Lure of the Beach

Paul and I are reaching down from Herring Bay aboard Petrel, bound for Chesapeake Beach, Md., a community that lines a sandy strip of waterfront on the Western Shore, just below Holland Point. Behind us the whitecaps are scribbling haiku stanzas across the water and gulls skim the waves like so many scholars trying to decipher the words. The late winter sky is flat and blue. The air is cold. I had promised Paul a short sail, and he’s grumbling about the definition of the word “short.”

“It’s more of a concept than an exact measurement,” I say. He remains unconvinced that winter sailing is worth the effort.

Now we can see a couple of high-rise buildings-the Chesapeake Beach Resort & Spa to the south, a pink beach condo to the north-and between them a row of waterfront houses strung like beads. Farther up the shoreline, we can just make out the fishing pier and half-mile-long boardwalk at North Beach. The two towns, which run together, are like the Minneapolis-St. Paul of the Bay-one boasts a big hotel and charter-fishing fleet and the other a boardwalk and public beach.

We pick up the marker due east of Fishing Creek and come about, dropping sail and hoping that Bubba, our cranky engine, sees fit to take us the rest of the way in. We’re heading for the Rod ‘N’ Reel’s marina basin. It’s the only place in town that can handle masted vessels, like Petrel, and other tall boats. A fixed bridge with a 10-foot clearance blocks the rest of the way into Fishing Creek, where more slips are available for boats able to negotiate the clearance and bulkheads and finger piers offer shelter to one of the largest charter-fishing fleets on the Bay.

Most people will tell you that they come to Chesapeake Beach to fish, either off their own boat or aboard one of the four dozen or so charterboats that routinely operate from the Rod ‘N’ Reel or Abner’s Crab House, just up Fishing Creek. But there’s another source of silver to be had hereabouts. Slot machines of one sort or another have been a focal point at the “Beach” (as it’s invariably called by locals) for nearly a century, drawing avid and casual gamers alike to this tiny Bayside resort. Of course, Paul and I wouldn’t know about any of that. We come here for the food-today that means a plate of ribs at Smokey Joe’s Grill. Sometimes you just gotta have ’em.

We tuck Petrel into a slip and step ashore. To say that the Rod ‘N’ Reel anchors the town of Chesapeake Beach is no stretch. It occupies the Bay front on the south side of Fishing Creek, as well as a good portion of the creek front inside the bridge. The family-run complex offers world-class dining, over three hundred protected slips, a launch ramp-and now a hotel, the Chesapeake Resort Hotel & Spa. The marina office does the booking for most of the independently owned charter-fishing boats that run in and out of the creek. The Rod ‘N’ Reel restaurant, overlooking the marina, offers an enticing menu of fresh seafood and stages lavish weddings and gala fundraisers in opulent splendor. Next door, Smokey Joe’s serves up saucy barbecue ribs and chicken. A casual dock bar straddles the waterfront between the restaurant and the hotel. Patrons of the latter have a sweeping view of the Bay, as well as access to a state-of-the-art exercise room, an indoor pool and sauna, and a fully staffed health spa that includes massage and rejuvenating facials. They also have ready access to over two hundred instant bingo machines, a traditional bingo hall and Keno.

“Imagine that,” says Paul. We’ve poked our heads into the hotel lobby, where the siren call of a massage has caught Paul’s attention. Working Petrel’s tiller can be such labor, he tells me. “I think a nice massage would soothe my soul, don’t you?” he directs this question to the attractive hotel receptionist, who assures him that marina guests are welcome to partake of the spa facilities. Wouldn’t you know, there’s an immediate opening for a half-hour massage, if Paul would be inclined to pony up the required $50. Before I can say, “Whose wallet?” Paul has been whisked away into a lush little chamber for a rejuvenating rub down. When he reemerges, he’s downright radiant. “How’s the shoulder?” I ask. “Ka-ching!” he says, pulling the arm of an imaginary slot machine.

