It takes more than a huge fire and a devastating hurricane
to keep Colonial Beach down. While its raucous days of
oyster wars and casino piers are long gone, Virginia's old
Potomac getaway is back in style. Just ask the ghosts. [September 2004]
By Jody Argo Schroath
I am aboard Apolonia, a 43-foot cabin cruiser, riding in Colonial Beach's Riverfest boat parade. Riverfest is the town's biggest do and it has been held annually since 1951, come hell or high water--and believe me, they've had plenty of both. We have just pulled out into the Potomac from the shelter of Monroe Bay, which forms the town's back door, and are working our way north, past Colonial Beach Yacht Center and Gum Bar Point and heading for the once and future municipal pier. To our starboard and stretching astern are the famous Kettle Bottom Shoals--historically some of the richest oyster banks in the world. It's about 1:30 in the afternoon and the June sky is overcast and threatening, but the Potomac is flat and happy, at least it feels that way in the comfort of Apolonia. Her owner, Paul Bolin, is at the wheel, easing us along the parade route in the number-two position, just behind the fleet commander and ahead of the rest of the pack.
It is just here, as I look out across the six-mile-wide Potomac and then back at the town's famous three-mile beach, that it strikes me: It's a good thing I'm not driving this boat, because if I were at the helm I'd be dodging ghosts. You see, this particular part of the Potomac, 60 miles from Washington and 40 from Point Lookout, is positively crowded with historical apparitions, and this afternoon I see them every way I turn. For example, there off the starboard bow, I see a ghostly fleet of British warships being warped by hand across the oyster-thick shoals on their way to capture Washington. It is 1814, and they will succeed. Coming back down the river they will have an additional 25 prize ships in tow, and, again, the crews will offload everything and pull the ships across the shoals by hand. A slow and agonizing process, to be sure, but still they will make it to Baltimore harbor in time for Francis Scott Key to see their rockets' red glare. And look, there, tearing across our wake, it's a Maryland patrol boat hot on the tail of a local oyster dredger. Hear the machine-gun fire? One of them is going to end up dead. Now look ahead of us, just passing under the U.S. Route 301 bridge, there's the ghost of the famous paddlewheel steamer St. Johns, its rails crammed with happy early-20th-century excursionists bound for Colonial Beach. Yes, from the ring of a thousand one-armed bandits to the creak of an oar as a Confederate spy slips between a pair of Federal warships, the water off Colonial Beach is alarmingly and charmingly crowded with ghosts.
Paul Bolin, however, is not distracted. He holds Apolonia steady on her course. His eye is not on the past but on the future of Colonial Beach and what this town, which has had more ups and downs than a bobber in a five-foot swell, is on its way to becoming. Because Colonial Beach, most recently walloped by Isabel's unprecedented storm surge, is as surely on its way up the next big wave as the life of the waterman is on the decline.
With us on this Sunday drive in the barque are the parade's grand marshals, Sonny and Dottie Schick, who live next door to Bolin's Bell House Bed & Breakfast, and their son Kyle and his wife Relda. Kyle and Relda are particularly looking forward to a ride up any wave at all, since Isabel was actually the second punch in a one-two combination that left their Colonial Beach Yacht Center reeling.
The largest and one of the oldest marinas in the area, Colonial Beach Yacht Center was first devastated in May 2002 by a fire that tore through the marina's docks, blowing up boat after boat like so many harbor mines. Fifty-six vessels, some of them irreplaceable wooden classics, were destroyed. Many of those lost woodies would have been with us today in the boat parade, but instead are now part of yet another ghostly flotilla. After the fire, the Schicks set about rebuilding the marina and were making good headway--until Isabel rolled through like a bulldozer, tossing around thousand-pound rocks and destroying another 40 boats, many of them on trailers and cradles.
"What the fire didn't take, the hurricane did," Kyle Schick had told me as we toured the Yacht Center earlier that weekend in a golf cart, Colonial Beach's new vehicle of choice. Damaged in the storm were the Yacht Center's Dockside Restaurant, ship's store, boathouse, boat-lift area, pump-out area and fuel station. "We're putting things back together, but better," Schick said. "We've had a lot of support from the community and other marinas, but insurance never covers what you think it will."
The new docks are wider than the old ones and all have pedestals with a phone jack and enough power for even the hottest days and the most demanding boats. The new covered docks will be made of galvanized trusses and canvas that form an arch over each slip. They will be fire resistant and keep UV rays out while letting in the sun. With a number of the new docks already in, the Yacht Center will soon have 100 open slips and 20 covered slips. There is room for another 100 boats on the hard. Currently, there are 15 transient slips with plans for 40.
