The Chesapeake Beach Railway and the Town of Chesapeake Beach are inextricably linked. The town was created by the Chesapeake Beach Railway Company as a destination resort and the railroad was built to serve it. Chesapeake Beach was born during a time of historic change and throughout the years has adapted to reflect the changing times.
TURN OF CENTURY
The turn of the 20th century marked tremendous physical and societal changes in the U.S. The railroad impacted the growth of the country after the Civil War. Raw materials, products and people were more easily transported across the U.S., creating unique business opportunities as well as an economic boom.
Industrialization and the growing middle class allowed for more leisure time, which in turn inspired entrepreneurs to build resorts such as Chesapeake Beach – the perfect place to spend this newly found time. These resorts were popping up throughout the country. Vaudeville acts, fairs, all kinds of entertainment and amusements were popular enticements to travelers.
As early as the 1880s, prominent and influential men from various states dreamed and schemed about building a railroad from Washington, D.C. to a resort at Chesapeake Beach, Maryland. The Washington and Chesapeake Beach Railway Company (W&CBRy) was chartered in New Jersey in 1883. Many plans were laid, but limited progress was made by this group and it eventually went bankrupt. In 1891, the W&CBRy Company was chartered by the State of Maryland with a new group of investors. In 1892, it purchased 718 acres centered around the mouth of Fishing Creek, a property known as Chesapeake Beach. Finally, in 1894, the new town of Chesapeake Beach was incorporated and some preliminary work on the railway began. However, that same year, the W&CBRy Company went into receivership due to a lawsuit. Robert E. Tod of J. Kennedy Tod & Company in New York City, an investor in Chesapeake Beach Resort, purchased the assets of the defunct company at the receiver’s sale and reorganized the corporation, naming it the Chesapeake Beach Railway Company (CBRy Co.) chartered in 1896. Lincoln H. Hyer, the court-appointed receiver and chief engineer of the former W&CBRy Company, met Colonel Ambrose C. Dunn in early 1896. Col. Dunn was very interested in the proposed railroad, and later introduced Hyer to Charles Popper and Otto Mears, both from Colorado. Hyer gave Dunn a letter of introduction to J. Kennedy Tod. In August 1897, Dunn, Popper and Mears purchased the Chesapeake Beach Railway Company from J. Kennedy Tod & Company.
OTTO MEARS TAKES OVER
Of these men, it was Otto Mears who became the driving force in construction of the railway and the resort. His vision was to create a resort offering gambling and all the amenities attractive to the wealthy. The railway would make several daily runs from Washington, D.C. bringing visitors to Chesapeake Beach in just over an hour. A long pier from the boardwalk to deeper water would provide a dock for steamships arriving from Baltimore. With these grand plans in hand, Mears secured the interest and financial backing of fellow railroad man David Moffat of Denver, one of the wealthiest men in Colorado.
When the Town of Chesapeake Beach was incorporated, it was owned by the Chesapeake Beach Railway Company and its charter granted total control of the real estate, businesses, and activities therein. Based on the belief that the state had granted them carte blanche, Otto Mears proceeded to build gambling establishments, including a casino, a racetrack, and a Club House. Chesapeake Beach was designed to be the “Monte Carlo of the East.” However, there were obstacles that ultimately prevented that vision from becoming a reality. Thus, the Chesapeake Beach Railway Company lost its primary source of profits, and from those earliest days struggled financially, never recouping the heavy investments it had made (more on Gambling Woes).
A CHANGE OF FOCUS
Though the more ambitious plans of Otto Mears were never realized, Chesapeake Beach was made into a popular, family friendly destination. The Club House became The Belvedere Hotel and the casino was converted to a restaurant. The more adventurous or economical found the campground a pleasant site with welcome bay breezes. The mile-long boardwalk with all its amusements, the bathing beaches, and sport fishing or crabbing still offered plenty of fun.
The Chesapeake Beach Railway ran until April 15, 1935. After 35 years of financial struggle, the growing popularity of the automobile coupled with the Great Depression spelled the end of the railroad. However, Chesapeake Beach continued to attract visitors to the amusement parks that were the outgrowth of the original resort. In 1929, the amusements were recreated onshore. From 1930-1942, the Seaside Park was in operation. Following World War II, the Chesapeake Beach Amusement Park operated from 1945 to 1972.
When the railway went into receivership in 1934, John Mayo Rector was named General Manager and he devised a plan to keep the park and a three mile section of the original CBRy tracks running at the District line. Rector had begun his employment with the CBRy in 1912. After earning a law degree in 1921, Rector remained employed by the railway and held multiple offices throughout his career. His business plan included selling rolling stock, making cutbacks, and obtaining a new prosperous switching agreement with the B&O Railway. This new enterprise was named the East Washington Railway, with Rector as President. His dedication and savvy business sense enabled a portion of the railway to stay in operation, and eventually to profit, until it too was abandoned in 1978.
THE ROLES AFRICAN AMERICANS PLAYED
Although largely undocumented, African American workers built and maintained much of this country’s railroad infrastructure, first as slaves and later as free men. The Chesapeake Beach Railway was no exception, depending heavily on African American workers for much of the construction and maintenance labor. African Americans could travel on the CBRy but had separate cars and waiting areas. Until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Chesapeake Beach resort and amusement parks were segregated. Nearby Carr’s Beach and Sparrow’s Beach were two of the major Chesapeake Bay resorts that catered exclusively to African Americans between the 1930s and the 1960s. However, African Americans played an enormous role in Chesapeake Beach as railroad and service industry workers. With little surviving records identifying these workers, the CBRM throughout its exhibits preserves the contributions of the few African Americans that are known to us, while seeking to add to this part of our collection.
The Chesapeake Beach Railway is gone, but much evidence of its passing marks the landscape. The Depot, home of the museum, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is included in the Maryland Inventory of Historic Properties (CT-100). Erected in 1898, the station at Chesapeake Beach is an excellent example of rural railroad architecture and significant for its advancement of the transportation and related commercial history of Calvert County. Since 1979, thanks to the work of local preservationists, volunteers, and the support of the Friends of the CBRM and the Calvert County Commissioners, the Chesapeake Beach Railway Museum preserves the history of the train and bayside resort through exhibits portraying the development and changes that occurred over time. The book Otto Mears Goes East: The Chesapeake Beach Railway by Ames W. Williams, available online, is a detailed history of the Chesapeake Beach Railway.
Reminders of the railway and amusement parks can be found today throughout Chesapeake Beach. Those arriving by way of Maryland Route 260 (Chesapeake Beach Road) from Maryland Route 4 have come down “the track” as it is locally known because a long stretch of the highway was built over the original railway bed. The museum is located on Mears Avenue, as is an historical marker. Next to the museum are the “Chesapeake Station” shopping center and community where street names like Arcade Court, Bandshell Court, Dentzel Court, and Carousel Way hearken back to the amusement park that once existed on that site. The Town has created two walking trails – the Chesapeake Beach Railway Trail behind the Northeast Community Center that ends at the remains of the trestle where the train crossed Fishing Creek, and the Chesapeake Beach Historic Heritage Trail. Our museum displays a railway-inspired commemorative barn quilt square as part of Calvert County’s Barn Quilt Trail. The architecture and decor used at the Rod ‘N Reel Resort are inspired by the railway and amusements of old. The park carousel now resides at Watkins Regional Park in nearby Largo, MD.