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What's Up Magazine

Chesapeake Beach

Jul 24, 2012 06:30PM ● By Anonymous

Chances are it’s the same view, minus the modern development, that inspired Colorado railroad developer Otto Mears to dream of building what he hoped would become “The Monte Carlo of the Eastern Seaboard” when he first arrived in the late-1800s.


According to lifelong Chesapeake Beach resident Jonie Kilmon, people have seen that view and cried because they realize they are home. “They drive down here, get to the end of the road, don’t know where they are and are like ‘Oh my gosh, this is where I want to live.’”

For nearly 120 years, Chesapeake Beach and the neighboring town of North Beach have been drawing people to their shorelines, first as a vacation destination and more recently as thriving communities. But it hasn’t always looked like it does now. If anything, the story of Chesapeake Beach is a story of birth and rebirth that begins with the building of the Chesapeake Beach Railroad in 1886.

A Magnificent Boardwalk

Harriet Stout, curator at the Chesapeake Beach Railway Museum says that the railway was built to bring people to a grand resort that would include hotels with 300-400 rooms, horse racing, entertainment and casino gambling. Blueprints were made and the racetrack built but the developers could not obtain permission for gambling. Only one luxury hotel, the Belvedere was actually developed but the horse track was never used and slot machines didn’t arrive until after World War II. Although Mears’ dream of an exclusive resort for the wealthy never materialized, the boardwalk resort opened in June of 1900 and it was a huge success.

“Without the gambling and an expensive high lifestyle, middle class and working class people flocked to the place. It was a very popular place for people to come to escape from the city,” Stout says adding that the timing was just right. “By the late 1800s, the technology of the trolleys and railways was in place allowing people to travel further than their feet could carry them. And for the first time, middle class and working class people were discovering leisure time. The idea of leisure was fairly new in the 1890s.” People could catch the trolley to the southeast corner of Washington, D.C., pick up the train, and arrive at the beach in about an hour and a half. Suddenly a day or weekend trip to the beach was a real possibility.

chesapeake3Within 10 years or so, lots were being sold in adjacent North Beach (for $100–300) and the entire area was becoming a popular summer destination. As an advertising brochure from 1912 described it, “There is no place like a home at North Beach, an ideal summer resort. No other place within easy access of Washington where tired men and women can obtain that much needed rest from the trials and cares of the day.”

During the early 1900s the majority of the resort was on a boardwalk that extended a mile into the Chesapeake Bay at its longest point. The pier was so long that miniature trains would bring people in from the ferries that traveled from Baltimore and docked in the deeper waters. Along the boardwalk people could play games of chance to win prizes, dance in the dancehall, dine at a number of restaurants, swim at the beach, or listen to performers play in the band shell. Rides such as “The Great Derby,” a large roller coaster built in 1916, and a merry-go-round where the most daring children could reach for a gold ring were also highlights of the boardwalk.  

Day travelers on the Chesapeake Beach Railway weren’t the only people coming to the area. Many were staying for the summer and North Beach was becoming something of a “company town” supporting the railway and resort. Many of the personalities of those days are preserved at the Chesapeake Railway Museum in Chesapeake Beach.

Enise Milton, one such individual, was a retired opera singer who took it upon herself to teach the local children to swim forming the Milton Life Saving Club (MLSC) during the 1920s and 30s. Stout says that older residents of the Chesapeake Beach community could remember taking free swimming lessons from Milton. “She would make everybody jump off the end of the long pier which was fairly deep water,” Stout says. Milton even went so far as to recruit area businesses to sponsor trophies for the children, one of which is preserved at the museum.

The first incarnation of the resort at Chesapeake Beach lasted until the late 1920s. By this time the Bay was starting to take its toll on both the boardwalk and the roller coaster. The Belvedere Hotel burned in 1923 and the merry-go-round burned in 1926. The steam ferries stopped bringing passengers in 1925 and finally, the Chesapeake-Potomac Hurricane of 1933 destroyed what was left of the boardwalk. “During the mid-1920s, they lost a lot of things that were important,” Stout says.

1930 to World War II
The Seaside Park Years

But this didn’t mean the end of the resort. A merry-go-round was brought in to replace the old one and a new roller coaster was built on land using lumber from the original buildings on the boardwalk. The boardwalk was reconstructed, now curving over land leading to the hub of activities at the new “Seaside Park” which opened in 1930. (The second merry-go-round operates today at Watkins Regional Park in Upper Marlboro.)

chesapeake5But the 1930s were tough on the park. The Wilson Ferry Line started bringing passengers down from Baltimore but the depression made it difficult for people to spend their money at a resort like Chesapeake Beach. In 1935, the Chesapeake Beach Railway closed due to bankruptcy, ending the original lifeline to the resort. People could travel by car now though, and the park stayed open throughout the 1930s holding beauty pageants, festivals, and other events to attract visitors. But the economy was affecting everyone. Stout says that she even found letters from park management asking the band, “Bernie Jarboe and his Nighthawks,” to take a voluntary pay cut for their performances in the band shell.

