A grand dream gone awry Park: In 1960, developers created Aqua-Land and its surrounding community with a vision of fun and fantasy. Now the Charles County gambling palace is crumbling and deserted.

September 10, 1996|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF

A mini-castle, its rusting turrets rising from a dingy facade, is the last great remnant of Aqua-Land Park.

The 400-acre gambling palace and amusement park on the Potomac River is barely recognizable these days -- at least not as the all-night entertainment hub that pulsed and profited at the southern tip of Charles County more than 30 years ago.

Instead, the land and the strip of U.S. 301 that leads into it through Charles County have become awkward reminders of the state's gambling days. Like the dilapidated motels that crumble by the side of the road, Aqua-Land has come to look like a big idea gone bad.

The scenario is much the same at the surrounding community of Cliffton on the Potomac, built by the same developer to turn the shoreline getaway into a year-round neighborhood.

It was based on what remains today a popular concept for coastal development. That is, to create not only a vacation spot or a neighborhood -- but a mixture of both.

"The idea of living at a resort is an eternal interest in our culture -- where life becomes a vacation just by implication," said Ralph Bennett, an architecture professor at the University of Maryland who has tracked the development of such communities. "It's very attractive."

Vacation-style communities are part of a greater architecture and development trend called "theming," in which communities are engineered to create a more enchanting atmosphere than typical suburbs, he said.

This vision of fun and fantasy was exactly what the Conner brothers, Dennis and Delbert, were after when they began carving Aqua-Land and Cliffton from the rural coast in Newburg in 1960.

Flights with free champagne brought Washington and Baltimore visitors to an airstrip at Cliffton for 24 unreal hours. Tigers and bears prowled in a petting zoo, a giant Humpty-Dumpty welcomed visitors to the children's theme park, Storyville U.S.A., and guests traversed the grounds via mini-trains.

The Conners dreamed of creating a "Las Vegas of the East" and building thousands of homes at their Cliffton on Potomac community alongside it. If visitors bought lots and stayed for good, the Conner brothers gave them free kitchen utensils.

"One fed the other," said Dennis "Dennie" Conner, 72, who now lives in Palm City, a retirement community in South Florida. "We did fly-ins and boat-ins and crab feasts that helped the whole development. We did a lot of promoting."

But the disappointments started coming early. First, they lost a choice spot on the shoreline to a PEPCO power plant. Then, they were denied a permit to dig a moat around the property for Jungle-Land. And after it was built, the biggest setback of all: Maryland began phasing out slot machines in 1963.

The community's reason for being withered and Aqua-Land died. It was just a bit too far from Washington or Baltimore to attract summertime crowds, too cold in the winter to attract retirees and too isolated for families searching for suburban conveniences.

The Conners sold the property in 1972. A series of owners went bankrupt throughout the next two decades in efforts to develop the land. Now, the county owns roughly 100 lots and scores more are scattered among different owners.

The land is all but deserted. Where a campground now sits, one dirty pet peacock scratches in a cage surrounded by RVs. Muskrats skitter across what used to be an airstrip. Honeysuckle grows over a cracked park pavilion. And brittle reeds fill the meadows where sky divers performed tricks in Aqua-Land's heyday. A marina built by the Conners is still open, but it does only a fraction of the business they had hoped.

At Cliffton on the Potomac, the neighborhood seems largely forgotten. The community's welcome sign on the riverbank reads "CLIFFTO." Nobody bothered to replace the N when it fell into the river.

Although 2,200 homes are allowed at Cliffton, only 200 are standing. Roads begin but turn to dust, ending abruptly. Streets meant to hold dozens of homes hold only a few -- and some of those houses are for sale. The community swimming pool is gone -- a resident paved it for his back patio -- and views of the water are hidden behind acres of scrubby underbrush long abandoned by gardeners.

Chances are, Aqua-Land won't be getting any help from the county. Murray Levy, head of the Board of County Commissioners in Charles, said if the government were to spend a million dollars it would go toward growing urban hubs -- not Cliffton.

"This place had become a problem by 1971," said Levy, a Democrat who has sat on the board for the last decade. "It might sit there indefinitely."

A few residents are trying to hold on to Cliffton, even though only two people belong to the residents association and the community may lose its front gate because homeowners aren't paying the group electric bill.

"Someday, we'll get discovered again," said Corrine Hilton, 67, who lives on a street full of unbuilt, overgrown lots. "This is a place where eagles fly. This is beautiful land."

But the sight of the overgrown place pains many, especially Conner. His brother has died, and he suffers from cardiac problems, but Conner still cannot keep himself away. He visits what is left of Aqua-Land every summer.

"My heart breaks," he said. "This was my dream."

Pub Date: 9/10/96

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