On a Saturday in August 85 years ago, city streetcars bolted toward the cooling waters of Chesapeake Bay.
Their destination was the new Bay Shore Park, where Professor Giuseppe Aiala's Royal Artillery Band was brassily playing "You're a Grand Old Flag" and other hit songs of the day. Beach-goers spent the day avoiding sea nettles, getting a sunburn and eating 50-cent fish dinners. The park was a smashing success.
When dark came, thousands of carbon-filament lights outlined the towers and gazebos of the park's pavilions, restaurant and bowling alley. Bay Shore's explosion of electricity was visible clear across the Chesapeake in Kent County. Before long, even skeptical Eastern Shore families boarded steamboats across the bay for a day's entertainment at Bay Shore.
This past weekend, some residents of the Edgemere-Fort Howard section of eastern Baltimore County celebrated the park's opening on Aug. 11, 1906. They talked about old times and their experiences at this nearly forgotten playland, which closed to the public in 1947. Now called North Point State Park and Black Marsh Wildlands, it offers 1,310 acres open to the public for fishing and hiking.
"Almost every weekend, there was a live orchestra and dance marathons. Back then, people mostly did the fox trot," said Steve Takos Sr., who first set duckpins by hand at the park's bowling alley in 1938. He earned a nickel a game and had to watch out that some smart aleck bowler wouldn't lob a ball into the pit where the pinboys labored.
Takos, who lives in the 7300 block of Bay Front Road, recalls the Punch and Judy shows, a merry-go-round (with brass rings for a free ride), boxing matches, bumper cars, a roller coaster, a miniature railroad on the pier, grab bags and carnival games such as ring toss.
Not too much of the old park remains. The old restaurant pavilion, with its towers reminiscent of some arcade at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, is no more. But the fountain which once stood on its front lawn remains. So too the sidewalk of cement paving blocks that led to the formal arrangement of park buildings so carefully conceived by architects Otto Simonson and Theodore Wells Pietsch. A bronze plaque in the sidewalk reads: "Filbert Paving and Construction Co., 1210 Block St."
The old trolley station has survived gloriously. Though it lacks a roof, it is still a beauty, a great arched shed of strong Georgia pine timbers. Day-trippers swarmed its platform when the "triple deckers" (three linked rail cars) arrived and disgorged scores of passengers.
Another Bay Shore survivor is the old power house, an immense poured concrete building that seems strangely out of place in the middle of a wildlife preserve. Its furnaces once generated electric current for the streetcars that needed a boost at this far eastern extremity of the old United Railways and Electric Company's system. The generators also supplied voltage to the park's rides.
When the Bethlehem Steel Company purchased the parkland (it ZTC feared that the rival U.S. Steel was going to put a plant here), it left the concrete powerhouse standing.
"It was secluded in a grove of trees and Bethlehem stored its secret government ship patterns in it. The feeling was that if Sparrows Point was ever bombed from the air, the ship patterns would be safe in another place," Takos said.
"I'll guarantee you, you won't be skunked if you fish from our pier. It's one of the best fishing places in the Upper Bay," said park ranger Mark Wheeler of the large structure. A miniature railroad once traveled the pier's length.
After purchasing the park, Bethlehem Steel declared it off limits to the public and used it as a hunting preserve for its executives. Residents who lived nearby could catch only glimpses of Chesapeake Bay because of the dense tree cover at Bay Shore. Even today, some environmentalists have voiced objections about overdevelopment at Bay Shore.
Today, the park has a small visitor center facing the bay. There are displays of old photos and artifacts. Not too long ago, the rangers got people with metal detectors to see what they could unearth on the old beach. They found many old brass medallions that were used to check clothes when visitors rented wool bathing garb at the park. The metal detectors also found many religious medals that were worn by Roman Catholics, whose parishes chartered whole strings of streetcars for a day's outing at the park.
Takos also took rangers to an old dump where they found the heavy crockery dishes with the initials "BSP" on them that were used in the restaurant.
The dishes, medallions and medals serve as reminders of the days when people flocked to the park. In August 1991, Bay Shore is now the preserve of mink, blue heron, beaver, blacksnakes, deer, muskrat, snapping turtles, black rail birds, joe-pye weed, holly, sweet gum trees, marsh mallow and many, many green-head flies.