When photographer Meredith West and I arrived at the train depot in Capeville on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, an unexpected visitor had gotten there ahead of us. Meredith and I were on assignment for another article and made the brief detour to get a firsthand look at the ramshackle building I had driven by a hundred times but never had much time or inclination to inspect up close.
The gentleman already there was whiling away the hours without any particular objective, sheltered from the growing sunlight under the rotten awning of the depot’s porch. It had been a while since he’d been clean enough for church. He reclined on a frayed and travel-stained backpack. He was quenching his thirst with a 22-ounce bottle of Natural Ice. It was ten in the morning.
Our friend had no doubt picked this spot under the assumption that nobody’d pay him much mind. There’s not much reason to stop at the train depot now. The railroad tracks are long gone. A gaping hole yawns in the roof. The last paint job was many years ago. Vines shroud the southern face. He couldn’t have picked a better spot to go unnoticed: long ago people abandoned not just this building, but also the economy that gave rise to it.
The Train Depot at Capeville on Virginia’s Eastern Shore
The economic history of Bay communities loosely falls into three phases. The first was centuries back when this land was a network of sprawling plantations that relied on commercial agriculture and the deepwater ships that could haul those commodities to far distant markets. The second was an industrial era that used steamboats and railroads to ship the Bay’s seafood and all the products grown in the fertile lands just adjacent to urban American consumers.
Now the Bay’s shores have moved into a final, postindustrial era where most people have only tenuous ties to the land and think little of all the vanished towns that zip by their car windows in a blur. The earth and water of the Bay’s shores still offer bounty for those willing to work for it, but trucks can deliver goods to large cities in no time, without the need for the unnecessary stops at wharves or sidings. Bayfront bean fields have changed into pricey real estate.
It’s that second phase, though, that gave rise to Capeville’s train depot. Capeville was a village that grew organically from the farms and woodlots that surrounded this spot on the map. The depot was one of many stations up and down the Eastern Shore where trains came to a stop, loading crabs, oysters, potatoes, lumber and a host of other products bound for distant markets. Travelers, too, would hop aboard passenger cars, heading for points north to conduct business and to visit.
Image courtesy of Meredith West
I first learned about Capeville from Lost Communities of Virginia by Terri Fisher and Kirsten Sparenborg. Fisher and Sparenborg’s book profiles thirty communities in Virginia that have encountered some measure of decline as ways of life changed over the years. This work is an invaluable chronicle of Virginia’s disappearing history.
Capeville is the sole representative of the Eastern Shore in Lost Communities of Virginia, although the Delmarva Peninsula is peppered with towns whose busiest days are likely in the rear view mirror: Cobb’s Station, Machipongo, New Church.
In the early twentieth century, according to Fisher and Sparenborg’s book, Capeville was a 150-person strong town with a general store, bank, auto garage, lumber mill and high school. Indeed, the Eastern Shore’s Accomack and Northampton Counties were among the three most prosperous agricultural communities in the nation. Capeville was fairly representative of many Bay towns, rural but well-off. After a good fifty year run, however, the sun set on these villages.
The gentleman we found on the Capeville train depot’s porch was probably thinking little that the cars he watched zoom by on U.S. Route 13 help explain why he was able to sit there and enjoy a drink. When high-speed transportation became available to haul the fruits of these productive lands and waters, the railroad was doomed to obsolescence. When mechanization gave farmers and fishermen more leverage, they were rough on the land and water, often abusing natural resources. Tilling land, tending nets required fewer hands. The railroad left Capeville and many residents were not too far behind.
That train depot, then, is more than a single stop at a single rural crossroads. It’s more than the rusted nails and rotting wood that are there now. The train depot represents the passing of an era that’ll never return.
In the early 2000s, Sparenborg took photos of the train depot that appeared with Capeville’s chapter in Lost Communities of Virginia. Even in the decade and change since she took those shots, the depot has fallen deeper into disrepair as wild growth covers once-sturdy walls, as all the parts and pieces rot away, as passersby like me fly past a hundred times and don’t do much more than lament that another important site will soon exist in memory only.
**Special thanks to Terri Fisher and Kirsten Sparenborg, co-authors of Lost Communities of Virginia. Fisher is with Virginia Tech’s Community Design Assistance Center. Sparenborg now writes the blog Turn-of-the-Centuries. Thanks also to Meredith West who can be found at Meredith West Photography.
An image of the Capeville Train Depot that Kirsten Sparenborg took in the early 2000s for Lost Communities of Virginia. Image courtesy of the Community Design Assistance Center at Virginia Tech.
A couple images of the Capeville Train Depot taken in 2013 by Meredith West. Images courtesy of Meredith West.