The Eastern Shore retreats of Betterton and
Tolchester Beach rose and fell with the Bay’s
steamboats. One survived and one didn't. [March 2004]
By Eugene L. Meyer
It's a breezy, crystalline autumn day on the Chesapeake where the Sassafras River meets the Bay. Rounding Howell Point in a runabout, I head for the small town of Betterton on the river's southern shore. Slowly, I motor past a remarkably long beach—perhaps the longest anywhere in northern Bay country—with a high bluff as its backdrop; only a couple of townhouse developments rise above its wooded fringe. It's a magnificent spot. Pulling alongside a public dock, I tie up and climb Chesapeake Avenue, a broad street that ascends to the bluff.
Now the town shows a very different face—block after tree-lined block of grand old frame Victorian houses, many with big porches wrapping around them. But a lot of them are long in the tooth, their paint peeling, their lines sagging. And something else is odd: on a Saturday, when you'd expect hustle and bustle, there's almost no traffic or people. A few blocks back from the bluff, a playground is childless. I feel like I'm walking around a deserted Hollywood set from an old black-and-white movie, perhaps a sci-fi flick where all the townspeople have been beamed into outer space by aliens.
The word quiet doesn't begin to describe Betterton; if there are ghosts anywhere on the Bay, they're here. Which only makes this town's history more intriguing, because at one time Betterton, and neighboring Tolchester—14 miles to the southwest, directly on the Bay—were two of the most popular resorts on the Chesapeake. These were the twin jewels of Kent County, Eastern Shore steamboat destinations for several generations of row-house dwellers in Baltimore seeking relief from the sweltering city streets.
The two resorts were very different. Tolchester Beach, inspired by Coney Island in New York, was an amusement park with a vast picnic grove and bathing beach that drew mostly day-trippers from Baltimore. Betterton, with its fabled stretch of sand, was more of a weekly-rental vacation spot; it drew vacationers from Baltimore, but also from as far away as Wilmington and Philadelphia, who came by steamboat via the C&D Canal. Back during the height of the steamboat era, from the 1880s through the 1920s, these two resort destinations had one major thing in common during the summer months: They were anything but quiet. As the steamboat era on the Bay rose and fell, so did the fortunes of these resorts, and I have come here to see what has become of Betterton and Tolchester Beach in the 21st century.
Betterton was the first to be developed, springing from whole cloth. Since the early 18th century, when local planter Edward Crew had bought the site, there had been no town at all, but rather only Crew's Landing, a modest cluster of docks used by fishermen and shippers of local produce. Then, in the mid-1850s, entrepreneur Richard Turner, a business partner of Baltimore's famed industrialist Enoch Pratt, built the first steamboat wharf and named the fledgling town in honor of his wife, Elizabeth Betterton. Soon, the large, shingled four-story Hotel Rigbie was flanked on the bluff by a dance pavilion and a row of smaller guesthouses, each with a view over the beach, the mouth of the Sassafras and the Bay beyond. In his superb Chesapeake Steamboats, published in 1994, David Holly describes the idyllic scene. "With clockwork regularity, the Philadelphia–Baltimore boats in summertime pulled into the landing at Betterton," he writes. "Porters cluttered the dock, shouting the names of their hotels and boarding houses and trundling the trunks and baggage of arriving or departing vacationers. Nearby at the dance pavilion, if the steamer arrived in the evening, the band might pause when the whistle of the steamer sounded, to allow the dancers to watch the long white boat glide alongside the dock and then begin the circus of activity. With the long whistle of departure, the band resumed, and the evening sang."
