Harold W. Hurst - March 2007
Delmarva Hotels in Bygone Days
Harold W. Hurst
Hotels have long played a significant role in the political, economic, social and recreational life of the Delmarva Peninsula. During the Colonial and Federal eras, travelers in this isolated area sought refuge at inns and taverns where the amenities were few and guests were forced to sleep in communal bedrooms.
By the antebellum period, larger hotels began to cater to patrons in commercial and political centers like Wilmington, Dover and Easton. Beginning in the 1870s, steamship and railway lines were carrying excursionists and vacationers to the beaches at Betterton and Tolchester Beach on the Chesapeake Bay and Ocean City and Rehoboth Beach on the Atlantic Ocean. The saga of Delmarva hotels is a fascinating story.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, hotels were larger structures with separate bedrooms for each guest or family, elaborate front parlors and lobbies on the first floor, and dining rooms where patrons were served meals prepared by skilled chefs.
Wilmington witnessed the erection of the Clayton House in 1873. A four-and-a-half-story brick building, it contained 105 rooms with steam heat and wash stands. Other hostelries in the city included the Hotel Wilmington on Market Street and the hotel duPont, advertised as “Wilmington’s Million Dollar Hotel.” The lobby and dining room of this structure were furnished in an elegant Victorian style.
Dover was the site of hotels that served lawyers and politicians who stayed in town while the legislature was in session. The early inns and hotels were on the Green near the state building.
A more lavish building arose when the Hotel Richardson was erected in 1881-1882 by the canning manufacturers, A. B. and H. N. Richardson. A four-story building in the Queen Anne style, this hotel could accommodate 100 quests. Costing about $75,000, a large sum at the time, it was one of the finest hotels in the region.
Chestertown, on the northern part of the Eastern Shore, was home to numerous taverns and inns during the Colonial and Federal eras. The most famous of these was the White Swan, which still stands today, as a bed and breakfast.
A larger hotel was built in 1864 when the Voshell House was erected at the cost of $28,000. The Imperial Hotel was built in 1903, featuring double-tiered front porches facing High Street in the downtown section. The Imperial still stands today and its dining room is open on most evenings.
Easton, long the most important town on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, has been noted for its fine hotels. A judicial center as well as the social focus for the wealthy planters of Talbot County and the surrounding area, the town was naturally a hub for hotels.
The first genuine hotel was built by a local merchant, Samuel Groome, in the year 1815. A three-story building located at the corner of Washington and Federal Streets, it remained the town’s finest hotel for many decades. After the death of Groome in 1855, the Brick Hotel, as it became known, was taken over by Colonel James C. Norris.
Another hotel built in the pre-Civil War era was the European House, which soon became known as the Frame House because of its wooden construction. Both hotels boasted bars that served “the choicest liquors from the Philadelphia market.” Both hotels advertised their dining room fare and noted that the horses of the patrons would be well taken care of by the stable hands.
During the antebellum period, hotels were often the scene of slave auctions. Hall’s Hotel in Easton carried the following announcement for the Southern markets: “I am in the market purchasing Negroes for the Southern markets.” One local planter advertised that he wished to sell “thirty valuable Negroes of bother sexes and of good family and character.”
During the 1890s the Avon Hotel was built. This hotel was eventually placed under the management of Colonel Norris, who was lured away from his position at the Brick Hotel. In later years the Avon continued to flourish under the supervision of the Colonel’s son, William K. Norris.
The Avon became one of the leading hotels on the Shore, as it boasted of steam heat, dumbwaiters, and hot and cold running water in each room. Its dining room offered such gourmet delights as broiled shad, roast spring lamb a la Italienne, filet de Boeuf aux mushrooms, and roast snipe in addition to a wide variety of vegetables and assorted fruits and Neapolitan ice cream for dessert. In 1944 the Avon was seriously damaged by fire after serving the town and area for over a half century.
Since the late 1940s the Tidewater Inn has occupied the space originally held by the Avon Hotel. A four-story brick building, it has, for many years, been one of the finest hotels on the Eastern Shore. Advertised as “The Pride of the Eastern Shore,” it is still the scene of numerous business meetings and social gatherings.
The development of beach resorts on both the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean resulted in a remarkable expansion of the hotel industry on the Delmarva Peninsula. Between the 1870s and the early 1900s dozens of elegantly structured hostelries in the Victorian style were erected at Betterton and Tolchester Beach on the Chesapeake, and Ocean City and Rehoboth on the Atlantic Ocean.
Kent County in Maryland boasted of two resort towns, Tolchester Beach and Betterton. Steamboats from Baltimore carried thousands of people to these vacation spots, some for a day’s outing and others for longer stays. Vacationers who remained overnight at Tolchester Beach were guests at a large, three-story hotel with gabled roofs and wide enclosed porches called the Tolchester Beach Hotel. This popular beach resort finally closed down in 1962 after serving thousands of visitors for nearly 80 years.
Betterton was a resort town with numerous hotels and rooming houses. During its heyday its 20 or so hotels and rooming houses accommodated about 3,500 patrons per year - ten times the permanent population of the town of 300.
The two grandest hotels were the Chesapeake Hotel and the Rigbie Hotel. Both of these structures were rambling Victorian places with wide verandahs where the guests could view the beaches and incoming steamboats. Other fashionable hotels at Betterton included the Idlewild, Royal Swan, Atlantic and Emerson Hotels.
