History of Chesapeake Beach, Maryland
- The Railroad and the Resort -

by James Tigner, Jr. - copyright 1998

The Washington and Chesapeake Railway Corporation was formed by a group of prominent businessmen from Maryland and the District of Columbia in 1891. Their goal was the construction of a railway line extending 28 miles from the District of Columbia border to the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. It was invisioned that a lavish resort could be constructed on the Chesapeake Bay. Two grand hotels, the Patuxent and the Chesapeake were planned. The scale and luxury of the hotels would rival any hotel at the great resorts of the time. Amusements of every type and description, including a casino and racetrack would be available to the patrons of the resort. It was easy for these businessmen to romance over cigars the untold wealth that would be generated from such a venture. It was also easy to underestimate the true expenses and planning needed to see such a nobel venture through to completion.

In spite of the inital optimism that had surrounded the railroad, four years later it was still in its infant stages of completion and suffering financially. Poor business judgements, the inability of the partners to unite in purpose and what appeared to be a misappropriation of some of the corporations funds all contributed to the corporation's financial collapse. The Washington and Chesapeake Beach Railway was placed in receivership by the courts in 1895. It was Robert E. Tod of Kennedy, Tod and Company, one of the railway's largest financial backers that ended up purchasing the remaining assets of the defunct corporation. Only if he could find a new buyer for the railroad did he have a chance of recouping his initial investment.

Bathing at Chesapeake Beach

The company was reorganized under Tod's control as the Chesapeake Beach Railway Company. Negotiations were soon underway in Washington DC between Lincoln Hyer, representing the railways concern and a Colonel Dunn who presented himself as quite an authority on railroad construction. Throughout the spring and summer of 1896, Colonel Dunn and Hyer met frequently to discuss the railroads feasability. Finally in January of 1897, Hyer was invited by Colonel Dunn to New York City to visit with another interested party, Charles Popper. Popper had run successful businesses in both Utah and Colorado but was now living in New York City. Hyer made a favorable impression on Popper but Hyer still returned to Washington DC without a sale in his pocket.

In August 1897, Hyer was informed that in addition to Dunn and Popper, several others were now interested in the Chesapeake Beach Railway project. Simular to Popper, these three men, Otto Mears, David Moffat and John Lloyd McNeil, had all earned their fortunes in the wilds of Colorado. Mears was well known as a giant of narrow gauge railroad construction in Colorado, having built the Silverton Northern and the Rio Grande Southern Railroad. Moffett controlled extensive banking, railroad, mining and cattle interest in Colorado. McNeil also held considerable business interest in Colorado. To review the project and for a personal inspection of the rolling Southern Maryland countryside through which the railroad would traverse, the businessmen soon left New York City. An offer was presented for the railroad's capital stock and was accepted. The railroad changed hands to Mears, Moffat, Popper, McNeil and Dunn on August 21, 1897.

Otto Mears, the man with the most railroad experience, immediately left for Colorado where he formed The Chesapeake Bay Construction Company. Mears also became the new corporation's president. Colonel Dunn became vice president and Charles Popper, the treasurer. David Moffat, the largest financial backer, sat in the background to see what Mears and the others could produce.

The Casino

Mears optimistically anticipated that the railroad would be completed by July 1898. The biggest obstacle to overcome would be the construction of a bridge over the Patuxent River below Bristol. The Patuxent River being navigable as far north as Bristol had to be left unencumbered to steamboat traffic. This necessitated the need for a special drawspan to be built over the river. Plans had to be approved by the US Army Corps of Engineers. A contract to construct the bridge was awarded to the Youngstown Bridge Company. After numerous delays, the bridge was fully operational as of May 1899.

It is interesting that the two men that had played such pivotal roles in introducing Mears to the railroad venture would later find themselves booted out of the company by him. These two men being Lincoln Hyer and Colonel Dunn. When construction of the line had begun in October 1897, Hyer had been designated Chief Engineer. His primary duty was to oversee the work being done on a day to day basis by the contractors. Colonel Dunn's primary assignment was securing the railroad's right-of-way from the local landholders. As construction of the line crept forward throughout the winter and into the spring of 1898, disagreements became frequent between Hyer and Mears. The primary objective of Mears was to see the railroad completed and to see revenues begin. Hyer on the other hand was concerned that the shortcuts Mears insisted be taken were compromising the quality of construction. One basic disagreement was over the choice of lumber used in the construction of the trestles. Mears saw nothing wrong or unsafe in using recently cut green timbers, while Hyer thought only seasoned hardwoods should be used. Mears evidently thought that after the line was open and generating a sustaining income more permanent improvements could be made. Anyway, by mid-summer, with the railroad behind schedule, the disagreements between Mears and Hyer came to a head and Hyer was out of a job.