By the early 1900s, Betterton boasted a dozen hotels, five smaller inns or "cottages," and a lively boardwalk where vendors sold candy, lemonade and the newfangled treat called ice cream. (Liquor wasn't allowed at this "family resort," but plenty of pocket flasks came out when the lemonade was served.) Like Tolchester Beach and other Bay resorts tied to steamboats, Betterton thrived as long as the steamboats did. And the steamboats thrived; a bird flying over Baltimore's wharves during that era would have seen perhaps 50 of them coming and going, looking—in Holly's words—like long, white needles, with their length of several hundred feet and their extremely narrow beam (those that went through the C&D Canal, which had locks until 1927, could be no wider than 26 feet). Some were overnight packets with staterooms and ample room below for freight, while others were strictly day-excursion boats with pennants flying, plenty of deck seating and large saloons with dance bands. Ownership of the various steamship lines (and, by extension, the routes of the various boats) changed hands as often as deed cards in an all-night Monopoly game. For a while, it seemed limitless.
Then it all began to fall apart. Even as early as the 1920s, paved roads on the Eastern Shore meant that more and more produce and freight were moving by truck. By the time the Depression hit, steamboats were already becoming economic dinosaurs, and at the end of World War II only a few packet and excursion boats hung on. The opening of the Bay Bridge in 1952, giving people roadway access to the ocean resorts, was the final blow to Betterton and Tolchester Beach. A decade later, a renovated 1904 steamboat named Bay Belle was serving both resorts when its parent company, Wilson Line of Maryland, threw in the towel and handed the boat over to the mortgage holder. It was over.
Betterton began to deteriorate, from the wharf to the old hotels. Only an old restaurant and bar at the wharf remained popular, a Saturday-night spot for local young people. Abandoned buildings became hangouts for runaway kids. Finally, in the late 1970s, the county stepped in, dismantling the remains of the old dock and razing several of the beachfront buildings, including the local hangout. After eight years and $1.2 million, the beach reopened to the public in 1986 with a new dock, a 500-foot boardwalk, a bathhouse and a pavilion. The town's post-steamboat era had officially begun.
It's been a long road back, I learn from Betterton mayor Candy Sorge, who joins me in a stroll around town. A jovial, 50-something former kindergarten teacher, Sorge wears a T-shirt that reads "Where the hell is Betterton?" on the front, and "3.6 miles north of Still Pond" on the back. Today, she says, Betterton has 376 full-time residents living in 164 of the town's 277 houses; that leaves more than a hundred houses vacant or only occasionally occupied by part-time residents. The landmark Hotel Rigbie has been replaced by townhouses, but several others have been restored. One of them, the old Southern Hotel, is now the Lantern Inn, the town's only lodging. The town has only one restaurant, too, the Dublin Dock, with a sweeping view from its deck. And there's no grocery store at all; the nearest one is at Still Pond, says Sorge, and we know how far away that is. "Often, you see sailboats cruising or anchored offshore with people swimming," she muses; "but what do they do when they come ashore?" Hmmm, I think, nothing to do but tie up to the town dock, swim on the gorgeous beach, watch the sunset, eat a nice dinner, walk off the meal in a Victorian era town and enjoy a quiet night's sleep. Is she kidding, or is this Betterton's version of Oregon's "don't-bother-to-come-here-it-rains-all-the-time" strategy?
Sorge's parents met in Betterton; her father delivered milk to the Royal Swan Hotel, where her mother worked. By the time Candy was a teenager in the 1950s, the town was already on the seedy side. "When I was growing up," she says, "there were five bars, and I wasn't allowed downtown by myself until I was fifteen." Still, she eventually got a job as a waitress in one of the few hotels that was still open. While she enjoys watching the passing boats today, back then she had a monetary stake in their landing. "I was just hoping they were coming to eat lots and leave big tips," she says. "In the summer, we all worked. A lot of the guys worked at umbrella, raft or bingo stands."
Larry Crew, a childhood chum of Sorge, also remembers that era with fondness. A descendant of Edward Crew, the landing's original owner, he lives six blocks back from the bluff, where the town ends and the woods begin. Here, he keeps scrapbooks full of old Betterton postcards and photographs, and—in a shed—four pillars from the Hotel Rigbie. When Crew was a youngster, his family owned a rambling three-story hotel, now long gone. His father and uncle took vacationers out on the water aboard their fishing skiffs, which they temporarily converted into picnic boats by adding awnings. "It was an exciting time," he says. "Coming around Howell Point, the Bay Belle would blow its horn. People knew it was coming and would run down, just to be there and see the boat come in."
