lines. “Almost half of the population of the world lives in rural regions and mostly in a state of poverty. Such inequalities in human development have been one of the primary reasons for unrest and violence.” –Abdul Kalam.

    More disgustingly, it’s hard to get past the fact that the same crowd that supported and aided Bonadeo, Panek, and Sullivan in stealing the Old School from the ordinary people, will be drinking delicate wines at the new Private Beach Club, and toasting the sunset and the joys of life, while the rest of us will be forced to endure a sleazy apartment complex in our School Park.

    In the most corrupt fashion, they supported a Mayor and Council willing to spend hundreds of thousands of tax dollars to give away a historic theater stage (in the Old School auditorium; it will be demolished and turned into a tacky two-bedroom apartment) that is over 100 years old, probably the oldest on the Eastern Shore (Harbor for the Arts?), yet for some odd reason, chose not to go after Sinclair Communications and the rest of Bay Creek, to at least attempt to get the money owed the ordinary people. If the Town attorney says he won’t go after them, fire him and get a pit bull that will.

    Meanwhile, back in Town, far away from the Private Beach Club, full-time residents of the old section (those that actually have a stake in the new Warsaw Ghetto), hunch over and issue foul oaths at those responsible for defiling the Old School with cheap low-rent apartments, and watch suspiciously as they construct the new toilet in the park. . . .

    On a more positive, upbeat note, Bruce, my brother, glad to see the Lindeman Pollyanna Express is still in service — maybe you can sell tickets. At this point I may even buy one myself.

  8. Deborah Bender on September 6th, 2013 11:09 pm

    I can see where some folks get a little tired of everything always leading back to the Old School debate. Yes, it comes up a lot. Problem is that the underhanded way that the town worked this “deal” is exactly what has irritated the heck out of so many people. People that have lived in this town their entire lives. People whose fathers and mothers attended the Historic Old School. People that could have moved elsewhere but chose to stay because they love their little town. It has been a sad, hateful mess that has gone on for 1 1/2 years so far.

    Perhaps, if some of the people that have moved here from other places would just stop and put themselves into the shoes of the families who truly wanted a community center for our children and grandchildren, maybe, just maybe, those same people would understand just a little of how this has divided a community. Perhaps if what happened to us happened to them in the town that they were raised in and love, maybe they could have a better understanding of how we feel.

    Now because of what the “powers that be” have done, the mayor, town council, and both manager and assistant manager are being watched and caught doing more dirty deals. It’s sad, really, because while we all thought our little town was being run properly by the people we have put into office and by the people that all of our tax dollars pay (and quite well I might add), what was really happening was back room deals, poor money management, and lots of lying and cheating. Now, none of the people that are “onto them” can rest because day in, day out, more dirty laundry shows up. We cannot let this little group of players continue to run our sweet little town into the ground. There are many nice people that have moved here and I know and am friends with lots of them. The difference between us is that I moved here in 1976 and have never tried to make this town into anything remotely like where I came from. I don’t want it to change and I sure as heck do not want to see an apartment building sitting in our beautiful new park.

  9. Mary Finney on September 7th, 2013 7:04 am

    Too bad there isn’t a “like” button here; I would definitely be using it for Wayne’s comments above. He hits the nail on the head, as usual.

    Reading through some of these comments, I am impressed by how tightly some folks clutch those rose-colored glasses to their eyes. It brings to mind a little saying from Mark Twain: Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.