Colonial Beach Yacht Center's position at the entrance to Monroe Bay has long made it appealing to large boats coming and going from Washington, D.C., but at the same time it makes the marina more vulnerable to storms than those tucked into Monroe Bay. The facility was originally an oyster-packing house established in the 1930s. During the great hurricane of 1933, the building floated off its piers, but it was hauled back and a concrete slab was poured to keep it in place. In the 1940s, when the marina was developed with about 200 slips, the oyster-packing house became a restaurant. Isabel failed to move it but she did destroy the interior. That has since been restored, and the Dockside Restaurant reopened earlier this spring.
Two other popular Colonial Beach restaurants on the water also were destroyed--the Happy Clam and Wilkerson's Restaurant, both at the north end of town. Wilkerson's, since rebuilt, reopened several months ago with fresh fish, piping hot hush puppies and a wall of windows on the Potomac. But the Happy Clam has yet to make its comeback.
Although the Yacht Center was the only marina in the area to lose boats in the storm, others felt the effect as well. Jan Swink of Nightingale Motel and Marina on Monroe Bay stands in the center of her new kitchen to show me where she stood that night, knee-deep in water, watching minnows swim between her toes. "Our docks were like an accordion in some spots," she says. In Nightingale's motel rooms, the water rose above the headboards; all six units had to be entirely redone. But like hundreds of others all over town, Swink and her husband Bob got to work and were ready to reopen in time for the 2004 boating season. "And I got to make some changes I wanted to, anyway," she adds, opening the doors to show me two new bathrooms and showers for boaters.
Just a little way up the bay from the Nightingale is Colonial Beach's last marine railway and a must-see stop for any boat lover. There, the doyenne of Colonial Beach's marina owners, Mary Virginia Stanford of Stanford's Marine Railway, sits in the ship's store "living room" and shakes her silver head slowly when I ask about the loss from Isabel. "So many people had trees fall on their houses," she says sadly. "In the car the next day, I would ride a little bit, then cry a little bit." At the railway, where for more than 60 years her husband Clarence built boats that are still in use today, the wind blew off part of a roof and the water rose halfway up the shop building. But it did no serious damage, since all of the electrical equipment had been moved earlier to higher ground. The slips survived, as did the covered wharf, which house both Hermione, a meticulously restored 1927 Elco, and Pathfinder II, the last boat Clarence Stanford built.
Back in the center of town at Doc's Motel, Ellie Carruthers and her husband, "Little Doc," simply went to bed when it got too dark to take any more storm pictures and the power failed. "The next morning I said, 'Oh, my God!' " Ellie says. The last surge of water had lifted debris over the four-foot fence that separates the town's oldest motel from the Potomac and left it strewn between the two wings of rooms. "We filled eighty big bags," she says. "Everybody set to. It was like being in a parade to the dump. Finally, they had to close the dump."
North of Doc's, the town pier lay in ruins that day, as did a neighboring charterboat dock. When I visited the spot before the boat parade, I could see that the charterboat dock was back in place, but the town pier still needed a few more planks to be finished.
Past Doc's and the piers stretches Colonial Beach's famous boardwalk, once alive with vacationing families who crowded the wooden walkway and food stands. Today, it's a concrete sidewalk snaking through the sand, bordered only by two or three food vending survivors. Buy an ice cream and take a walk along the boardwalk, though, and you won't be alone, you'll be in the company of some of the beach's most raucous ghosts--the gambling casinos and dance halls that drew tens of thousands of eager summer visitors from the late 1940s through the '50s. But time, antigambling laws, a fire in the 1960s and several earlier storms took their toll, and the Monte Carlo, the Jackpot, Joyland, Little Steel Pier and their like were gone years before Hurricane Isabel was so much as a zephyr in the Sahara. Only the Riverboat (once the Little Reno) remained, perched over the Maryland-owned Potomac and offering off-track betting, keno, two state lotteries and lunch to a quiet summer crowd. But the Riverboat is gone, too, another victim of Isabel. Unlike the others, however, the Riverboat will be back.
