In 2022 The City of Salisbury, Md. received a big state grant to help get started on a plan to rescue and revitalize the dilapidated old Union Station building on Railroad Avenue. Seeing those headlines inspired me to put together this bullet-point look at how that old structure fits into the fabric of the history of Salisbury—and, in fact, the whole of the Delmarva Peninsula.
The Iron Horse Rolls into Town
• Construction of Union Station got underway in 1913. The building opened the following year. But its backstory goes back much further—to the arrival of the railroad on the Delmarva Peninsula.
• The earliest railroad on the peninsula dates to the 1830s, but it wasn’t until the 1850s that businessmen and other civic leaders really got their heads around the potential of the railroad to create stronger, more reliable connections with big cities to the north and east. Construction began in 1854 on the Delaware Railroad, which would run from up in Wilmington down to the state line in Delmar.
ª Another company, Eastern Shore Railroad, connected that line with Salisbury in 1860.
• Soon enough railroad lines stretched south from Salisbury all the way down to Cape Charles, Va. Other lines ran on an east-west axis, connecting places like Kent Island and Talbot County (where steamboats out of Baltimore landed) with the then-fledgling resort town of Ocean City, Md.
• The one-two punch of steamboats and railroads beat the heck out of sailing ships, largely because they were more reliable. They didn’t have to sit out stormy weather in sheltered harbors. They were never delayed by the slack winds.
• Farmers on Delmarva now had greater confidence that produce would arrive in big cities before spoiling. Boom times in agriculture followed. A lot of the festivals we have these days—think peach festivals and strawberry festivals—are remembering glory days brought about by the railroad.
• The same thing happened to watermen with seafood. Tourism picked up steam as well, especially in Ocean City and Rehoboth Beach. If you tick off a list of things the region is famous for today—crabs, oysters, produce, ocean resorts, they all exploded onto a new level with the arrival of the railroad. In some ways, this was the birth of modern Delmarva times.
Salisbury Is Late to the Party
• Salisbury gained from all this railroad action, but in some ways the town was late to the party Separate station houses still served separate train lines long after many other towns had built grand central stations that served as hubs for various lines.
• Plus, those separate stations were junky and dilapidated. A full 20 years before Union Station went up one newspaper complained about the “miserable shed-like buildings which pass for station houses.” Another article described “an indiscriminate mass of humanity and freight” strewn about the stations and their platforms. People had to “climb over boxes and barrels on a high crowded platform” just to board a train.
• Bottom line on public opinion, according to one newspaper writer: Salisbury’s “stations would be a disgrace to any village with two hundred inhabitants, and the people will generally rejoice when they are torn down.”
• Pretty much everyone wanted a fancy new station that would be “more in keeping with the size and importance of this city.” That’s what Union Station represented—a place at the junction of railroad lines that would impress outsiders and give locals a sense of pride. It was like a big billboard: “Hey, look at us. You are passing through the thoroughly modern and forward-looking capital of the Eastern Shore.”
• That’s why Union Station has those colonial-revival flourishes and the fancy Flemish bond brickwork and the cornices that look like old-school stone (they’re actually terra cotta). The National Register listing for Union Station describes the building as “one of the major transportation landmarks of railroad history on the Eastern Shore, built during the period when that rail system had achieved its full maturity and influence for the region.”
Fast Forward into Modern Times
• Think now about modern times. The downtown revitalization bug hit town after town on Delmarva over the last 30 or so years, but Salisbury was slow to catch on. The city’s downtown remained a little bedraggled, even as places like Easton and Chestertown and St. Michaels staged big comebacks. Just like back in early railroad times, Salisbury ran a little behind the times in the early years of the 21st century.
• That’s changing now. Salisbury has its showcase event–the Folk Festival. Big new residential buildings are going up. The Riverwalk is coming along. New businesses are appearing. A grand new town square is on the way. All those shiny things are modern-day versions of the billboard message that Union Station sent to the world back in 1914, about how Salisbury now ranks as a thoroughly modern and forward-looking little city.
• If it all works out, the Union Station rehabilitation project will add one more message line on that billboard: “We’re also a place that does right by our history!” Historic preservation is a bigger deal today than it used to be, of course, so that’s really just another way of announcing, “We’re a thoroughly modern metropolis.”
• Same building, same message–a century-and-some-years apart.
–posted by Jim Duffy for Secrets of the Eastern Shore/Whimbrel Creations LLC in April 2023. All rights reserved.