Colonel Dunn was also having a difficult time seeing eye to eye with Mears. Although Dunn had been most successful in his negotiations with the local citizenry over securing the railroads right-of-way, he and Mears did not get along. Perhaps it was that Dunn resented Mears's money or northern ways. For during the Civil War, Dunn had been in the Confederate Army while Mears has served with the Union Army. Perhaps Mears resented Dunn getting a free ride, Dunn the smooth talker, had not invested even a nickel of his own money in the railroad venture. The exact issues remain clouded but Dunn was booted out of the company shortly after Hyer.

The Steamboat Dreamland at the Pier

Mears and Popper were dragged into court proceedings by Colonel Dunn in May of 1899. Dunn claimed his rights as a shareholder of the company had been violated. Since Dunn and Hyer remained close friends after their forced separations from the company, it is not surprising that Dunn expressed to the court, his concerns over the construction techniques employed in the building of the line. These outcries did nothing to strengthen his court case but do give the indication that Dunn was as much serious about getting even with Mears as he was with obtaining compensation. The court ruled against Dunn. Stating he had no financial interest in the company. Therefore Dunn had merely been an employee of the company and not elgible for damages. Dunn waited a year, then still not satisfied, took his case to a higher court. His case ended up being dismissed by this court also.

With the last money owed to Tod paid off in the fall of 1898, Mears assumed the presidency of the Chesapeake Beach Railroad. Also about this time the section of the railroad line between Chesapeake Junction and Upper Marlboro was nearing completion. Mears turned his attention to obtaining two locomotives and assorted coaches to navigate the route. He had also entered into successful agreements with the B & O Railroad to extend service from their Hyattsville station to Upper Marlboro. The line from Hyattsville to Upper Marlboro was officially opened on December 5, 1898.

By the summer of 1899 the railway line had been completed all the way to Chesapeake Beach but the attractions at the resort were still not ready. Although more attention had been given to the resort in the past year, its development had lagged behind the construction of the railway. The summer season of 1899 came and went. It was a year of lost revenue for the Chesapeake Beach Railroad. It would be another year before the resort would open.

Steamboat Pier

Chesapeake Beach, the resort, first opened to the public on June 9, 1900. Those that stepped off the train that day were greeted by new sights, sounds and the smell of salt air. The railway station at Chesapeake Beach was but a stones throw from the waters edge. A mile long boardwalk had been built out over the water. Because of the shallowness of the water, an equally long steamboat pier stretched out into the bay to waters deep enough to receive steamboat traffic. The boardwalk, being brand new, was but sparsely dotted with vendors. However the scenic railway (roller coaster) was open for business as was an elaborate carousel that would rival the best at Coney Island. The beach being shallow and sandy at this point along the bay, was an open invitation for bathing. Bathouses had been constructed for those so inclined for a salt water dip. Other activities were a German beer garden, a balloon ascension, dance orchestra and performing bears. In the evening there was a fireworks display. This was the age when electricity was still a novelty. Those that boarded the train that first night for the return trip to the city were certainly left with strong memories. Memories of seeing the boardwalk strung with bare incandescent bulbs, their illumination reflecting off the water, the band playing Sousa marches and of colorful fireworks exploding overhead.

The first several years of operation for the resort and the railway line proved to be disapointing from a financial point of view. Revenue generated was well below expectations. Operating expenses were greater than had been anticipated. A head-on collision between a west bound locomotive and an east bound locomotive had occured only one month after the resort had been opened that first season. This had been a costly embarrassment to the company. Also, Otto Mears had counted on the local authorities allowing gambling at the resort. This was denied and the brand new racetrack that had been constructed had to be torn down. Some salvation came from the fact that the wood could be reused for other building projects. The building that had been constructed as a casino was turned into a restaurant. Needless to say, Mears had put high hopes in gambling at the resort both to attract patrons and to generate much needed revenue.

By the end of the summer of 1902 finances had become so critical that it was clear that changes had to happen. David Moffat, the Colorado banker that had poured so much money into the project and by this time owned almost all of the company stock, accepted the resignations of Mears and Popper.
Moffat appointed his friend from Colorado, Sylvester Smith as the new president of the fledgling railroad. Smith cut staff and cut cost wherever he could. Yet, inspite of the growing popularity of the resort, for the three years that Smith was in control, the railroad continued to operate in the red. Smith returned to Colorado in 1905. Moffat next sent William Jones to take over Smith's responsibilities. Jones would remain the railroads president for the next 20 years. During the tenure of Jones, the popularity of the resort continued to grow. The railroad and resort even started to show a profit after a few years. However all delusions of amassing great wealth from the Chesapeake Beach Railroad had gone up in smoke years ago.

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