Peggy Browning Linthacum and Laura Raley, who are sisters, preside over a small construction trailer at the beach end of the Riverboat's ruined pier. Their job is to assure the curious--me, for example--that the Riverboat is indeed going to be rebuilt. "We had to go all the way through the permit process, which has taken a long time," Linthacum tells me. "But the Riverboat was pretty much grandfathered in, so it's finally okayed." Linthacum and Raley are the sisters of Peggy Flanagan, who with her husband Tom has owned the Riverboat since 1992. The new Riverboat, which must keep to the same footprint as the old, will actually look like a riverboat this time, Linthacum says, complete with a working paddlewheel. "We were the number one lottery sellers in Maryland," Raley says proudly. "Customers would buy a Virginia lottery ticket and then a Maryland ticket just a few steps away."
It was the ability to take those few steps, from the Virginia shore to the casinos that sat on long piers over the Maryland Potomac, that set the neon blazing and the joint a-jumpin' from 1949 to 1958, when the one-armed bandit was king of Maryland amusements. After the completion of the U.S. Route 301 bridge across the Potomac in 1941, Colonial Beach was no longer such a long drive from Washington and Baltimore, and the town's hundreds of slot machines, casinos, dance halls, welcoming beach and a boardwalk jam-packed with amusements gave people plenty of reasons to come.
"We used to open the motel on May fifteenth and stay full all summer," Ellie Carruthers recalls. "If we weren't full by noon, we wondered what was wrong." Carruthers herself first came to Colonial Beach when her father, a Washington bricklayer, finally found the time to take the family on a precious two-week vacation. "When I came in 1951, there were slot machines everywhere. It was crazy!" She met Little Doc (his father was the Doc) at the Riverside and never left. "You would go up on the boardwalk at night, with mothers and fathers and children of all ages, all having a wonderful time," she tells me as we sit in her tiny but comfortable motel office. Now in her 70s, Carruthers recently broke her hip, but, unfazed by the experience, she puts me in her wheelchair to chat while she settles into the office chair. "I have guests who met one another on the boardwalk, and other couples who make their reservations to meet here at the same time each year. Some of my customers have stayed with me every year for fifty years. I make the reservations for them before they even call."
Watching this year's boat parade from Doc's is one of the motel's first guests, now a frail old gentleman in his 90s. With him are his daughter, his granddaughter and his great-granddaughter and their families. They have taken six rooms for the weekend.
Mary Virginia Stanford is another long-ago come-here to Colonial Beach who fondly remembers its wild and crazy decade. She met been-here Clarence during World War II while he was in Apalachicola, Fla., on a menhaden fishing expedition with his father. She and Clarence returned to Colonial Beach and in 1945 built a marine store and boatworks which, she says, "We've been working on all our lives." They are both now in their 80s, and while Mary Virginia remains active, Clarence is confined to a wheelchair.
Mary Virginia had no objection to the old slot machines, though. "I'm all for gambling. Live and let live." She played the nickel machine one time, she says. "I put one in and sixteen came out. I put them in my pocket, went home and bought curtains." She remembers the boardwalk, the old homes and the time singer Jimmy Dean, "before he was famous," came to Colonial Beach to perform. "My head came to his belt buckle."
Stanford also remembers the Oyster Wars of the 1950s, when Maryland marine police would give chase to Virginians who were dredging Maryland oysters (in the Potomac they were all Maryland oysters). Power dredging had long been ruled illegal in Maryland because it tore up the already diminished oyster beds. Only hand-tonging, slow and work intensive, was allowed (and, on certain days, skipjacks could dredge under sail). A tonger pulled oysters up with what looks very much like a Brobdingnagian posthole digger, bringing in only enough at one time for a moderately hungry man's hors d'oeuvre. But dredging (or dragging) the beds could bring in many more bushels of oysters than tonging. If the illegal dredgers hightailed it, it wasn't uncommon for the marine patrols to open fire as they gave chase--sometimes all the way up Monroe Bay.
"I was standing out in back with a baby in my arms," Stanford recalls, "when the police followed a boat into the bay. The two boats came flying in. The bullets were ricocheting all around me." Carruthers, too, remembers the sound of machine guns in the night. "The young men would just come up on the beach to be in Virginia when the Maryland police were after them. I saw one young man walk up out of the water and call back, 'You can't get me.' They sat there and waited for him."
On April 17, 1959, the bullets finally found a target and left Colonial Beach resident Berkley Muse dead. The fatality prompted the governors of Maryland and Virginia to reach a compromise, and the Oyster Wars, which had been waged off and on for a century, more or less ended.
