For city dwellers in the early half of the last century, urban amusement parks offered cheap escapism. For a small fee and a streetcar ride across town, you could test your luck on the midway, kiss your sweetheart in the Tunnel of Love, or scream away your troubles as you rode the Racer Dip. Shore parks, however, did one better. Clustered along the eastern and western beaches of the Chesapeake Bay and along Maryland’s rivers, these parks boasted the same amusements as their urban brethren, plus the lure of surf and sand. From Mago Vista and Chesapeake Beach on the western shore to Tolchester in Kent County, parks and resorts offered a day (or week) of blissful respite from urban life.
Tolchester Beach Amusement Park, Kent County
Tolchester opened in 1877, and like other parks of the Victorian era, saw most of its visitors in the first 40 years of its existence. Getting there was half the fun. “Bring your lunch and forget your troubles out on the deep blue sea. Wonderful tonic and salt air for the babies,” read the slogan for the Tolchester Steamboat Co.
Up through the early 1950s, it remained a popular excursion for families and church groups. A 1948 Sun article, for example, heralded the opening of the new park season with the arrival of 1,800 Catholic schoolchildren from Baltimore in “rented swimsuits … eating hot dogs and soda.”
The park offered a plethora of amusements from goat-drawn carts to Shoot the Chute, on which patrons whooshed down a steep track in a boat-shaped car. Rides cost anywhere between 10 and 20 cents, and the entrance fee in the 1950s was a quarter. A sign, now on display in the Tolchester Revisited Museum, requests patrons to “Pay as you leave,” a remnant, says museum curator Bill Betts, of “an era when people trusted each other,” and offered small tokens of kindness—like the engineer of the Little Jumbo train who, as a service to young mothers, heated baby bottles on the train’s engine.
Betts’ museum is full of memorabilia that captures the spirit of Tolchester. Most interesting might be the advertisement urging folks to “Go see the whale at Tolchester,” which was an enormous carcass of a whale whose mouth cavity was carpeted and used for ladies’ teas and men’s oyster dinners, according to Betts.
Although it received state subsidies, Tolchester was “always in debt,” says Betts, and the park often failed to turn a profit. It was finally purchased for development in 1962.
Mago Vista, Anne Arundel County
Mago Vista (its name meant “large view”) was one of several parks on Anne Arundel County’s waterways. But unlike Kurtz’s Beach on the Patapsco or Crystal Beach on the Magothy, Mago Vista disallowed alcohol and gambling, making it a valued spot for families and church groups. “A small Disneyland on the Magothy,” one publication called it.
“We always went to Mago Vista,” remembers Harry Greenwell, a member of the Ann Arrundell County Historical Society’s board of trustees. “Every year St. Alban’s had a picnic there.”
Founded by builder Robert Benson, Mago Vista began offering amusements, in addition to the beach, picnic, and dance pavilion, in 1938. There was a carousel, pint-sized burros for children to ride, kiddie jeeps, the Toonerville Trolley, and the loping Little Dipper roller coaster, whose U-shaped track extended 120 feet over the water.
One of the park’s oddest attractions was its alligator pond, a concrete pool surrounded by an 8-foot fence, that held the live alligators that Robert Benson’s son, Harold, bought from the Baltimore Zoo.
In an article in The Capital, Harold Benson’s son, Robert, recalls: “When his pair of gators reached 7 feet long, becoming more difficult to manage, Dad would go up there [to Baltimore] and trade them in for a smaller set.” While the alligators were an exciting attraction for children who would catch fish and toss them to the gators, the reptiles took on a more sinister role during the ’60s when Harold Benson would leash a pair to intimidate groups who protested Mago Vista’s “Gentiles Only. No Negroes” policy. The park eventually became known as the Mago Vista Beach Club Association and sold park passes only to those who passed inspection by the clerk at the front gate.
In 1964, Harold Benson sold the park’s 14 acres to developers for $300,000.
Brown’s Grove, Anne Arundel County
Brown’s Grove, near Rock Creek, was one of the earliest waterfront amusement parks run by and for African-Americans. Founded by Capt. George Brown, who would become the first African-American member of the Master Mates and Pilots Association, the park billed itself as “the black community’s first, last, and only seaside resort with its own to-and-from excursion boat,” according to
a Sun article.
Folks would take Brown’s boat, the Starlight, from the pier at the foot of Broadway in Fells Point to the park where they could ride the merry-go-round, brave the Racer Dip, try their luck on the midway, or enjoy a simple picnic. Brown’s Grove flourished during the ’20s, but was consumed by fire in 1938.
Betterton Beach, Kent County
By the time it was incorporated in 1906, Betterton was already a bustling resort complete with hotels, restaurants and saloons, and amusements. Its location, just above the confluence of the Sassafras, Elk, and Susquehanna rivers, made it easy to reach by steamers, like the Bay Belle. Folks of means came from Philadelphia, as well as day trippers from Baltimore and Annapolis, to spend time away from the city.
There was plenty to occupy them. A postcard of the beach shows the long amusement pier that held a bowling alley and a room of pocket billiards stretching over the water. In the foreground, men in suits with hats and women in white dresses and parasols or thigh-length bathing suits rest on the beach. Other amusements included a skating rink, bumper cars, and a movie house.
Dot Wright, now a volunteer at the Historical Society of Kent County, worked as a waitress at the Betterton Restaurant in the mid-1940s when she was 13. She recalls Saturday night dance parties held in an open-air dance hall above the bowling alley and the three colorful cooks at the restaurant who whipped up everything from fried chicken to “the most marvelous dinner rolls and pies.” She says that someone at the restaurant would call daily to find out how many people were on the excursion line from Baltimore. “Somehow they always knew how many dinners to prepare.”