The Rigbie, advertised as “Betterton’s finest hotel,” could accommodate 150 guests. Banquets, dinners and parties featured special menus served to customers with reservations.
The Chesapeake Hotel offered Eastern Shore food on the European Plan. For many years this hotel was the social center of the northern part of Kent County. It closed its doors in 1973 and burned down in 1980.
A smaller, less celebrated resort on the Chesapeake Bay was at Love Point on Kent island in Queen Anne’s County. Vacationers who came by steamboat from Baltimore could stay overnight at the Love Point Hotel, advertised as the “Finest family hotel on the Chesapeake.” Its dining room, noted for seafood and chicken dishes, seated 200 guests, and during the summer season served 1,000 guests on Saturdays and Sundays. During the 1930s one could stay at the Love Point Hotel for $3 a night or $18 a week. The hotel was later converted into an office building and burned down in 1967.
The Chesapeake resorts could not match Ocean City, the primary hotel town on the Delmarva Peninsula. This Atlantic Ocean resort was developed by Baltimore and Philadelphia capitalists who took advantage of railroad construction in the area, making the beaches on the barrier island across the Sinepuxent Bay accessible to the mainland and rail connections at Salisbury.
The first hotel to spring up on the beach in Ocean City was the Atlantic, which opened on the Fourth of July in 1876. A four-story frame building, it extended one block back from the ocean and had wide columned porches on the front and both sides. The Atlantic Hotel contained 400 rooms and was, undoubtedly, unmatched in size and elegance by any other hostelry in the area. It burned down in 1925 but was later rebuilt.
Another Ocean City hotel patronized by well-to-do visitors was the Plimhimmon, which was established by Rosalie Shreve, the daughter of the renowned General Tench Tilghman. The hotel was named for the General’s estate in Talbot County.
The Plimhimmon, opened in 1893, was known for its magnificent meals. Rosalie Shreve felt that the dining room should be an important feature of any first-class hotel. The meals included a lavish breakfast and elaborate dinners that consisted of a wide choice of soups, meats, vegetables and desserts. As late as the 1930s a vacationer could have a single room at the Plimhimmon with a bathroom at the end of the hall and three meals a day for $18.
Most of the great hotels in Ocean City in this era, like the Plimhimmon, Hamilton, Royalton, Hastings and the Majestic were managed by women, a fact noted in Mary Corddry’s fascinating book City on the Sand, Ocean City, Maryland, and the People Who Built It (1991). Most of these hotels were operated on the so-called American Plan, in which the cost of rooms and meals were included in a single package.
As late as the 1920s guests at the leading hotels dressed for dinner and the evening promenade on the boardwalk. Bands played music at dinner time in the elaborately decorated dining rooms. During the afternoons and later in the evening, patrons relaxed on the verandahs, where they could socialize or witness the activities on the beach or the passing steamers. By modern standards the atmosphere in most beach resorts in this era was formal but unhurried.
The 1960s witnessed many changes in Ocean City. During the early part of the decade it was still a small resort town dominated by old Victorian-style hotels with their picturesque verandahs. In 1962 the notorious Bobby Baker, a Congressional staffer in the Kennedy/Johnson era, built the Carousel, a lavish hotel that later became the fun center of Ocean City.
Convicted for fraud and tax evasion, Baker never realized his dream of enlarging he Carousel, but successive owners established the hotel as a luxury multi-story building. Ocean City was on its way to becoming a high-rise resort on the Atlantic Ocean. By the 1970s the ocean front was littered with multi-story hotels, condominiums and apartment houses. Half-dressed throngs crowded the beaches, boardwalk and tawdry amusement centers. The old unhurried life of the early hotels was a thing of the past.
Rehoboth Beach, across the state line in Delaware, was founded in 1871 as a Methodist camp meeting site. It soon became a beach resort, however - a miniature Ocean City.
In 1873 two summer hotels were erected, several years before the Atlantic Hotel in Ocean City went up. They were the Bright and the Surf.
A more ambitious project in 1879-1880 resulted in the construction of the Cape Henlopen Hotel at the cost of $20,000. This resort hotel has survived for over a century as it has been enlarged and rebuilt by several different owners.
Probably the most luxurious hotel in today’s Rehoboth Beach is the Broadway Plaza, a pink and white-colored Victorian structure with balconies on the beachfront.
Virginia’s Eastern Shore, despite its isolation and distance from large cities, was a favorite vacation spot beginning as early as 1867, when the Chesapeake House was erected on Cobb Island. Its patrons came from all over the United States and many foreign countries. The Chesapeake House boasted a billiard room and bowling alley, among other attractions. The rates were $3 a day, $18 a week, and $50 a month.
In 1902 A. H. Mears, a merchant and seafood dealer, opened the Hotel Wachapreague at Chincoteague. Mr. Mears operated this hotel until 1944.
Twenty-first-century Delmarva is blanketed with hotels, motels, condominiums and resort apartments for rent. But gone are the days of the old picturesque hotels with their ornate lobbies and front parlors, wide verandahs stocked with rocking chairs, and dining rooms that served formally dressed patrons while bands played waltzes and light classical music. The rich social life that centered around the hotels of yesteryear is a thing of the past, and elegance has departed from the beach scene forever.