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Ocean City, Maryland: A Brief History With Pictures

From popular tourist attractions to lesser-known areas, Dolores shares destinations in Maryland as well as regional day trips.

Old Ocean City - A Beautiful Row of Beach Cottages

Old Ocean City - A Beautiful Row of Beach Cottages

Where Is Ocean City?

Ocean City in Maryland is a 10 mile stretch of sandy beach set between the Atlantic Ocean and the Sinepuxent Bay. There is not much left of the quaint old town, blasted by storms, fire, and the onslaught of development, but the waves beat on, relentless and eternal, the heartbeat of the world.

Before the storm of 1933 created the Ocean City Inlet, Ocean City, Maryland, and Assateague Island were joined - one long barrier island used by the Assateague tribe for fishing and later by coastal farmers for grazing.

On July 5, 1875, the Atlantic Hotel opened. Followed by more hotels, guest cottages, amusement parks, dance halls, and a 2 1/2 mile boardwalk, Ocean City was on its way to becoming Maryland's ultimate tourist destination for sun, sand, and surf.

Some of the older buildings still stand downtown and owners have begun to display historic markers as the town takes on a new interest in its history.

Atlantic Hotel circa 1910

Atlantic Hotel circa 1910

Early Tourists

The first European to set foot on Assateague Island was Giovanni de Verrazano who sailed into Chincoteague Bay in 1524, under the French flag. He found cedar and pine forests, and wetlands and also travelled to the Pokomoke swamp. There is some controversy over Verrazano's presence on Assateague Island at that time. A bridge connecting northern Assateague Island with the mainland is named after Verrazano.

The first written record of Assateague Island was by the English voyager, Colonel Henry Norwood who, after a storm in 1650, landed on the barrier island in search of food and fresh water. A group of travelers was marooned there on the island but helped by local Indians.

In the early 1700s, Captain William Whittington was granted 1,000 acres of land by Lord Baltimore, 15 miles south of present-day Ocean City. He subdivided parcels of land for public grazing, but little fresh water and poor soil conditions made Assateague unattractive for settlement.

Isaac Coffin was the first man to understand the appeal of tourism and built beach cottages for paying guests in 1869.

In 1868, the Wicomico and Pokomoke Railroad took travelers from Salisbury, Maryland to Berlin, Maryland. When the railroad extended to the Sinepuxent Bay, people were able to take a ferry over to Ocean City. Tourists made the long journey from Baltimore, across the Chesapeake Bay to Claiborne on a ferry, then took the train to the beach.

At the time, Ocean city was a small fishing village where fishermen took pound boats off the beach and into the ocean for fishing. (The boats were large rowboats using a type of netting trap called "pounds.") But land speculation went hand in hand with the railroad expansion. Soon, building lots and streets were laid out, with the original plat for the town dated August 31, 1875.

The 1880 USA census shows that 48 people lived in the town, including 27 adults and 21 children.

The Ocean City Life Saving Station was created in 1878 and dedicated to responding to shipwrecks and the plight of people in danger in the Atlantic Ocean. On January 10, 1883, the schooner Sallie W. Kaye struck an offshore sandbar during a terrible snowstorm. Members of the life-saving station rescued 6 sailors from the devastated ship.

Old Plimhimmon Hotel

Old Plimhimmon Hotel

What'slLeft of the old Plimhimmon - see the cap?

What'slLeft of the old Plimhimmon - see the cap?

Tourism Picks up in the Late 1800s

Guest cottages for fishermen began to open in the late 1800s, including Isaac Coffin's guest cottages and Scott's Ocean House at Green River Beach in 1869.

In 1975, a descendant claimed that Isaac Coffin also built a hotel on the mainland and that (in 1975) the ruins were visible in a field near Frontier Town (a western theme park).

On July 4, 1875, the Atlantic Hotel opened for business. The Atlantic Hotel was a handsome Victorian four-story, wooden hotel that encompassed a full block. Its wide columned porches wrapped around the front and the sides to welcome the fresh ocean breezes for the pleasure of the guests of the 400-room hotel. The Atlantic Hotel, rebuilt after a fire, is visible today, hidden behind Boardwalk honky-tonk.

