Virginia Beach means sunshine and surf and summer fun to a great many people; to many others it is a home town, growing fast and quite cosmopolitan.
Its history as a town starts in 1880 when a club house was built on the ocean front at what is now 17th Street. A group of sportsmen from Norfolk used it for a hunting and fishing lodge. They drove from Norfolk in horse-drawn vehicles and the road twisted and turned following old paths which attempted to avoid the many estuary branches between Norfolk and the ocean.
The members of this club were Norfolk business men and they successfully promoted adequate transportation to the beach. This idea of developing a Virginia resort similar to New Jersey's Atlantic City had been talked of for many years, but the War for Southern Independence had left Norfolk financially unable to undertake such a promotion. In 1883 with the help of northern capitalists a corporation known as the Norfolk and Virginia Beach Railroad and Improvement Company began to build both a railroad and an elaborate hotel. The narrow gauge railroad connected Norfolk and the old Princess Anne Hotel on the ocean front at what is now Sixteenth Street. Both were completed in 1887 and Virginia Beach was born.
In those days the railroad ran only as far as Broad Creek and visitors to the resort boarded a steamer at the foot of East Main Street in Norfolk, which carried them up the Elizabeth River to the terminal on Broad Creek. The entire trip by boat and train took over an hour and the fare was fifty cents.
In about 1900 this road was changed to standard gauge and a trestle built across Broad Creek so that passengers went all the way into Norfolk on the train. The ownership of the railroad and the hotel had changed hands several times and in 1900 the railroad was taken over by The Norfolk and Southern.
In 1902 the Chesapeake Transit Company built a competing road to Virginia Beach via Cape Henry and operated the first electric street cars to the resort. In a few years the Norfolk and Southern was able to buy the electric line and to electrify its own trains so that a transportation loop was formed running from Norfolk through both Virginia Beach and Cape Henry and then back to town. This was a favorite street car ride on Sunday afternoons in the days before the automobile took over. Steam engines and electric coaches used the same roadbed.
The grand hotel, the Old Princess Anne, stood on the waterfront between 15th and I6th Streets. It was steam heated and had elevator service. Wealthy northern families used it as a winter resort and the beach was advertised as such. The hotel was elegant and luxurious in the manner of hotels of the gay nineties and it was a mecca for honeymooners. It set a pattern for the great resort that Virginia Beach has become.
The original acres purchased by the development company were divided into lots and many Norfolk people built cottages for use in summer. By 1889 there were fourteen cottages and another smaller hotel, the Ocean View.
The late Bishop Beverly D. Tucker held the first church services at Virginia Beach in his cottage and later raised funds for an inter-denominational church called Galilee Chapel By the Sea. This building later became an Episcopal Church. When a new Galilee Church was built on the ocean front and 18th Street in 1926, the chapel was moved to the back of the lot and named Tucker Hall. This past year, 1957, Galilee Episcopal Church completed a new church and parish house near the Cavalier Hotel to meet the needs of its large congregation. Over the years other congregations have assembled and other houses of worship have been built, until most of the major religious denominations and sects are now represented here. The most important of them are Temple Emanuel, Star of the Sea (Roman Catholic), Virginia Beach Methodist, the Good Shepherd (Lutheran), First Presbyterian, First Baptist and Friends Meeting.
The first brick house to be built at Virginia Beach was built in 1895 by Mr. B. F. Holland for his bride. Mr. Holland had come to Virginia Beach in 1886 and when the town was incorporated in 1906, Mr. Holland was the first mayor. This brick house was sold in 1909 to the deWitt family who have lived in it for a half a century. The house is a landmark on the ocean front at 10th Street.
By 1906, a great many people were living in the town of Virginia Beach the year around. The first school was held in a building on l4th Street which also housed the Town Hall and the jail. This was an ungraded school and was taught by Mrs. Willet. The Willoughby T. Cooke School, which is now used as an elementary school, was built in 1913-
Many of these people commuted to Norfolk every day. The following reminiscences on this subject were recently written:
There are many people alive today who remember seeing in their lifetime the rise and fall of railroad transportation in Princess Anne County. From an old schedule dated 1906, I find that sixteen passenger trains ran from Norfolk via both Cape Henry and Virginia Beach each day. A great many children went to school in Norfolk by train and businessmen living in the county commuted to the city. Also the housewives went into the city to shop. In addition, there were excursion trains all Summer bringing groups of people for a day at the Beach. Sunday Schools from all over the State had annual picnics in the Old Casino pavilion (31st Street) each year.
The electric trains to Virginia Beach started from Monticello and City Hall Avenue and ran out Monticello to Princess Anne Road, much of which was unpaved. Many will remember the old dance trains that carried groups of young ladies and their escorts to the Casino at Virginia Beach for dancing each evening. They were called "The One-Step Special" or "The Two-Step Special" depending on which dance was popular. Later trains for the Beach left Union Station and others started from a terminal in Brambleton.
The people who commuted from the Beach to Norfolk for years remember the various kinds of trains: first the regular coaches, then the lumbering old trolley cars and the open street cars used in Summer, and last were the rail buses that traveled at a great rate of speed.
The conductors on the old Norfolk Southern trains knew all of the commuters. There were morning papers to be had and the trip constituted a real social affair.
The same men worked on the cars for years and were called captains. Captains Mister, Milla, House, Simmons, Swan, Gettle, Burnham, Sawyer, Middleton, Lum, Butt, Winston, Barson, Reed, Rose, Stafford, Foy and Lambert all had many friends among the passengers.
It was the building of a hard surfaced highway in 1920 that marked the beginning of the end of railroad transportation. Even the streamlined diesel railbus could not compete with private automobiles and highway buses. The old commuter trains became a memory.
With the new six-lane boulevard to the Beach crowded with traffic as it is today, there are many who yearn for the return of a commuter train.
Shortly after 1900, there were three general stores in Virginia Beach: Sorrey's and Holland's on 17th Street near the train station on Pacific Avenue and Etheridge's on Cypress Avenue. Meredith had a drug store on I6th Street. The amusement pavilion at 31st Street (Sea Pines) is now familiarly known as the "Old Casino;" the "New Casino" was at or near 9th Street at the south end, where the rail line from Norfolk came in.
The old wooden board walk, with the summer houses, made a perfect place for promenading. Ocean bathing was indulged in only during the early morning and late afternoon hours. Noonday sun was dangerous, so vacationists rocked and chatted on verandas during most of the day. Everything was done to prevent, rather than acquire sunburn. So important was it to keep the complexion lily white, that poultices of cornmeal and buttermilk were endured to bleach the tan and remove freckles.