Two or three times a year, staff at the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Lab will get a call from a local citizen who has been beachcombing along the Chesapeake Bay at Brownie’s Beach. While better known as a place for hunting fossils from the Miocene, the calls we get are about the small, colorful glass beads that are also a common find there. Many people think they have discovered Indian trade beads, while in actuality the beads are of a more recent vintage. Two likely explanations for why the beads are present at Brownie Beach have been posited: that they are washing up from a 20th-century ship that wrecked nearby or that they were souvenirs from the now-defunct amusement park once located just to the north, in Chesapeake Beach.
Today’s thrill seekers flock to Six Flags, Disney World or Busch Gardens in search of lightning-fast roller coasters and laser light shows. The precursors of these modern attractions were outdoor amusement parks, often located in waterfront resorts. Here, the double attractions of sea bathing and carnival-type rides and games drew large crowds in the summers.
Amusement parks had their beginnings in the late 19th century, springing up at the terminal ends of streetcar lines, along the outskirts of American cities (Mohun 2001:294). Their cultural roots could be found in fairgrounds, carnivals, fair midways and picnic grounds (Mohun 2001:294). Amusement parks were particularly popular along the Chesapeake Bay and on Maryland’s riverfronts at the end of the 19th century and continuing well in to the 20th century. In the pre-automobile age, visitors arrived by train or steamship, which made regular runs from Baltimore and Washington D.C.
In Chesapeake Beach, the earliest attractions—a carousel, “the Great Derby” roller coaster and games of chance—were located along the boardwalk; these rides later moved a little inland to form Seaside Park (Chesapeake Beach History 2014). In addition to the more adult thrills of roller coasters, more family-friendly miniature airplane rides and swings were popular at waterfront amusement parks by the early 20th century. Day trippers could also enjoy bingo parlors, motion picture theaters, bowling alleys, skating rinks, food concessions and midway-style games of chance. These amusement parks catered in particular to the working and lower middle classes – groups with some disposable income to spend on a day at the waterfront.
Perhaps the most bizarre attraction ever seen in a Maryland amusement park was the embalmed whale on display in 1889 at the Tolchester Beach Amusement Park in Kent County. Ladies and gentlemen who wished to enjoy a tea party inside the furnished and carpeted mouth of the whale walked up the steps that had been constructed over the whale’s jaw (Rhodes 2005). One can only hope the novelty of channeling Jonah overcame what surely must have been a terrible odor of formaldehyde!
Not surprisingly for this era, the parks across the country were racially segregated. Maryland was no exception, and a number of beaches and amusement parks catered to the sizable black populations of Baltimore and Washington D.C. Around 1894, an African-American owned company, The Notley Hall Association, opened an amusement park on the shores of the Potomac, near Washington, D. C. A steamship line brought residents from the hot and crowded cities for fresh air and good times at the dance pavilion, bowling alley, swings and shooting gallery (National Register). The park was in operation from 1894 to 1924 (Rhodes 2005:8). Carr Beach in Annapolis was another African American amusement park—one that attracted top-notch entertainment, including Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald.
The demise of the river and bay front resorts in Maryland began during the Great Depression and World War II and continued once the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel was constructed in the 1950s. Car ownership had become common by this time, and people began heading to the more easily accessible oceanfront (Lutz 2009). The amusement park in Chesapeake Beach remained in operation under various names until 1972, but like most of the state’s amusement parks, now exists mainly in photographs. The Dentzel carousel from the park was restored and re-opened to the public in Upper Marlboro in 1977 (Prince George’s County).
Chesapeake Beach 2014 Our Town History. Website accessed February 5, 2014. http://www.chesapeakebeach.md.us/ourtown_history.htm
Lutz, Laura 2009 For a long time, visiting the ‘beach’ meant the Bay. The Bay Journal, September 1, 2009. http://www.bayjournal.com/article/for_a_long_time_visiting_the_beach_meant_the_bay Website accessed February 5, 2014.
Mohun, Arwen P. 2001 Designed for Thrills and Safety: Amusement Parks and the Commodification of Risk, 1880-1929. Journal of Design History 14(4):291-306.
National Register 1996 Admirathoria/Upper Notley Hall. PG80-5. Individual Property/District National Register nomination form. Maryland Historical Trust. Website accessed February 5, 2014. http://msa.maryland.gov/megafile/msa/stagsere/se1/se5/019000/019100/019189/pdf/msa_se5_19189.pdf.
Prince George’s County 2014 Prince George’s County Parks & Recreation.Watkins Regional Park. Accessed 2-19-2014: http://www.pgparks.com/Things_To_Do/Nature/Watkins_Regional_Park/Watkins_Antique_Carousel__Train___Miniature_Golf.htm
Rhodes, Jason 2005 Maryland’s Amusement Parks. Images of America Series. Arcadia Publishing, Charleston, South Carolina.