Historic marine railways fading away

By nationalfisherman.com.

Small neighborhood railways, once the lifeblood for maintaining commercial fishing boats up and down the Mid-Atlantic coast, are being replaced with motorized boat lifts.

A clear indication of this is in the advice given by longtime railwayman George Butler of Reedville, Va. to new railway owner Jeremy Clark of Sunrise Point Marina on Robinson Creek in Urbanna, Va. Clark called Butler in July for an on-site inspection of his railway, asking advice on what to do with it – fix it, or switch to a Travelift.

After the inspection, Butler said that the cost of fixing the railway will be expensive and could be higher than buying a used Travelift; that a motorized boat lift would best serve the marina because more boats can be hauled and serviced in a timely manner; and governmental agencies such as the Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration and local zoning departments bring restrictions and expenses that discourage the continuation of railways. (For more information, read “Off the rails – Mid-Atlantic yards make the transition to Travelifts,” June 2019, National Fisherman.)

The railway at Sunrise Point Marina plays a minor part in the marina’s business today, but once was the lifeblood of African-American wooden boat owners who lived close by when the railway was owned by Alex Burrell. A Black railwayman/boatbuilder, Burrell operated the facility for over 50 years. The long road leading to the railway is named Burrells Marina Road.

The era of racial segregation in Virginia was not just associated with restaurants, water fountains and schools. Railways often fell into that category too. There were also situations where African-American watermen were not served in same way as white-owned boat owners. White commercial and recreational fishermen were often first in line for service.