Vegas-on-Potomac

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By Jessica Merrill
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, June 11, 2003

A summer night in Colonial Beach: The piers stretching into the Potomac pulse with activity. College kids have ferried down the river for wild evening escapades. Martini-wielding jet-setters from Washington and Richmond have flown in on champagne seaplane flights. Some tourists are swinging their shoes to the night's big band at the Joyland; others stroll the boardwalk and take their chances on the games of Bentley's Amusement Pier.

But the epicenters of glitz and glam are the casinos. At dockside dens such as the Jackpot, Little Reno and Monte Carlo, ladies and gents dressed to the nines cash in at the slots, then sidle up to the bar to drop their winnings. Here, just 65-odd miles downriver from the Washington Monument, is a good-time precinct known as the "Las Vegas of the Potomac."

Never heard of it? That's because you're about 50 years too late.

In the 1950s, Colonial Beach in Virginia's Northern Neck was a notorious gambling hotbed, a wildly popular nightlife resort drawing revelers from throughout the region. The town had been a popular summer getaway for the urban set since the early 1900s. But when a quirk of geography let Colonial Beach take advantage of Maryland's slot machine laws, the resort went on a gaming spree that lasted nearly a decade.

Today, the lone pier at Colonial Beach is welcoming but quiet. On the beach, a father walks ahead of his two children, who run to catch up, purple pails swinging. A mother strolls past with a baby in her arms. The scene is the alter ego of Colonial Beach 50 years earlier, as if the town has grown up, shed its wild side and retreated to a quiet corner for a prolonged nap.

The only reminders of casinos today are broken pilings in the water beside the municipal pier, where osprey occasionally make their nests. At first glance, Colonial Beach looks like it has seen better days. Some might even say the former gambling town has been down on its luck. The casinos and dance halls are gone, burned or demolished years ago. The Colonial Beach Hotel, whose 100 rooms and outdoor cabanas once towered over the town's shore, was torn down in 1984.

But taking in the view of the Potomac's broad expanse, it's clear the new Colonial Beach brings different cards to the table. In place of casinos, it now offers a slice of serenity packed on a peninsula only five blocks wide and 17 blocks long. Here, where the Potomac melds with the Chesapeake, the river takes a softer turn, as if succumbing to the slower pace of life. The stretch of beach that once made Colonial Beach famous is a little worn down by years of erosion, but it still makes an ideal spot to toss out a blanket and soak up the sun.

The town itself, at one time packed with thousands of tourists, is now a place to relax and unwind away from the usual crowded coastal towns. Restaurants such as the Dockside and the Still Waters Grille serve crab cakes and other seafood fare along the Potomac River and Monroe Bay, and a handful of antiques shops and bookstores line Washington Avenue. Alexander Graham Bell's summer home in the early 1900s is now a waterside bed-and-breakfast.

The town's tourism industry took off at the turn of the 20th century when the Colonial Beach Co. built the hotel and subdivided farmland into hundreds of parcels for summer cottages (many still remaining). With steamboats ruling the rivers, Colonial Beach's saltwater and sandy shores were only a short ferry ride away from the hot, crowded streets of Washington. Soon, the St. Johns steamer was making daily runs from Seventh Street SE in D.C. to "the beach" for 50 cents round trip. In June, July and August, the tiny town's population surged to 15,000. Today, it is only about 6,000 in the summer and half that off-season.

In the 1950s, with slot machines legal in Maryland, Colonial Beach thought to cash in on its Potomac-side location by building slot casinos on piers, over a river that was officially Maryland territory. The town may be in Virginia, but for nearly a decade, legal gambling was just a dock walk away from the banks of the Old Dominion.

But as they say in the wagering world, easy come, easy go. In 1959, at the urging of Virginia legislators, Maryland changed its gambling laws to outlaw slots off Virginia's shores. And Colonial Beach tourism, after an impressive half-century run, finally came up lemons.

