For the last few weeks the railroad across from our office is busy with railroad men and equipment working from dawn to dusk.

The men come from all over the U.S., primarily from the South.  They are union men and bid on the contract to come and work the job and stay until it is completed.  They are very friendly and hardworking guys and they add an element of excitement to our usual office and neighborhood routine.

aligning new tracks
t-rex on track

They have been laying new railroad track, the metal part of the track for a seven mile long stretch near our town center.  The track is not really new, they explain.  It comes from another track that is more frequently used, somewhere in the U.S.  New track comes in quarter mile lengths and it must be an extraordinary engineering feat to get the heavy track in place.  The lengths they are laying, or relaying, are much shorter, but still very heavy and long.  They brought this “used” track to our local site because the track there has been in place since the ’60’s and is scheduled to be upgraded.  The new track is on the busier track system.

Our town only began just before the turn of the 20th Century.  The county seat, or town center, had been three miles away in a locality referred to as Port Tobacco, named after the local Potabaco Native American tribe who had lived on the shores of the Patawomeck River.  The Potabac tribe are named on Capt. John Smith’s map published in 1612 (surveyed in 1606) of the Cheseapeake Bay and its tributaries, now easily available for interactive view in the Jamestown Project.

Port Tobacco, sometimes called Charlestown, served a large wide tributary of the Patawomack River named after the port.  The Port was an important commerce center in the early years of the colonies and continued to be central to the region’s development until the late 19th Century when agricultural changes and climate alterations so changed the port’s accessbility that large ships could not navigate its waters due to the silting in of its shoreline.

port tobacco river bank

Ultimately a railroad line was run through nearby countryside and the political powers of the time prevailed and changed the county seat location to La Plata, as it had been named for a farm near the railroad station built in 1888.

La Plata has grown into a beautiful community.  It suffered a terrible tornado on April 28, 2002, but has rebuilt many of its historic structures and many new homes and businesses complete its current landscape.  My husband and I were in the parish house of the local Episcopal Church when the tornado struck.  A group of us were meeting and our members were in touch with spouses who were keeping an eye on the threatening storm by cell phone.  Suddenly we were told that the storm had changed direction and a “hook” was forming and moving toward our location.

Joe Plemons, a member of our group, scouted out the basement as a place where we could all move to safety and we continued to meet.  We were in a room that had many windows on the back of the stone dwelling.  Suddenly the skies became quite ominous and I got up from the chair and glanced out the window, only to see the spirals of two or more tornado formations coming right toward us from across the nearby valley.  We quickly went downstairs, breathless as we moved.  As my husband shut the door to the basement the glass was breaking out of the windows around him.

While we completed two repetitions of the 23rd Psalm, the sound became louder and I saw the building lift ever so slightly off of its foundation structure so that I could see light between the stones layers and feel the piercing of sand on my skin, and then before the 2nd repetition was complete, all was quiet again.

We walked out into a No Man’s Land:  the water tower had collapsed, electric poles and lines down, our cars were destroyed, many of the town’s historic buildings were levelled, and our church now had a gaping hole in its timbered ancient* roof.

church in background with holes in roof

(*That church had been moved from Port Tobacco, stone by stone, brought up the road by ox cart at the turn of the 20th Century.)

Now, just eight years later, our community has gone through a period of rebuilding and continues to grow despite the financial downturn in the wider national and global markets.  New businesses are being built, homes are still under construction and, despite lowered tax revenues and pricing, our local economy is bursting at the seams of its schools.

Here is a description from the historic texts of Captain John Smith’s voyage to the local river port in June 1608, 400 years ago:

They told him of a great nation, called the Massawomeks, of whom he set out in search, passing by the Limbo, and coasting the west side of Chesapeake Bay. The people on the east side he describes as of small stature.

They anchored at night at a place called Richard’s Cliffs, north of the Pawtuxet, and from thence went on till they reached the first river navigable for ships, which they named the Bolus, and which by its position on Smith’s map may be the Severn or the Patapsco.

The men now, having been kept at the oars ten days, tossed about by storms, and with nothing to eat but bread rotten from the wet, supposed that the Captain would turn about and go home. But he reminded them how the company of Ralph Lane, in like circumstances, importuned him to proceed with the discovery of Moratico, alleging that they had yet a dog that boiled with sassafrks leaves would richly feed them. He could not think of returning yet, for they were scarce able to say where they had been, nor had yet heard of what they were sent to seek. He exhorted them to abandon their childish fear of being lost in these unknown, large waters, but he assured them that return he would not, till he had seen the Massawomeks and found the Patowomek.

On the 16th of June they discovered the River Patowomek (Potomac), seven miles broad at the mouth, up which they sailed thirty miles before they encountered any inhabitants. Four savages at length appeared and conducted them up a creek where were three or four thousand in ambush, “so strangely painted, grimed, and disguised, shouting, yelling, and crying as so many spirits from hell could not have showed more terrible.” But the discharge of the firearms and the echo in the forest so appeased their fury that they threw down their bows, exchanged hostages, and kindly used the strangers. The Indians told him that Powhatan had commanded them to betray them, and the serious charge is added that Powhatan, “so directed from the discontents at Jamestown because our Captain did cause them to stay in their country against their wills.” This reveals the suspicion and thoroughly bad feeling existing among the colonists.

The expedition went up the river to a village called Patowomek, and thence rowed up a little River Quiyough (Acquia Creek?) in search of a mountain of antimony, which they found. The savages put this antimony up in little bags and sold it all over the country to paint their bodies and faces, which made them look like Blackamoors dusted over with silver. Some bags of this they carried away, and also collected a good amount of furs of otters, bears, martens, and minks. Fish were abundant, “lying so thick with their heads above water, as for want of nets (our barge driving among them) we attempted to catch them with a frying-pan; but we found it a bad instrument to catch fish with; neither better fish, more plenty, nor more variety for small fish, had any of us ever seen in any place, so swimming in the water, but they are not to be caught with frying-pans.”

from William Strachey’s, Historie of Travell into Virginia Britania, written 1612, published 1849

My outpatient office is currently located in one of the old buildings that was still standing when the tornado had finished its destructive force.  (click to enlarge photo…)

Our landlord, Joe Husick,  is completing work on a historic building he has rehabilitated after it was moved from its original location across the railroad tracks.  You can see its porch in the background of this picture, taken today, as he was finishing work on our new mailboxes:

joe and new mailboxes

Across the road, though, the workers are busy today completing the laying down of the railroad lines:

Motorists are delayed briefly, life goes on, and these working men will return to their hometowns.  Our little town will continue with business as usual and the railroad cars carrying their coal to and from the local power plant on the Potomac River will continue to move nearby each morning and evening.   In the early morning I can hear the whistle from my home bedroom a few miles away; when we are in the office we can feel the steady rumbling of the tracks underfoot.   The office door is just a few footsteps away from the track.  Now we will be safer.