Waterfront Amusement Parks in Maryland

Figure 1.  A sample of beads from Brownie Beach.

Figure 1. A sample of beads from Brownie Beach.

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.

Figure 2.  The Great Derby roller coaster at Chesapeake Beach Amusement Park.  Photo from http://www.bayjournal.com/article/for_a_long_time_visiting_the_beach_meant_the_bay.

Figure 2. The Great Derby roller coaster at Chesapeake Beach Amusement Park. Photo from http://www.bayjournal.com/article/for_a_long_

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.

Figure 3.  A late 19th-century postcard advertising the whale attraction at Tolchester Beach Amusement Park.  Photo from  http://tomcat56.wordpress.com/2012/03/20/the-late-great-tolchester-beach-amusement-park/

Figure 3. A late 19th-century postcard advertising the whale attraction at Tolchester Beach Amusement Park. Photo from http://tomcat56.wordpress.com/2012/03/20/the-late-great-tolchester-beach-amusement-park/

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.

Figure 4.  Sarah Vaughan at Carr Beach in 1956.  Photo from http://www.baltimoreorless.com.

Figure 4. Sarah Vaughan at Carr Beach in 1956. Photo from http://www.baltimoreorless.com.

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.

8 thoughts on “Waterfront Amusement Parks in Maryland

  1. Most of the beads at Brownies are late 1800’s early 1900 Bohemian. A few have been found that are not, like a Venetian Greenheart from the 1700s. This has been verified by The State of Maryland Underwater Archaeologist Dr. Langely and Ben Curry. The best assumption we can come up with is they were stolen off a ship or thrown overboard to lighten the load in a low tide. If they had beads at the amusement park, certainly it would have been documented.

    • I found a small Greenheart bead at Brownie’s beach, and also a few larger hand-wound beads that I think might be just as old. One style of bead I found there even looks very similar to the beads found at Jamestown.

  2. I used to search for fossils at Brownie’s beach then I started finding glass beads so I started collecting those too. I’ve actually found more than 52 different types of beads at Brownie’s beach including a small Greenheart bead and several larger donut shaped hand-wound beads of various colors like green, blue, black, and red. Some of the beads even closely resemble the beads found at the Jamestown settlement. I think those Greenheart beads and the hand wound beads would be quite a bit older than the early 1900’s.

  3. Is anyone able to post pictures of the beads found, to include the Greenheart bead? I just went and found a small round white bead that looks like it’s been etched/carved on the outer perimiter.

  4. I have been researching the area of Chesapeake Beach fairly intensely for the past 7 years and have found over 28,000 of these Amusement Park beads to date. Over 100 varieties of glass beads. As well as European trade beads, arrowheads, clay pipe, Indian beads and more. Hoping to publish a paper in 2019. I am working with Dr. Susan Langley and Julie A. King on two separate areas of research involving artifacts found at Brownies/Bayfront Park and the surrounding area. At one time there were 2 Native American Indian villages located in what is now the township of Chesapeake Beach, MD.

    • Hi Scott. I’ll look forward to learning more about your research. Susan and Julie are both colleagues and good folks to work with. I don’t doubt that there were Native American villages in that area. The only beads that people bring to the lab for identification are very modern cylindrical glass beads, so that is where my post originated. I am sure people find older beads there, but I imagine that most of the one people find were somehow associated with the amusement park.

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