Did smallpox have anything to do with the failure of the first company to have the idea of building a railroad to Chesapeake Beach?  Well… maybe.  But first, a quick refresher of the railway’s history and a few surrounding world events.

There were two companies that attempted to create the railway. The first company was named The Washington & Chesapeake Beach Railway (W&CBRy).  This company came on the scene in 1883 with the plan to build a railroad between Washington DC and Chesapeake Beach. This early company appears to have passed through a few different managers & owners for various reasons, however the name, “The Washington & Chesapeake Beach Railway,” and the plan remained the same… railway to the beach.

Railway Bond: The Washington & Chesapeake Beach Ry Co. [The Chesapeake Beach Railway Museum Collection]
The plan was solid, the execution perhaps was not.  Little progress was seemingly made in the beginning years.  And ten years into the project the panic of 1893 occurred, the biggest economic depression the U.S. had seen to date, wreaking havoc on the country.  Unemployment reached over 15%, which led to increased poverty, hunger, and desperation. The country had no programs or mechanisms in place to address these issues.  The depression ebbed and waned from 1893-1897 (the end date is important because that’s when the 2nd company was formed, The Chesapeake Beach Railway Co. {CBRy}, and swooped in to make the plan happen).

Headline: The Boston Evening Transcript 5/4/1893

Despite the panic, the beginning of 1894 was off to a good start for the W&CBRy. The company reorganized, new officers were elected, contracts were signed, plans for a swing bridge were made to cross the Patuxent River, 718 acres of bayfront property were purchased, and lastly the Town of Chesapeake Beach was incorporated.  This does not seem like a company in dire straits.


The Evening Star 3/1/1894  (seeking to incorporate the Town of Chesapeake Beach)

Unfortunately, in May of 1894, articles began to appear in the newspapers about man named Remus Nelson, an African American employee on the W&CBRy, who became ill on his way home to Alexandria, VA.  He had a note in his pocket certified from “Dr. H. Clark, Surgeon in Charge” associated with the W&CBRy that Mr. Nelson was suffering from an attack of poison oak and was traveling home.

Mr. Nelson was however extremely ill and taken to a hospital where he was immediately identified as suffering from smallpox, an incredibly deadly disease that was easily spread.  The railway camp doctor in Chesapeake Beach, Dr. Clark, was notified to prevent men similarly affected from leaving camp, as many were presumably exposed.


The Evening Star 5/15/1894
The Evening Star 5/15/1894 (continued)


There were a series of articles that appear to be damage control from the W&CBRy stating there was no foundation for a smallpox scare to the public; that the conditions at the beach were excellent.  Mention was made that 250 quills of the smallpox vaccine were left with the W&CBRy doctor (yes, the same doctor that misdiagnosed Mr. Nelson as having poison oak), as well as a tent with medical supplies was prepared should there be a need.


The Baltimore Sun 5/19/1894

Towards the end of May 1894, articles begin to run spelling out more trouble for the W&CBRy.  Workers went on strike due to no pay.   One article expressed two possible reasons the men were not paid.  The first reason was that the contractor was sick and simply did not make it to the beach to hand out pay.  The second reason was that the pay was purposefully withheld for fear the workers would leave immediately after being paid because of the smallpox scare.

In early June, 1894, the Health Commissioner of the Maryland State Board of Health chimed in, with an article stating the facts, which were:

  1.  * Smallpox was prevalent in the West
  2.  * Coxey’s Army (“100s of tramp”) were “here and still coming” from the west;  implying they would be bringing       smallpox with them.  [Coxey’s Army was a protest/march to Washington DC from across the country, led by Jacob Coxey in hopes of getting the government to create jobs involving building roads & other public works… he was 40 years too early.  FDR would do this later under the name The New Deal]
  3. * Smallpox had made an appearance in Chesapeake Beach
  4. * Baltimore hospital has 35-40 cases of smallpox
  5. * This has caused great anxiety in our community
  6. * Explained how the illness is spread and encouraged people to get the vaccine.  [The smallpox vaccine was the first   successful vaccine to be developed]


Coxey at the Capitol. The Commonweal Army leaving Brightwood Camp. [May] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, http://www.loc.govitem89708591.
Articles continued to run from May to approximately July about the smallpox scare, the strike on the W&CBRy, and that Mr. Nelson, the smallpox patient had died.  The company attempted to keep themselves in a positive light in the newspapers, with updates about the progress being made.  However, it appears the ball had rolled out of control.  The employees began to leave because of non-payment and by October of 1894, the company fell apart and went into receivership for the last and final time.

The Evening Star 10/29/1894 (The W&CBRy goes into receivership)

It was most interesting that the W&CBRy appeared to be “on their way.”  The building accomplishments of this early company, in particular the 1894 management were underestimated.  The unique swing bridge over the Patuxent River was attributed to the later company (The CBRy founded in 1897) when in fact, it was the W&CBRy who managed this feat.  While tracks were not laid, this early company deserves some credit for the railway’s accomplishments.

St. Louis Globe-Democrat 8/19/1894
(Swing Bridge that crosses the Patuxent River along the railway)
Swing Bridge that crossed over the Patuxent River along the CBRy,  The swing bridge was a manually operated bridge built by the Youngstown Bridge Company in 1894.  The 183-foot bridge span was mounted on a pivot that turned it 90 degrees so that both trains and steamboats could traverse the river.

So, did smallpox have a hand in the W&CBRy’s failing?  I suspect yes, fear of a deadly, easily spreadable disease is a strong driving factor, combined with the financial strain of the 1893 depression… it caused the perfect unfortunate storm.  Who knows where we would be had things been different in 1894? Timing is indeed everything.

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