But as the oyster harvest slackened and the slots disappeared, vacation habits changed, too, and for the next 40 years, Colonial Beach became a quiet place indeed, "a dreamer of a colorful past," as Frederick Tilp called it in his 1978 book, This Was Potomac River.
In 1985, residents discovered a few ghosts they hadn't even known about. One morning after a bad storm, strollers came upon several skeleton feet sticking out of a sand bank at Gum Bar Point. When excavated, the bodies all showed they had received a blow to the skull. "They probably were immigrants pressed out of Baltimore bars in the late 1800s to work aboard a skipjack oystering," Kyle Schick tells me as Apolonia passes what is now often called Ghost Point. "This was their payoff."
Now it seems that Colonial Beach is about to receive a payoff of a very different kind. In the past year, real estate prices have grown wings, and real estate agents like Bob Swink of Colonial Beach Realty can't keep enough listings to meet the demand. Homes now sell often within a week of coming on the market, something of a novelty for homeowners on Virginia's Northern Neck. Michael Wardman, who recently invested in a block of downtown real estate of his own, told me that for the price he purchased his Colonial Beach home a few years ago, he couldn't even buy the lots now. Housing starts are way up, as well. "In the past two years, we've built about ninety new homes. Before that, it was less than ten a year," Town Manager Brian Hooten said. "The beach has been rediscovered."
Colonial Beach's Planning and Zoning Commission has also given preliminary approval to two big development projects. The larger would put an 18-hole championship golf course and about 900 housing units on 600 acres near Wilkerson's Restaurant. The second, more controversial because it includes a proposed marina, would create 250 housing units, mostly townhouses, and boat slips for residents on 50 acres bordering Monroe Point. "With all this growth, the biggest challenge the town has now is maintaining its charm," Wardman said.
"It's a big opportunity." It's a challenge much on the mind of Brian Hooten, as well. About 10 years ago, the town bought up all the boardwalk's neglected and derelict properties and then demolished them. Now the town has put those four acres of land out for bid in the hope of drawing an offer to develop the site with tourist-friendly businesses. After doing this twice, Hooten said, the city is still not satisfied. "The proposals have been weighted toward residential," Hooten said. "We want commercial applications used by tourists and residents--like restaurants and ice-cream parlors." The proposed residential projects are also multistory, which both Hooten and Wardman oppose. "I'm against high- and mid-rise buildings here," Wardman said. "I don't think it would be a good decision because it would make Colonial Beach look like everywhere else."
Paul Bolin, too, is a prime mover in Colonial Beach's renaissance. He is president of the Chamber of Commerce in addition to operating the Bell House Bed & Breakfast with his wife Anne and taking guests out on Apolonia for four-course dinner cruises. He is also spearheading "Vision 2015," which he says will develop a consensus among residents for the town's direction and growth. "I think the town will change," he tells me as he holds Apolonia off the town pier so we can watch the rest of the parade. "But once you start development it's hard to control where it goes. There's no rheostat."
"In this town it's often the old residents, the ones who were young in the '50s, who want to see the town get crazy again," says Relda Schick, coming up to sit beside me on Apolonia's flying bridge as we watch the Elco glide elegantly by. "And it's the younger ones who want it to keep its quaint charm. It's one of the ironies of Colonial Beach."
There is at least one resident, however, who would like to have it both ways. "I'd like to see some development, but I'd hate to see things change," Mary Virginia Stanford had said to me as a duck walked in the front door of the ship's store at Stanford's Marine Railway. And that mallard, at least, was no ghost.
Knocking the Dust Off
The first time I saw Michael Wardman he was wearing paint-spattered jeans and pushing a lawn mower across Hawthorne Street in downtown Colonial Beach. It's not what you might expect from the scion of Washington, D.C.'s famous Wardman Construction Co. family, which built more than 9,000 homes and city landmarks such as the Hay Adams Hotel and the British Embassy, but then you don't know Michael Wardman. Besides, he hates a mess, which is one of the reasons that he decided to buy up a block of depressed downtown real estate and turn it around.