Now the steamboats are gone, and Betterton is still in limbo between its past and its future. But the town has a mayor, a post office, a volunteer fire company . . . and a fabulous beach. Betterton has survived.
The resort at Tolchester—unlike Betterton—didn't survive, except in the hearts of those who remember going there and who saved what they could of the old place. Instead, the amusement park, called Tolchester Beach, has been replaced by a marina, an excellent stopover for cruisers going up or down the Bay, with a fine restaurant, swimming pool, beachfront bar and repair yard.
But as an amusement park, it was a great ride while it lasted. Named for 17th-century landholder William Toulson, Tolchester Beach was a product of post-Civil War wealth, when Philadelphia steamship owners joined forces with the tract's owner to operate a Chesapeake Bay line that would connect with a train across Kent County. The railroad deal fell through, but the partners built the amusement park anyway. The resort opened for business in 1877 and at its peak—from the 1890s through the 1920s—hosted as many as 20,000 people on weekends. Through the decades many steamboats visited the park's wharf, but none as often asLouise, a 231-foot side-wheeler that had served on the Gulf Coast during the Civil War. For 42 years beginning in 1887, after being converted to an excursion boat,
Louise brought as many as 2,500 passengers at a time from Baltimore to Tolchester Beach. What began on 10 acres with a hand-operated merry-go-round and a few picnic tables grew to encompass 155 acres. The park's famous landmark, built in 1909, was a twin-towered pavilion at the foot of the wharf; downstairs was the "dairy," which sold milk shakes, and upstairs was a porch-like dance floor with live music. The park had a racetrack, a grandstand, paddle boats in a manmade pond, the majestic Tolchester Hotel and, of course, the rides. All the classics were here—the Whip, the miniature train with tunnels and trestles over the pond, the Ferris wheel and the roller coaster. The sedate early version of the roller coaster, more like a miniature train with built-in lumps, was superseded in 1909 by the huge, wooden Whirl-Pool Dips, the ride that every kid had to go on.
Charlie Kilbourne, a native Baltimorean who is now 75, recalls his frequent trips to Tolchester Beach in the 1940s. "The boat would leave Baltimore about seven thirty or eight a.m. When we came onboard, our first object was to get chairs, ideally along the railing. From that point, we kids would take off and run to all parts of the boat, as kids will do. On Sunday, and even on Saturday, people would dress up, so often you would see men with neckties.
"The boat would arrive around lunchtime. It would let us off at the pier and then go up to Betterton. Everyone would scramble off the boat and run up the hill, trying to locate a picnic table. The more genteel in the group could go to the hotel and have a very nice dinner. After lunch, people went bathing or to the amusement park. You could rent bathing suits, right out of the 1920s. You could rent a rowboat and go fishing. Around five p.m., the whistle blew for the trip home."
But the amusement park at Tolchester fell apart just as Betterton had, and for the same reasons. As fewer people came, the park grew tatty. In its final decades, the Whirl-Pool Dips was so rickety that parents wouldn't let their children ride on it. Yes, theBay Belle was still calling in 1962, but when the Wilson Line of Maryland gave the
Bay Belle back to its mortgage holder that year, it also gave back another of its properties: Tolchester Beach, and the once-grand amusement park was sold at auction.
A few years later, a road builder named David Bramble bought the place, razed the tumbledown remnants of the old amusement park, filled in the old pond and built the marina. It's now run by Bramble's son and daughter-in-law, Alan and Cathleen. In the office above the restaurant, 50-year-old Alan Bramble pulls out his own scrapbooks of vintage postcards and photographs, which document the family makeover of the park grounds. It's a bittersweet experience to thumb through them—here, a photo of bulldozers on the beach; there, the twin-towered pavilion burning to the ground—the old making way for the new.
