March 2, 2009
Light Rail Crews Dig Up the Past in Norfolk, VA
By SUSAN BERLIN, Senior Editor
The history of Norfolk, VA, dates back more than 300 years, and surprising amounts of it are hiding just underfoot. That’s what work crews for Hampton Roads Transit are discovering as they excavate downtown sites in preparation for construction of The Tide light rail line.
Along with building foundations and artifacts that turned up in downtown Norfolk, construction workers have unexpectedly found evidence of earlier modes of transportation: railroad timbers and trolley tracks.
City Historian Peggy Haile McPhillips explained that the city began operating horse-drawn trolleys in 1870, and introduced electric trolleys in 1894—not long after Richmond, VA, made history with the first electric-powered streetcar line in 1888. The city abandoned trolley service in 1948, although it maintained operation through World War II to meet the needs of the many military and defense workers who packed the city.
“I can remember in years gone by,” McPhillips said, “when a crew was working on Hampton Boulevard, one of our north-south streets, and the project took a lot longer than they thought because they had to dig out the trolley tracks they had found, just covered over. The construction teams learned to allow for a little extra time with digging.”
Paul Filion, Norfolk’s transportation construction project manager, said he often heard from people who remembered the old trolley service during the neighborhood outreach process for The Tide. He recounted how construction has unearthed evidence of abandoned, capped water lines near City Hall, which may have supported a residential neighborhood, and heavy concrete foundations for old warehouses.
“We’re just touching the surface on downtown excavation,” Filion added.
He also described another confluence between past and present rail construction, where The Tide will run between Norfolk and the Virginia Beach city line along an abandoned rail line previously used by Norfolk Southern. The light rail line will operate on newly installed double track instead of the existing single track, which has not been used in decades and would need extensive maintenance; construction teams also have excavated the wooden rail ties and recycled the old steel rail, he said.
“The footprint for The Tide, for the most part, remains about the same width as the Norfolk Southern line,” Filion said. “We were fortunate to be able to squeeze in a starter rail line without needing numerous property acquisitions.”
McPhillips emphasized that the downtown area has been a crossroads for travelers for centuries. “Norfolk was always a busy port,” she said, “with a lot of people coming here, either on purpose or passing through to somewhere else. There’s a lot of traffic in the downtown area, always was. It’s where people lived until we started expanding into the suburbs; people lived near where they worked. We had a mixture of businesses and homes, with places of entertainment nearby…and it’s still there, underneath your feet.”