Wardman is president of the Wardman Companies, which renovated about 3,000 D.C.-area apartments and grossed about $3 million last year. Several years ago, after buying a riverside home in Colonial Beach as a summer residence, he fell in love with what he calls "this quirky town" and moved his family here for good. Then he decided to tear down that house and build a new one. While waiting for that to happen, he bought the old Westmoreland Inn--and then the rest of the block. He also worked with restaurant managers Brian Grimly and Melanie Peterson to rebuild the Dockside Restaurant at Colonial Beach Yacht Center after it was destroyed by Hurricane Isabel. "I don't usually do local projects," Wardman says, "but it's one of my favorite places to eat, so I had to." Now he has reopened the Westmoreland Inn as Riverview Inn, a bold blue-and-yellow-painted knockout in 1950s art-deco style (an old sign still calls it a motel). Its 21 rooms were sold out over its debut weekend. Wardman opened another building as Tropical Delights, which sells frozen-fruit drinks to beachside visitors. During the second day of Riverfest, I found him behind the counter, bagging cotton candy.
The venerable Wardman Construction Co., founded in 1896 by Michael's great-uncle Harry, went bankrupt during the Depression. So when Michael founded his own company in 1992 he had only the family name, some old tools and the desire.
Wardman is a doer, not just an investor. A lot of the downtown's empty buildings have been bought by speculators, who are holding on to the properties, leaving them boarded up and waiting for the price to rise. "That's a good move economically, but it's lousy for the town," Wardman says. "I'm not one to change things, I just want to knock the dust off." And, of course, he also hates a mess. --J.A.S.
Cruisers Digest:Colonial Beach, Va.
Colonial Beach makes a great cruising destination on its own, or a convenient place to stop on a trip up or down the Potomac. Located just south of the U.S. Route 301 bridge and about 60 miles downriver from Washington, it marks a transition point; not only does the river's salinity change, but the river also widens and straightens for its final 40-mile sprint to the Bay. For larger boats, Colonial Beach is also the first deep-water port south of the nation's capital.
The channel enters the shelter of Monroe Creek (known locally as Monroe Bay) at flashing red "2" near Gum Bar Point, followed by a quick-flashing red "4". As you pass Colonial Beach Yacht Center to starboard, the channel narrows significantly, making a daytime approach the preferred option for first-timers. Also, channel currents can get tricky here during the sometimes exuberant outgoing tide.
Approaching Colonial Beach from the north, or heading north after visiting the area, it is always advisable to check first with the Dahlgren Weapons Testing Hotline (877-845-5656) for the Naval Surface Warfare Center's firing schedule, available for the succeeding Thursday through Tuesday. You will find the Potomac range test area well marked on some charts.
As befits a resort community, Colonial Beach lets few months go by without offering at least one special event to tempt the wayfaring mariner. Here are just a few of the highlights. This fall, look for Bluegrass on the Potomac, Sept. 3–5, and the 38th annual Boardwalk Art Show, Sept. 11–12. The 10th annual Rockfish Tournament takes place Oct. 22–24 and the 27th annual Oyster Roast will be on Nov. 13. Summer visitors will want to plan now for next June's 54th annual Riverfest, a festival that features three separate parades, beginning with the biggest and noisiest fire truck parade you will probably ever see (or hear) and ending with a parade for boats great and small. For a complete schedule of events, visit the Colonial Beach Chamber of Commerce website (www.colonial beach.org) or the town website (www.colonialbeachva.net).
The Bell House Bed & Breakfast, housed in the historic home of Alexander Graham Bell, also offers Apolonia dinner cruises (804-224-7000; www.thebell house.com). Doc's Motel (804-224-7840) is open June through Aug. with 14 rooms. Golf carts can be rented from Metro Golf Carts & Scooters (804-224-2278).
Colonial Beach features a number of restaurants, but these three offer plenty of fresh seafood and are accessible by boat: Dockside Restaurant and Blue Heron Pub at Colonial Beach Yacht Center (804-224-8726; www.dockside-blueheron.com); Stillwater's Grill, 1016 Monroe Bay Ave. (804-224-7090); and Wilkerson's Restaurant, 3900 McKinney Blvd. (804-224-7117).
Colonial Beach Yacht Center (804-224-7230; www.colonial beachyachtcenter.com) offers slips to visiting boats 18–150 feet and up to 8-foot draft. Cost is $1.25/ft plus $5 electric ($25 minimum). It also offers repairs, fuel, pump-out and a restaurant. The Nightingale Motel & Marina (804-224-7956) is within easy walking distance of shops and restaurants. It has 10 transient slips at $1/ft plus $5 electric, and five motel rooms. Boaters' showers and fuel can be had next door. Dock "security" is provided by Gizmo the shih tzu. Stanford's Marine Railway (804-224-7644; www.colonialbeach.org/stanford marine.htm) offers full repair service but no transient slips.