Some would say that slot machines built this little town. That’s not true. Chesapeake Beach is the culmination of a series of resort-development schemes in the latter part of the 19th century. In the shadow of the new hotel sits an old railway station, the terminus of the original rail line that brought the first visitors from the summer swelter of Washington, D.C. Otto Mears is credited with laying the tracks and conjuring up the waterside amusement park that went with them. In 1900, when his railroad opened for business, families could enjoy the healthy Bay breezes and partake of a variety of attractions, including a large bathing beach and a small-scale seaside train. By 1916, the death-defying Great Derby roller coaster was soaring over the heads of terrified parents, offering cheap thrills to all comers. They apparently came in droves.

The resort town that sprouted from the surrounding dunes saw plenty of traffic. Tourists filled the luxurious Belvedere Hotel and nearby boarding houses. Soon, the new prosperity spread to the newly platted town of North Beach, where hundreds of small vacation houses offered cooling Bay breezes and plenty of entertainment to big city residents eager to escape the summer heat. A few visitors built year-round residences and decided to stay put, creating a pair of permanent beach-side communities. But eventually the charms of a rickety wooden roller coaster and a netted swimming area (that could never be entirely free of stinging jellyfish) began to peter out.

The Great Depression no doubt contributed to the towns’ decline, as did the increasing availability of automobiles. Car ferries crossing the Bay put the jellyfish-free Atlantic beaches within relatively easy reach. Compounded by dwindling regional revenues from tobacco and seafood, the financial decline of Chesapeake Beach and North Beach was sobering. When slot machines took hold in the 1930s, they seemed like a godsend to the strapped communities.

Paul and I stand on the dock, looking out across the Bay. I can just imagine the parade of boats roaring over the water into town back in its gambling heyday. I had hoped to find people who remembered that period and could tell me about Chesapeake Beach’s days as “Little Atlantic City,” but most of those people are, one way or another, gone now. Indeed, the closest I came was Little Buddy Harrison of Tilghman, Md.

“We swapped fishing captains back and forth,” Harrison told me. “Big fishing fleet over there. Played ’em in baseball. And plenty of folks went there to party. Easier to get there by boat than by car. The kids went to the amusement park while their parents played the slots. I remember that big old roller coaster from when my dad took me there some-time in the early sixties.” I told Harrison that I could remember one waterman telling me that he learned how to drive a boat by ferrying his parents home from their nights on the town. “Don’t know who that would be in particular,” Harrison said, “but I imagine it could be true of any number of fellows.”

The party traffic slowed considerably in 1968 when slot machines were out-lawed in Maryland. Then in 2001, as a result of a challenge by Rod ‘N’ Reel’s owner Gerald Donovan, the court ruled that the business’s Lucky Tab machines were legal because they used pre-printed cards that mirrored the mechanics of a bingo game-a perfectly legal church-sanctioned way to part people from their money-even though they were nearly indistinguishable from slot machines. Unlike a traditional game of bingo, however, these instant bingo machines-also known as pull-tab machines-gave players the results instantly and spit out paper receipts instead of coins to winners. Pretty soon hundreds of the pull-tab instant bingo machines were helping to attract thousands of visitors back to the Beach.

Now all of that seems about to change. Last year, Maryland voters approved a new gambling law that allows state-controlled slot machines in a few locations. Ironically, though, that same law may put an end to gaming in Chesapeake Beach by outlawing instant bingo machines, which would be competition to the state-sanctioned slots. Pull tab and instant bingo proponents of course lobbied to keep the machines legal, but ultimately they failed-at least for now. Barring the passage of a bill introduced in February that would give instant bingo machines an extension until 2010 in Anne Arundel and Calvert counties (the only two counties that allow commercial bingo), the machines will become illegal statewide in July. Traditional bingo will continue, but that’s no comfort to the city of Chesapeake Beach, which stands to lose a significant source of tax revenue. And two Beach businesses-Rod ‘N’ Reel and Traders Seafood, Steak & Ale-of course will lose one of their major draws.

Paul and I decide to take a walk to build up an appetite. I offer to buy him a beer at Abner’s Crab House, which is not too far from the Rod ‘N’ Reel dock. We head inland and cross Bayside Road, which runs north-south through town.

Bobby Abner started catching and selling crabs when he was a kid. He ultimately ratcheted his crab-catching acumen into a thriving business that today employs nine family members, who keep the steamers full at the waterfront crabhouse and bar that backs up to Fishing Creek. Dockage is available on a first-come-first-served basis, but there always seems to be room for everyone. Alas, Paul and I are ahead of the season, and Abner’s isn’t open yet. We can see workers scrubbing table tops and mopping floors. We are a weekend too early, they tell us. “I told you it was too cold to go sailing,” Paul says.

