A Laid-Back Atmosphere, And a Bit of History


June 16, 1996|By Bob Allen

Like a lot of former bayside resorts, there is little about present-day Chesapeake Beach that suggests its storied past.

Townhouse developments -- a relatively new addition to the landscape -- crowd next to the water. Cars rush across the small bridge over the boat basin at the mouth of Fishing Creek. Pleasure craft jam the marina. Gulls flit over the breakwater and small boardwalk in front of the Rod N' Reel, a popular bayside restaurant/bar that recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. Six miles across the Chesapeake Bay's smooth waters Tilghman Island shimmers in the haze like a mirage.

Two things originally shaped this northeastern Calvert County community of 3,000: a long-vanished, 28-mile short-line railway that ran from Washington, D.C., and a large amusement park that closed nearly a quarter of a century ago. Today, the park and railway live only in old sepia photos, and in the hearts of many of Chesapeake Beach's longtime residents.

"Without the Chesapeake Beach Railway and the park there probably would be no Chesapeake Beach today," says Harriet M. Stout. Stout is curator of the Chesapeake Beach Railway Museum. This fascinating archive of the town's past is housed in the 1898 train station, just across the parking lot from the Rod N' Reel. From 1900 until 1935 this was the southern terminus of the Chesapeake Beach Railway.

Today the station is the only surviving building from the original amusement park, which opened in June 1900. The museum is chockablock with photos and relics of the park's golden age, when it boasted a huge roller coaster that extended out over the water, a 1,600-foot boardwalk and a dance pavilion that presented national touring bands of the day.

There's china from the elegant Belvedere Hotel that burned in 1923. There's an ornate wooden kangaroo from the Dentzel-designed park carousel. There's an old slot machine -- a relic of the two decades (1948-1968) when the one-armed bandits drove the local economy. Outside the station is Dolores, the only surviving car from the railway.

The museum exists thanks to efforts of locals like Mildred Finlon, 86, whose husband once managed the amusement park, and who donated the carousel kangaroo. And Gerald Donovan, 47. Donovan, along with his brother and business partner, Fred, owns the Rod N' Reel and some of the adjoining property. The Donovan brothers donated the station (now on the National Register of Historic Places) to the Calvert County Historical Society in 1979. At the time it was being used as a storage shed.

"It was sad when the park closed in 1972. It was the end of an era," says Gerald Donovan. Like his father and grandfather were before him, Donovan is mayor of Chesapeake Beach and has interests in several local businesses. His grandfather, Wesley Stinnetts, bought into the amusement park in 1947 and operated it for many years. As a kid, Donovan mowed lawns and did odd jobs at the park.

"I saw the preservation of the station and the creation of the museum as a drawing card," he explains. "Something that would bring people to Chesapeake Beach to relive the past and give them a glimpse of how the town got started."

It all started back in the 1890s when a group of outside investors envisioned a lavish saltwater resort connected to the nation's capital by its own rail line -- a sort of U.S./East Coast version of Monte Carlo, complete with a racetrack and casinos. The large tracts of available bayside land, proximity to the nation's capital and accessibility to steamers from Baltimore drew them to this then-isolated locale.

Many of these same things -- pleasant saltwater vistas, reasonable real estate prices and manageable commutes to D.C. and Annapolis -- have brought a new wave of residents to Chesapeake Beach in the last 10-15 years.

Mike Kauffman, 39, and his wife, Mary, 31, are representative of these newcomers. They moved to Chesapeake Beach in 1991, shortly after they were married. Though Kauffman is a historian -- a nationally recognized authority on the Lincoln assassination -- he was oblivious to Chesapeake Beach's history when he relocated here from the Waldorf area. The Kauffmans were attracted by the laid-back atmosphere and easy commute to their jobs in the greater D.C. area.

"I soon got an instant history lesson, though," Kauffman recalls with a chuckle. "It amazed me how everywhere I went around the state, when I told people where I lived, it would be, 'Oh, I used to go to the amusement park down there!' "

The town of Chesapeake Beach was chartered in 1894. Because of local anti-gambling ordinances, the park, when completed, was more an everyman's resort than a Monte Carlo. In June 1900 the railroad hauled its first load of passengers to the park's grand opening. More than 5,000 patrons were regaled by high-wire artists, dancing bears, polka bands, hot-air balloons, deep-sea divers and fireworks displays.

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