Most of the rooming houses and hotels were owned and run by women - fishermen's wives, and widows. Rosalie Tilghman Shreve was one such success story. She grew up at her family's plantation, called Plimhimmon, near Oxford, Maryland. After the Civil War, the farm fell into bankruptcy and her father's business failed. Rosalie married young and found herself a widow with two young children at the tender age of 19. After running a rooming house in Baltimore, she opened a boarding house in Ocean City. In 1894, she bought up 2 oceanfront lots and constructed a 48-room hotel she called the Plimhimmon. While the hotel has undergone many changes including fire damage and a name change (the Plim Plaza), the hotel's unique cap (a replica added in 1963) is still visible today on the Boardwalk between 1st and 2nd Streets.

Visits to the beach were different in those days. People dressed for dinner, often in formal attire. Hotels offered ballroom dancing with live orchestras. Tourists rode along the boardwalk in 3 wheeled wicker carriages for fifty cents.

In 1892, The Sinepuxent Beach Company of Baltimore purchased the Atlantic Hotel as well as 1600 acres of nearby land, hoping to create farms to supply the hotel with fresh local foods. The real estate group also bought ocean and bayfront property, selling the lots for $25.00 each, demanding a $5.00 down payment.

1897 saw the construction of an elevated Boardwalk above the narrow beach. People sat beneath the boardwalk to keep out of the sun. Swimming ropes allowed the bravest visitors to venture out into the surf.

By 1907, the pier held a long white frame building filled with popular amusements of the day including a bowling alley, billiard tables, a roller rink, a dance hall, and a silent movie theater.

Saint Mary's Star of the Sea Catholic Church built in 1878

Saint Mary's Star of the Sea Catholic Church built in 1878

A Stork on the Old Hershell - Spellman Carousel at Trimper's Rides

A Stork on the Old Hershell - Spellman Carousel at Trimper's Rides

Giraffe on the old carousel

Giraffe on the old carousel

Trimper's Rides - Vintage Amusement Park

In 1892, Daniel Trimper and his wife, both German immigrants, opened the Windsor Resort, modeled after England's Windsor Castle and an amusement park called Luna Park (like the famous amusement park at Coney Island). Part of that old hotel can be seen today hidden away behind the present Haunted House.

The resort featured a movie theater, vaudeville acts, and a merry-go-round powered by strong workmen.

In 1912, Trimper purchased a Hershell - Spillman carousel. Built in 1902, the beautiful carousel featured a hand-carved menagerie and is, today, the oldest continuously running carousel in the USA. You can ride this historic carousel for only $2.00 when you visit Trimper's Rides near the south end of the Boardwalk. The indoor section of Trimpers contains vintage kiddie rides like the kiddie Ferris Wheel and a tiny carousel built in the 1920s.

Marty's Playland - Arcade Games With a Splash of History

Just north of Trimpers, at the Boardwalk and Worchester Street, is Marty's Playland, an arcade dating from the 1930s. Though the place is filled with modern games, there are still quite a few vestiges of the past including an antique skeeball game, and the miniature cranes at Diggerville reportedly 100 years old.

It's fun to visit Marty's and play the old games. Below is a picture of an automated fortune teller encased in a glass and wooden booth. She's been telling fortunes for over a half a century.

Marty's Playland - an old automated fortune teller

Marty's Playland - an old automated fortune teller

It’s a Ill Wind That Doesn’t Blow Some Good

Much of old Ocean City has been lost. Set out on a barrier island, the town is a magnet for trouble. The old wooden structures made fire a constant threat. In December of 1925, a fire broke out. Frozen fire hydrants hampered the efforts of firefighters and the ensuing blaze destroyed 3 square blocks of old downtown Ocean City. The Atlantic Hotel burned down but was rebuilt.

Storms are a worry as well. Few people lived in Ocean City at the time of the terrible Storm of 1821 which was recalled 50 years later in a magazine. An inky black sky threatened all day and into the night, with the wind moaning and howling. When the locals awoke the next morning, they were shocked to see the Atlantic Ocean in retreat. A dull roar brought in a terrible storm that tore up pine trees and tossed houses off their foundations. What could only be a tidal wave stuck Assateague and moved on to Chincoteague south of Ocean City in Virginia.

It's An Ill Wind That Doesn't Blow Some Good

On August 22, 1933, a severe storm with heavy rains and strong winds hit the busy resort. Two hundred guests were stranded at the newly rebuilt Atlantic Hotel.

The ocean flooded the town, pouring over the roads and into the Sinepuxent Bay. After the storm surge, when the ocean retreated, water drained from the Bay and created an inlet at the south end of town. Water rushed out back to sea and the severe storm destroyed the railroad bridge and several fishing camps and swallowed several entire blocks of old Ocean City.

