Since 1906, Reedville Marine Railway in Reedville, Va., has been owned by the Butler family. In April, the 106-year stint of ownership came to an end as George M. Butler, 69, sold the railway.
Butler’s grandfather, Samuel Butler, and Joseph Davis purchased the railway in 1906 from Isaac Bailey who had opened Bailey’s Railway on Cockrell Creek in the early 1890s.
Samuel Butler bought Davis out sometime in the mid-1920s, and then Samuel and his son George P. Butler ran the yard. George P.’s first job at the yard as a boy was to fire up the boiler to the steam engine that powered the planer and band saw. The saw and planer worked off a jack shaft from the ceiling inside the shop.
Samuel died in 1933 and George P. took over the operation. He built boats and operated the railway until his death in 1976, when George M. took over the yard. Over the years, George M.’s reputation for working with wood on all types of bay boats has become legendary.
“It was just time,” says Butler when ask about selling the railway. “I guess you could say it is about retirement, but a boatbuilder never retires.”
In the next breath, Butler says he was having poles set in his yard at his home to install a boat lift for hauling small boats to do bottom work. He also had the 40-foot Iris Marie, a 39' 6" x 12' 4 1/2" x 4' 6" deadrise wooden boat he built 2003 at his home dock on Cockrell Creek in for some top work repair.
“I feel relieved not to have the railway on my shoulders,” he says. “But boatbuilding and boat work is what I love, and I’m not going to give that up.”
Butler has a small boat shop at his home in Reedville where he can work on small boats. He has a 1950 Chris-Craft runabout stored away that he has been talking about fixing for 25 years, and that’s in his plans, he says.
The railway was purchased by Matt Smith of Reedville, a lover of classic boats whose website, WoodyBoaters, promotes the “restoration and preservation” of classic wooden boats.
Smith says he plans to continue to allow “classic” commercial fishing boats to use the railway. “I’m keeping it (the railway) as the treasure it is,” he says. “I’m going to clean it up and preserve it, and there are no plans for condos.”
Smith’s wife, Suzy, has a Northern Neck, Va., boatbuilding connection. Her grandfather, Claude Bray, was one of three brothers, with Raymond and Wilson Bray, who were all well-known boat carpenters in the Reedville area. The couple own a 40-foot yacht tug-style vessel built in 1968 at Rice’s Marine Railway in Fairport, known today as Jennings Marine Railway.
“Suzy’s grandfather, Claude, worked at the yard in 1968 and helped build the tug,” says Smith. “When she found out it was for sale and that her grandfather helped build it, we had to have it.”
Coincidentally, Junior Fisher of A.C. Fisher Jr. Marine Railway of Wicomico Church, Va., called the same week we reached out to George M. Butler concerning the sale of his railway. Fisher called to say he had the deadrise workboat Southwind waiting in line to go up on the rails for painting and routine maintenance. Southwind was the last round stern deadrise workboat built by George P. Butler in the late 1960s. Southwind is owned by Larry Lewis of Ophelia, Va., and he works it in Virginia’s blue crab pot and gillnet fisheries.