By the 1950s, the beach resort had begun to fade due to the opening of the Bay Bridge, which took visitors farther afield to Ocean City. Today, it’s a public beach.
Chesapeake Beach, Calvert County
Chesapeake Beach embodied the classic “if you build it, they will come” philosophy of development. Otto Mears, a Russian immigrant and railroad tycoon living in Colorado, moved east in 1895 specifically with the idea of opening a resort on the shores of the Chesapeake and a railroad connecting it to Washington, D.C.
The first train arrived at the new resort on June 9, 1900, and by the 1920s, more than 10,000 people would make the trip on busy weekends.
The resort’s 1,600-foot boardwalk was built over the water and boasted a crab house, casino, dance hall, bowling alley, band shell, and the Great Derby, an enormous roller coaster that ran over the water.
Many day trippers took the 50-cent, 60-minute express train from D.C., but overnight guests could stay at the luxurious Belvedere Hotel, which was destroyed by fire in 1923. “It was a terrible fire,” recalls resident Elizabeth Stinnett in one of the Chesapeake Beach Railway Museum’s oral history interviews, “and we didn’t have no fire engines—no equipment at all. So they had a bucket brigade and everybody in Chesapeake Beach had a bucket and carried water, trying to put that fire out.”
The hotel was never rebuilt, and the park was relaunched as Seaside Park in 1930. By 1935, facing competition from the automobile and the continuing Great Depression, the railroad stopped operating. The park, under new management, was reinvented again in the 1940s as the Chesapeake Beach Amusement Park, which finally closed in 1972. Eventually the land was developed into what is now Chesapeake Station, a residential community. The only vestiges of Otto Mears’ dream can be found at the railway museum, located, fittingly, at 4155 Mears Ave.
Carr’s and Sparrow’s Beaches, Anne Arundel County
Opened in 1927 by two African-American sisters, Elizabeth Carr Smith and Florence Carr Sparrow, Carr’s and Sparrow’s Beaches, just south of Annapolis, were the destination spots for African-Americans from Baltimore and Washington, D.C., looking for sun, surf, music, and amusements.
The beaches drew huge crowds for church outings, bay swimming, beauty contests, rides, and music concerts featuring popular entertainers, from Billy “Mr. B” Eckstine and Dizzy Gillespie to James Brown and Chuck Berry. (Similar concerts were held at Henry’s Beach in Somerset County.) During the late 1950s, it was not unusual for up to 50,000 people to drive to Carr’s and Sparrow’s and pay $1.50 before noon and $2 after for a 3 o’clock Sunday performance.
“Carr’s was kind of groovy, be-boppy,” says National Public Radio commentator, writer, and social activist Daphne Muse. “Beaches were a real novel concept for us [urban African-Americans]. You saw them [beaches] in magazines. You saw them in National Geographic.” But to actually go to a beach, she explains, was a tremendous coup.
Life in the city could be tough, but the beach, says Muse, “was a place you could go and be relieved of the burdens and everyday droning of black life.” Frank Zappa played the final concert at Carr’s Beach in 1974. The property was sold in the 1980s and today is the site of Chesapeake Harbour Condominiums.
Public Landing, Worcester County
A merry-go-round and a bowling alley. A movie theater and a penny arcade. Billiards, food concessions, and a whopper of a waterslide, taller than any other buildings around it. This was Public Landing, a resort community just 6 miles east of Snow Hill. Located on Chincoteague Bay, Public Landing was an amusement hub from the late 19th century through the 1930s. But unlike other parks that were built along water, Public Landing was built on a series of piers and boardwalks that extended out over the water. One can imagine that the combination of sea spray and bay breezes acted as natural air conditioning on the walks, making the boast, “where it’s always cool,” in a 1929 advertisement for the park, a truthful claim. The park was destroyed by hurricane in 1933.
Colonial Beach, Va.
Colonial Beach on Virginia’s Northern Neck has a long history of luring tourists by steamer to its shores, earning the nickname of the “Playground on the Potomac” not long after its inception, in the late 19th century. Initially, the attractions were bathing beaches, fishing, and boating. Later, in the 1950s, Washingtonians and Baltimoreans flocked to the town’s casinos which were located on a pier that extended into the Maryland waters of the Potomac where gambling was legal. But throughout the years, there were always amusements. “Back in ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, there was a skating rink,” remembers Jackie Shinn of her hometown, “and dance parlors like the Joyland and Palm Gardens where, in earlier years, folks would dress up to hear the big bands play.”
But if 20th-century Colonial Beach had its charms, it also had its fair share of challenges. Its location—on a flood plain surrounded on three sides by water—made it a ripe target for hurricanes (one in 1933 wiped out the Ferris wheel), and a tremendous fire in the 1960s destroyed the town’s casinos. Still, some of its Victorian buildings—like the Alexander Graham Bell House—remain. And the town has since reinvented itself by offering off-track riverboat gambling as well as the beach and easy access to historical sites, like the birthplace of James Monroe. It’s also adopted golf carts as a legal means of transportation throughout its streets.
Still, says Shinn, the town’s amusement park holds the most memories. “There was a beautiful merry-go-round, a whip, a bullet [which] looked like a capsule on top and bottom. It rotated and made you very sick.” She adds that she knows this from experience.
Freelance writer Mary K. Zajac loves a good amusement park.