The glory days are remembered at the town museum in an 1892 building on Hawthorne Street. A story in the Saturday Evening Post of Sept. 7, 1957, hangs on the wall, spotlighting Colonial Beach as "The Las Vegas of the Potomac." In the back room, graffiti-style fraternity letters and love messages from an era long gone are carved into the original walls. The building once housed the only telephone switchboard in Colonial Beach, and the markings represent the idling of tourists as they waited in line to call home.

Jackie Shinn, a lifelong resident of Colonial Beach who was born in the 1930s, remembers what it was like here in the swinging '40s and '50s. "We couldn't even drive down the streets, it was so crowded. And we had to dress up after 5 if we went down to the boardwalk," she says.

Slowly, tourism may be returning to Colonial Beach. At least according to the golf cart index. Thanks to a new law last year, Colonial Beach is one of the few Virginia towns where golf carts are allowed on city streets, and a growing number of residents can be seen steering them around the quiet lanes. Art "Buzz" Buswell, former town manager and head of the Historical Society, zips along the riverside road in one of the carts he rents at his store. "It's not Virginia Beach," he says. "It's Colonial Beach, a place to get away."

That is exactly what's expected of guests at the Bell House B&B, a Victorian residence overlooking the Potomac. Every evening in the summer, guests assemble in rockers on the front porch for wine and cheese with owners Phil and Anne Bolin. Asked why they moved to the defunct gambling mecca a year ago from the Quantico area, Phil smiles.

"There's still one more couple checking in here tonight, and they're coming in on a 32-foot trawler," he says. "They're going to pass by us on the river, and then I'm going down to the marina to pick them up. There's not a lot of places you can do that."

The next morning, only a woodpecker and a family of ducks are awake to join the few tourists up in time to see the sun rise over the river. As they watch dawn make its debut, the description in a promotional brochure published by the Colonial Beach Co. in 1911 seems as fitting today as it was at the turn of the last century.

"The Potomac River is one of the most historic and beautiful in the world," it says. "It has not the grandeur of the Hudson or the St. Lawrence, but in its forest-crowned hills, mirrored in the placid bosom of the water, nature has painted a picture that is not soon forgotten. It is restful."

It may not be Vegas, but it looks like a winner.

Escape Keys

GETTING THERE: Colonial Beach, Va., is about 65 miles from D.C. Take I-95 south to Fredericksburg. Exit at Route 3 east. Follow Route 3 to King George, then turn left at Route 205. Follow Route 205 to Colonial Beach.

STAYING THERE: The Bell House B&B (821 Irving Ave., 804-224-7000, www.thebellhouse.com) boasts water views in Alexander Graham Bell's former summer house. Rates at $119 a night, including wine and cheese on the front porch. For a quirkier experience, try Doc's Motor Court (11 Irving Ave., 804-224- 7840, www.docsmotel.com; $60 a night), an American classic. Opened in 1948 by Doc Caruthers, Doc's offers simple rooms steps from the beach.

EATING THERE: Crabs and oysters are the specialties in season. The Dockside at the marina serves raw bar, fried oysters, crab imperial and crab cakes at Colonial Beach, not D.C., prices. Choose from the fine dining room or the casual setting at the attached Blue Heron Pub (1787 Castlewood Dr.). Still Waters Grille (1016 Monroe Bay Ave.) dishes up seafood overlooking the bay.

WHAT TO DO: Soak up sun on the beach or stroll along the Potomac on Irving Avenue. The Museum at Colonial Beach (128 Hawthorne St., 804-224-5800), showcasing archival photos and memorabilia, is worth a visit. The scenic and historic sites of Virginia's Northern Neck are nearby. George Washington Birthplace National Monument (804-224-1732, www.nps.gov/gewa) and Stratford Hall Plantation (804-493-8371, www.stratfordhall.org), the birthplace of Robert E. Lee, are both less than 10 miles from town. Ingleside Vineyard (804-224-8687, www.ipwine.com) and Westmoreland Berry Farm (804-224-8967, www.westmorelandberryfarm.com) are even closer. Westmoreland State Park (804- 493-8821) extends more than a mile along the Potomac.

INFO: Colonial Beach Chamber of Commerce, 804-224-8145, www.colonialbeach.org.


© 2003 The Washington Post Company

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