Matt Smith, right, bought Reedville Marine Railway in April from George M. Butler, left. The railway and wooden boatbuilding operation was in the Butler family for 106 years. Photo: Larry Chowning

Historic Reedville Railway Sold after 115 Years in Same Family

Reedville Marine Railway in Reedville, Va., has been owned by the Butler family for 115 years. The three-generation stint came to an end in April when George M. Butler, 69, sold the railway to another steward of old wooden boats. The new buyer, Matt Smith, plans to use the railway to haul his own collection of wooden boats and keep it as a piece of Reedville history.

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. Its unique history is detailed in our July 2018 story “A Life Measured in Skiffs”.

Samuel 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.

Samuel died in 1933 and George P. took over the yard. He built boats and operated the railway until his death in 1976 when George M. took over ownership and operations. 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 in 2003 at his home dock on Cockrell Creek in for some top work repair.

“I feel relieved to have the railway off my shoulders but boatbuilding and boat work is what I do 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 and continue to build “Butler Skiffs”. He has a 1950 Chris-Craft runabout stored away that he has been talking about restoring for years and that’s in his plans, he says.

A lover of classic boats himself, Smith trades under the name of “WoodyBoater” whose website promotes “restoration and preservation” of classic wooden boats. He says he purchased the railway for personal use to maintain his own boats; to provide hauling accommodation for classic pleasure and work boats; and to preserve a classic railway.

“A railway is an important part of the wooden boat culture,” says Smith. “I’m not going to run this as a professional boat shop. I’m just a caretaker for the next generation of wooden boaters. I’m keeping it as the treasure it is. I’m going to clean it up and preserve it,” he says.

Smith’s wife Suzy has her own ties to the Reedville boatbuilding tradition. Her grandfather Claude Bray was one of three brothers, Raymond and Wilson Bray, who were all well-known boat carpenters in the area. The couple own a 40-foot tug style trawler named Sweet Pea built in 1968 at Rice’s Marine Railway near Reedville.

“Suzy’s grandfather, Claude, worked at the yard in 1968 and helped build Sweet Pea,” says Smith. “When she
found out it was for sale and that her grandfather helped build it, we had to have it.”

At the railway in May, Butler and Smith met for an interview.

“I think I can find some more boats around that the Brays (Suzy’s grandfather and great uncles) built,” says Butler. Smith says, “Well if you find one, I’ve got a place to work on it now.”

-Larry Chowning