To the delight of older folks who still come in search of their past, photo-graphs of the old amusement park adorn the walls of the marina's restaurant. But actual remnants of old Tolchester Beach can only be found elsewhere—in Rock Hall, where retired banker William K. Betts has created his own small Tolchester Museum; or in the home of Walter and Dolly Harris on a bluff near Betterton, where an ornate gilded mirror from theTolchester, one of the steamships that served the park, is the headboard for a bed. The Harrises also own the whimsical building that once housed the Whip; it's now the dining hall for Echo Hill, a summer camp on their property.
But even though the artifacts of old Tolchester Beach have vanished or scattered, the location still has its attractions. Since the shipping channel almost hugs the shore here, it offers close-up views of passing freighters heading to or from the C&D Canal. And of course, there are those stunning sunsets.
It's close to dinnertime when I walk out onto the beach at Tolchester. Two small groups have stoked up grills, and accompanied by the aroma of sizzling salmon I relax on the sand and watch the sun sink. A huge freighter passes by, looking close enough to touch. In the distance to the south I can see the smokestacks of Sparrows Point, where the Patapsco empties into the Bay. The beach bar closed at the end of summer, but on what is aptly called the sunset deck a New Jersey couple sips red wine and a group of nine Philadelphians sit in a semicircle facing the water. They've all come down by boat for the weekend.
Alan Bramble arrives in his pickup with his young son, who has been invited to a birthday party on the beach. Bramble joins me and begins to wax nostalgic. When he was growing up here in the 1970s, he says, the Tolchester Beach amusement park was already long gone, but Betterton was still hanging on, mostly as a local attraction. "Every Saturday night during the summer," he tells us, "everyone went to Betterton—to the bar on the wharf and the two-story building where all the kids went to dance. You knew everyone in the whole county was there."
As Bramble reminisces about Betterton, his sense of loss is palpable. "It's a shame they stopped it," he says. "There are a lot of bad feelings, even today." But what of Tolchester Beach? I ask him. After all, it was his family that razed the last remains of the amusement park, torching the old twin-towered dance pavilion with its much-loved dairy. "That was a different thing," he says.
The sun begins to drop, a flaming orange and red ball. Then, just as it nears the horizon, the bottom sinks into a cloud, making it look like a half circle. Disappearing into the grayness, it leaves no afterglow in the sky or water. But the kids have built a bonfire, a tepee of sticks and, with the adults looking on, they light it. Tendrils of flame reach for the sky as the kids cheer. On this night, at least, it beats the sunset.
Cruiser's Digest: Betterton and Tolchester Beach
Betterton is on the south side of the Sassafras River, 2 miles east of Howell Point. Its long fishing and docking pier, operated by Kent County, is at the eastern end of the long swimming beach. The pier offers a depth of 12' MLW at its end. Transient boats may tie up free for one night; there is space for about nine boats (for more information, call 410-778-7439). Since the Betterton dock is on a relatively exposed stretch, transients should check weather conditions carefully before deciding on an overnight stay. Boats may also anchor outside the marked limits of the swimming beach. Swimming is free on the beach; pets prohibited.
The Dublin Dock Restaurant (410-810-3338), a short walk up the hill from the beach, is open from mid-April to the end of September. The Lantern Inn B&B offers lodging (800-499-7265).
On the first Saturday in August, the town holds its annual Betterton Beach Day and Parade. For more information on Betterton, including area lodging, visit www.kentcounty.com.
Tolchester Marina (on the site of the old Tolchester Beach resort) is directly on the Bay between Fairlee Creek and Rock Hall (at buoy "24", 20 miles north of the Bay Bridge and 30 miles south of the C&D Canal). The full-service marina offers deep slips (6' MLW), restaurant, swimming pool and tennis courts (for more information, call 410-778-1400 or visit tolchestermarina.com)