The trains and ferries have long since stopped running to Chesapeake Beach. Weatherbeaten, boarded-up dance halls and arcades are all that remain of the golden days of this small Bay town in Calvert County.
But for more than 20 years, Chesapeake Beach and its sister city of North Beach lured thousands of people from Washington, Baltimore, Annapolis and Norfolk. Then they took away the slot machines.
From 1949 to 1968, one-armed bandits were a fixture in may restaurants and taverns in Southern Maryland. There were no casinos in Chesapeake Beach, but restaurant owners could purchase slot machines and put them in their own extablishments. To attract vacationer's dollars, seafood restaurants like Stinnett's, the Sea Breeze and Chaney's all in installed slot machines.
The city and the state received a license fee, and the operator kept the proceeds.
William Fortier, the 71-year-old mayor of Chesapeake Beach, said that before the arrival of slot machines "the profit from a normal business wasn't too much." The slot machines were a vital part of the twn's seasonal economy, as money collected during the summer would have to last through the winter.
Chesapeake Beach was a 45-minute train ride from Washington. A quarter would buy a round trip ticket on the railroad that the city's founder, Otto Mears, built from Seat Pleasant to Chesapeake Beach. Steamships packed with weekend amusement seekers would put in at the old pier that jutted out a half mile into Chesapeake Bay. A steam locomotive ran along the boardwalk. People came from as far away as Philadelphia and New York to try their luck. Fortier said that on one holiday weekend, about 10,000 people descended on the town, which has a normal population of about 2,000.
Fortier contends that his town was largely free of the criminal influence that had found its way into some other areas of the state.
"Most people considered it amusement, not gambling," he recalled. It was the jog of the beach superintendent, John Donald, to keep underworld elements away from the boardwalk and maintain the family atmosphere of the place.
The railroad disappeared during the Depression, as roads and automobiles improved. But it was the decision by Maryland voters in the late 1960s to outlaw gambling that brought an end to prosperous and glamorous times for the resort town.
Fortier, who is seeking his fifth term as mayor in November, said that it took a while for the town's business to recover from the economic shock. "It happened and we didn't wake up to it for two or three years later," he said.
The town has survived. A recent study on what could be done to boost the economy of the region, ruled out manufacturing because of transportation difficulties.