Thirty minutes south of the Capital Beltway, a little waterside town is going through yet another identity change. Calvert County's Chesapeake Beach is again straddling a line between resort destination and small-town haven.
This time of year, outsiders flock to fishing charters from one of the largest fleets on the bay, or to bingo games at the Rod 'N' Reel. A pricey hotel-spa returned vacation lodging to the waterfront in 2004. Across the street, a large water park elicits shrieks. It draws 85 percent of its season-pass holders from town.
Festivals abound. Lynn Wiles, who commutes to her office at AARP in the District, said: "Anytime you put street vendors with sand and water, it's got to be good."
From now to Labor Day, town council member Patrick Mahoney said, residents tend to lose touch with each other because they are too busy entertaining visitors. For example, Wiles said, for the six years that her family has lived in town, summer has been like a reunion. "All of our old friends want to visit because we're at the beach."
Come September, though, the community, which has a year-round population of about 3,400, reverts to "a first name kind of town," said Kathy Johnson, the town secretary.
The off-season quiet is what former Alexandrian Cheryl Castner refers to as her "healing balm" -- quiet enough to hear a dog's toenails clicking against the sidewalk, she said.
Locals trade gossip in small businesses or in the lobby of the pint-size town hall. Conversations include ongoing battles with groundhogs and whether the town has maxed out on new construction.
Waterside housing is as diverse as the town's atmosphere. There are the contemporary waterfront townhouses of Chesapeake Station and Windward Key; the maintenance-free living of a new eight-story condo, Horizons on the Bay; and pockets of tiny bungalows tying Chesapeake Beach to its past.
Mahoney was looking for something elusive when he moved from Alexandria in 1994. "I'm a small-town kind of guy, and I've finally found my small town. It was a natural fit," he said. Mahoney chose Chesapeake Beach because of the schools and the character of the housing area once known as "the campgrounds."
There, an eclectic cluster of former summer cottages crowd together on cardio-workout hills with narrow lanes. Once lacking electricity or running water, the now-year-round houses are being remodeled as much as the minuscule lots will allow, heading more up than out.
Aging men who eked out a living on the water live side by side with white-collar transplants from inside the Beltway. Mahoney felt he had been accepted when his house, formerly known as "Big Bob's house" after the waterman who introduced him around town, was christened "Irish's house."
John Carey's once-unobstructed view of the bay from his small hillside wood-frame cottage has gradually given way to a view of waterfront amenities. "This has always been a resort community," he said, without complaint.
From 1900 to 1935, the Chesapeake Beach Railway Co. brought vacationers via a dusty, cinder-flaked ride to bayside entertainment. Those escaping from Washington's humidity enjoyed what some described as a mini-Monte Carlo -- fine hotels, casinos, an over-the-water roller coaster, a dance hall and silk hosiery concessions along an extensive boardwalk 500 feet from shore.
Mildred Finlon, now 96 and the town historian, rode the rails from Seat Pleasant when she was 11. "Our family came every weekend. In the summer we rented a cottage [in the campgrounds] for $15 a week," she recalled. When she was 13, her father sent her into town to pick up her birthday present -- a canoe, which she rowed back to the cottage.
After teaching in Washington for years, Finlon moved to Chesapeake Beach in 1948, to a house her father built across the street from their former summer cottage. "My mother thought I'd taken leave of my senses," she said of her choice to live with an outhouse, oil lamps and no screens on the windows.
By then, life in Chesapeake Beach was slowing down. The opening of the Bay Bridge in 1952 and the outlawing of slot machines in 1968 put the brakes on growth for decades.
A reputation for bars and brawls ensued. Fifteen years ago, it was difficult to give property away, said Jim Luckett, former owner of GP Luckett Construction Inc. and now a restaurant owner in town.
About six years ago, the town's latest evolution started picking up speed. Some are cheering while others are wondering if there is a brake.
Myranda Warfield and her teenage friends are thrilled that by 2006, a paved hiking and biking trail is to connect their homes in Richfield Station, a mile out on the town's western boundary, to the center of town.
Mahoney applauds the new streetscape plan. "I would like to see a total pedestrian town from Brownie's Beach up," he said. The small beach, now called Bay Front Park, has long been a popular spot for shark tooth hunting.
There was grumbling around the continuing statewide debate over legalized gambling. The Rod 'N' Reel already offers "pull-tab" slot machines, a form of one-arm bandit distinguished from the real thing by a technicality; proponents of the return of regular slot machines to Maryland tout the increased revenue they will bring. Opponents fear "nefarious interests" and more traffic that will change the town's ambiance.
There is also a growing bureaucracy. Repairs and requests that once were handled with a quick phone call to Town Hall must now follow a paper-generating protocol.
And a real estate flyer boasting, "Building in the town limits is so much easier than in the county," has an unsettling make-an-offer tone. Jan Ruttkay of Century 21, who put out the flyer, said "The stringency of requirements is a bit more relaxed here than in the county," but added, "Newcomers seem very protective of the quality of life in town." And yet, the water calls. What newcomer Ron Lindhart refers to as "the decompression experience" begins when commuters turn off Maryland Route 4 onto 260, traveling eight miles along a greenway, past farmland, fruit stands and small houses on large lots. Lindhart, who rides the commuter bus to the District, said: "It's an easy commute because I'm not riding the brake pedal. I can read the newspaper in the morning and a novel in the evening."
Federal worker Shirl Hendley said, "Reaching the crest of the hill and seeing that view," the flag flying over Veterans Park and the bay stretching beyond, "says it all to me . . . 'Welcome home.' "
Mildred Finlon, 96, recalls that as a girl, she and her family took a train from Seat Pleasant to a rented cottage at Chesapeake Beach.
Chesapeake Beach, with a year-round population of about 3,400 people, has one of the largest fleets of fishing charters on the bay. In summer, residents tend to lose touch with each other because they are busy entertaining visitors, Patrick Mahoney says. At right is Ron Lindhart.Myranda Warfield, right, takes a plunge with a friend at the water park.