We backtrack and head north on the main road. Traders is on our left. “They have beer here, too,” I say. A small bank of instant bingo machines sits on one side of the bar, and folks are already planted in front of the them. “Oh they’re a draw, all right,” says Traders’ hostess when we ask about the popularity of the machines. “If you win, you take the tab up to the bartender and he’ll cash it out for you.” Paul and I watch for a bit. Every now and then someone gets up and saunters over to the bar.

“At least with the slot machines you got some exercise pulling down the handle to play,” says “Uncle Roy” Leverone. The only exercise instant bingo players get is feeding in coins-and occasionally walking up to the counter for a pay-out. Leverone is a retired charter-fishing captain who’s been hanging around the Beach most of his life. Rod ‘N’ Reel’s assistant dockmaster Darrell Noyes had suggested we look him up if we wanted to talk to one of the old-timers, which is how we found ourselves in Leverone’s workshop, up the road from the Beach and not far from the water.

Leverone’s never been convinced that gambling is such a good idea. But the bottom line is he’s seen the machines come, and he hopes to see them go. For him, it’s the Bay that makes the town what it is. That’s the real draw, and fishing is the common denominator. “This is probably the biggest fishing fleet on the Bay that operates out of one place, under one umbrella,” he says. “Up there in Deale [Md.], you’ve got plenty of charterboats, but they’re all independent. Down here everyone works together, and it’s all coordinated by the Rod ‘N’ Reel.”

Last year, Leverone sold his boat, Uncle Roy, but he still works occasionally as a relief captain on other boats. When he’s not on the water, he’s in his workshop crafting furniture. A newly finished cherry table gleams in the sunlight that slants through the windows. Nearby, another side table stands on graceful tiptoe legs. Children’s rockers sit atop a cluttered table-one is in the shape of a wooden airplane, with a spinning propeller. On another table lie boxes filled with fishing reels. “I’m sorting through these,” Leverone says. “Getting ready for the flea market. Every year I get rid of more stuff. No sense hanging on to it. I don’t use it.”

Leverone starts talking about life on the water, sharing stories of his chartering days. “I spent summers here when I was a kid,” he says, waving a hand generously toward the water. “I had a construction company for a while, then I sold the business and moved here permanently about thirty years ago. Ran fishing charters.” A lot of day-trippers came to Chesapeake Beach, drawn by the water. Sometimes they’d climb aboard one of the head boats or sign up for a private charter. Sometimes they’d rent a little skiff and go off on their own.

“Some of them didn’t know what they were doing. . . .” Leverone leans forward, for emphasis and settles into a story about a man and his young daughter who were caught too far offshore in their rented rowboat by a summer squall. Leverone and a friend, who were out fishing, had been caught in the storm too, but rode it out easily. The man and his daughter were not as fortunate. After the storm had blown through, Leverone and his friend spotted the pair, clinging to their overturned boat and shouting for help. They pulled them out, retrieved their boat and set them back on land. The man was so upset, Leverone says, that he made a dash straight for his car, completely forgetting his daughter until the watermen shouted after him. “No telling about people sometimes,” Leverone concludes.

“No telling,” Paul says.

It’s late afternoon and Paul and I have wandered back to the Rod ‘N’ Reel. The wind is cold. Even the sun, falling fast now, is cold. We tuck into Smokey Joe’s and wedge ourselves into a booth near the bar. Paul begins to flirt with the waitress. Smokey Joe’s waitresses are delightfully sassy, and Paul just loves that. We order ribs.

Later, licking sticky bits of barbecue sauce from our fingers, we head back to the dock. A crowd has gathered in front of the pull tabs in the Rod ‘N’ Reel. Come July, they’ll be gone, and fishing, food and fun will be all Chesapeake Beach has to offer, with a little wholesome sass on the side. Treasure enough in my book. As far as I’m concerned, baiting up and dropping a line overboard is as much gambling as I can handle, and from the look of things in Chesapeake Beach, there will still be plenty of that going on. Paul says he’d come back just for the back rub. I’ll have to try that next time.