Then-Mayor William McCabe saw an opportunity to increase the local fishing industry and attract boaters. He campaigned to make the inlet permanent and induced the Federal and State governments to cough up $780,000.00 to stabilize the new waterway with a concrete sea wall. The new inlet opened up both commercial and recreational fishing and made Ocean City the White Marlin Capital of the World.

Sand, moved by the ocean's southward drift, soon filled in Ocean City's beach north of the inlet's jetty. Ocean City's beach became huge as the beach of Assateague, on the other side of the inlet migrated west, deprived of the sand deposits

Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962

March 6 - 8 of 1962 brought another terrible storm to Ocean City. The nor'easter (winds from the northwest) combined with the high tides common at new moon and the Spring Equinox caused serious damage. 25-foot waves smashed beach houses and businesses alike.

The waves breaking on Ocean Highway were taller than a man and tides were 5' above normal high tide. Oceanfront buildings had their fronts torn off, and the furniture and debris fell into the sea. Huge waves tore off great sections of the Boardwalk which smashed into buildings like battering rams. 50 businesses, including shops and apartment houses, were totally destroyed, as were 15 homes. Some disappeared completely. 250 other buildings were seriously damaged. Sand piled 5 - 6 ' into the street, burying cars.

It was a devastating storm. But the lowered property values brought in real estate speculators and encouraged the town to enact new building codes. The result was the building boom of the 1970s.

Times Change

In the late 1930s and 1940s, Ocean City drew young music lovers who flocked to the Pier Ballroom to dance to the tunes of the Big Bands that were so popular at the time. Bands like the Glen Miller Band, Jimmy Dorsey, and Benny Goodman appeared there.

The 1950s saw a decline in the big band scene. Beach culture began to change. A new franchise attempted to build amusements and concession stands along the Boardwalk but was turned down, at first, by the city council. Later, the town conceded and allowed the stands that still dot the lower end of the Boardwalk, offering carnival-style games and creating the honky tonk tone of that area that still exists today.

The Chesapeake Bay Bridge which linked the Eastern and Western Shore of the Chesapeake Bay at Route 50 made it easier for people from Baltimore and the Washington DC area to travel to the beach. Opened in 1952, the Bay bridge ushered in a new time of building. This time motels and wood frame, 4 unit apartment houses with kitchens and up to 3 bedrooms.

In 1979, a cold snap caused the ocean to freeze. Huge hunks of ice heaved in the surf, smashing the 140-foot pier. The pier was rebuilt but on a much smaller scale.

The building boom of the 1970s created new high-rise buildings, mostly at the north end of Ocean City. The ugly monstrosities cast the beach in shadow in the afternoons and gave that end of the beach an almost urban look. Buildings sat nearly empty as the economy fell into trouble, but filled slowly during the following recovery. Ocean City was on its way to becoming a town of condominiums and townhouses.

The early part of the 21st century was a time of overdoing everything, when businesses all seemed to vie for the money of the wealthy. Condominiums were built to attract the rich and luxury became the theme. The old wood frame buildings fell under the wrecking ball, giving way for larger (and safer) structures.

The turn of the last century saw Ocean City suffer several nor'easters and severe beach erosion. The loss of beach threatened tourism as well as the stability of oceanfront buildings. A beach replenishment program and the reestablishment of the formerly destroyed dune line protected the town from further incursions of the sea. The new dune line created a beautiful division between the town and the beach and protected the buildings from storm damage due to high tides and storm surges.

Ocean City plugs along, shaking off storms, enduring building booms and busts, leveling history, and choking with traffic. The pinewoods are long gone, and the little town is a distant memory. But, no matter what they do, they can't change the view. The waves rush the beach, the sun rises over the Atlantic, and sets over the Sineputent, ever-changing yet never changing.

Vintage beach goers in Ocean City, Maryland

Vintage beach goers in Ocean City, Maryland

Interior of Old Plimhimmon

Interior of Old Plimhimmon

Beautiful Old Ocean City Style

Beautiful Old Ocean City Style

For Further Reading

Ocean City (Images of America) Volumes 1 and 2 by Nan Devincent Hayes and John E. Jacob

City on the Sand Ocean City Maryland and the People Who Built It by Mary Corddry

Trimper's Rides (Images of America) by Monica Thrash

Ocean City Going Down the Ocean (Brief History) by Michael Morgan

Vanishing Ocean City Memories from Maryland's Famous Beach Resort by Hunter Mann

© 2010 Dolores Monet