The start of World War II brought an end to the park, but according to Stout, people still came to visit the restaurants and enjoy the shorelines of Chesapeake and North Beach. “One of my older friends who was courting his wife at that point says that three or four couples would pool their gas coupons, get in a car and come down to Chesapeake Beach and you could always find good food and drink. Even though the park was closed it was still a destination—even during the war years,” Stout says.

The Chesapeake Beach Amusement Park

Shortly after World War II the park reopened and was soon purchased by Wesley Stinnett and partners Joseph O’Mara and the Cate brothers (Lucius, Ronald and Clifford) of Baltimore. Together they bought the Seaside Park which included the building that now houses the Rod and Reel restaurant and the old railway station. They renamed it Chesapeake Beach Amusement Park and the resort thrived once again as a family amusement park complete with kiddy rides, food, penny arcade games and, for the first time since the inception of the resort, slot machines.

“Gaming was one of the main reasons the builders of the railway came here. They built a race track that never had a horse run on it because of the gaming laws. There was a casino without casino games,” Kilmon says. However from 1948 until they were phased out in the 1960s slots were a big draw for the resort.  That tradition continues today with the Bingo parlor and Bingo machines that are a popular attraction at the current Chesapeake Beach Resort.

Once again a thriving community grew around the park and the summer travelers who came to visit. As with the earlier resort, the memories of many of the individuals who left their stamp upon the area are preserved at the Chesapeake Beach Railway Museum.  It’s hard not to talk about the park in those days without hearing about Mildred and Harold Finlon. Harold was the park manager for years and Mildred passed along many fond memories of the resort before she passed away in 2007. Mildred grew up playing on the boardwalk as a child, swimming with the MLSC and paddling her canoe along the shores of the resort. Harold’s father previously managed Glenn Echo Park just outside of D.C and when the resort’s park reopened in the 1940s, Harold was brought on as manager.

By the late 1960s, however, the country was changing both economically and socially. The newly built Chesapeake Bay Bridge allowed easy access to the ocean and the loss of slot machines combined with growth of newer amusement parks turned visitors’ interest elsewhere. The old dance hall burned in 1970 and in 1972 the Chesapeake Beach Amusement Park was closed for good.

From the 1970s through the 1980s, Chesapeake Beach went through what Stout referred to as a down time. “But because it was on the water and its location, you could tell that there was going to be a rebirth,” she says.

The Rebirth of a Modern Resort Town

chesapeake4By the early 1990s, developers had rediscovered Chesapeake and North Beach and brought with them waterfront condominiums, new housing developments, and an influx of new residents and energy.  In 2004, Gerald and Fred Donavon followed in their grandfather Wesley Stinnett’s footsteps by expanding the Rod ‘N’ Reel Restaurant and Marina which they purchased in 1978, into the Chesapeake Beach Resort and Spa which opened in 2004.

“My brothers Gerald and Fred worked very hard to make the Chesapeake Beach Resort and Spa a rebirth of the grandeur of the area,” Kilmon says. “They love surrounding themselves with the past because it reminds you of who you are. It’s come full circle now that we have this big hotel just down the street from where the old Belvedere used to be.”  

The Donavons’ dedication to the history of Chesapeake Beach can be seen in the old photos that are hung throughout the resort and their support of the Chesapeake Beach Railway Museum. This past fall, in a move that harkens back to the days of the boardwalk, a replica of the old band shell opened at the resort. During the first two concerts held at the band shell the resort staff even dressed in period clothing complete with straw boaters.  

But according to Kilmon, it’s not just the resort that has brought a rebirth to Chesapeake and North Beach. “All of the new people that have moved here have brought a new energy and happiness. They are driving this change. They also bring great leadership. Right now the town council sees a problem and they solve it. Skateboarding on the streets was becoming an issue so they built a skate park. The rail trail was the perfect response to community needs.”

The city has also continued the development of a resort atmosphere with the building of a new water park and three public boardwalks in the area.

boardwalkStout says, “The water park was an effort to recapture that sense of a resort and it’s one of the many things bringing people back.” She adds of course that fishing never left and the area has long been known as the “Charter Fishing Capital of Maryland.”

Kilmon adds, “It’s funny how we’ve been hidden all these years but it’s being rediscovered.”
From the morning traffic jams as commuters honk at local geese that refuse to get out of the road to the rebirth as a resort destination, the towns of Chesapeake and North Beach continue on a path first envisioned nearly 120 years ago. And although the original vision of grand resorts and high rolling casinos never came to be, it doesn’t take long for visitors to recognize why locals refer to the region as “The Jewel of the Chesapeake Bay.”

Photographs by Larry French