By Nicole A. Diehlmann
Enjoy the following guest blog by Nicole A. Diehlmann, co-author of the new MHT Press publication on the architectural history of Charles County, In the Midst of These Plains: Charles County Buildings and Landscapes.
Since 1920, major changes in Charles County’s economy, demographics, and physical development shifted it from a primarily agricultural economy to a bedroom community of Washington, D.C. The legalization of gambling was one little-known feature of this shift.
The construction of Crain Highway (US 301) in the 1920s and the Potomac River Bridge in 1940 opened a major north–south transportation corridor, which linked Charles County to the larger urban centers of Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and points south. The new road brought an increase in automobile traffic and tourism, and restaurants and hotels began to spring up along the US 301 corridor. After the end of Prohibition in 1933, small taverns opened, which became popular places to have a drink or two and play slot machines. At that time, slot machines were widely regarded as innocent amusement, even though gambling was outlawed by the State of Maryland.
In the early 1940s, many county residents questioned the legality of slot machines, and the status of gambling became a contentious community issue. A grand jury was charged with studying the presence of illegal slot machines throughout the county. The grand jury’s report stated that there was no evidence indicating that any slot machines were in operation in Charles County, but in reality, establishment owners had successfully hidden or removed them prior to inspections. Subsequent reports concluded that the problem lay in a lack of law enforcement and argued that since gambling was so pervasive, it might as well be legalized so that the county could collect money from licensing fees. A bill was introduced in the Maryland General Assembly in 1949 for legalization as a “local option” that would affect only Charles County. The bill outlined several benefits of legalization, including how revenue generated would be used to reduce real estate taxes, pay off school bonds, and provide support for the library fund, the fire department, and the hospital. On the momentous day of June 21, 1949, gambling was legalized in Charles County by a vote of nearly 2 to 1.
People from surrounding areas had been coming to the county for years to play the slots, but legalization spurred an extraordinary number of tourists to visit and thus, growth in all sectors in order to support the influx. The combination of legalized gambling, transportation improvements, and postwar mobility combined to dramatically increase the volume of traffic passing through the area and transformed Waldorf, the northernmost county town on US 301, into a tourist destination. Crain Highway was widened to four lanes to accommodate the traffic. Between 1949 and 1968, along a fourteen-mile stretch of US 301, 21 hotels with a total of 600 rooms popped up alongside restaurants, gas stations, and entertainment facilities that accommodated tourists and gamblers. This concentration of restaurants and hotels, each with its own array of slot machines, turned the once sleepy village of Waldorf into a large center of commercial activity. The largest sites for gambling in Waldorf in the late 1950s were Club Waldorf Inc. with 140 slot machines and the Waldorf Restaurant with 60 machines. Other casinos were clustered along the Potomac River, including the Reno, off the shores of Colonial Beach, Virginia, with more than 300 machines, and Marshall Hall, across from Mount Vernon, with 193 machines. At the height of the gambling era, revenue from slot machine licensing fees provided a full quarter of the county’s income.
The slot machine era in Charles County was a time of extravagance, excitement, and growth. The slots were everywhere, and everyone—adults, children, residents, and tourists—played them. At first buildings intended for other commercial uses were adapted to accommodate slot machines, but eventually special structures were built as gambling and entertainment houses. The demand for construction continued to increase, so that by 1960 there were 57 restaurants along the highway, with the larger ones billing themselves as casinos. The neon lights on restaurants and hotels made the US 301 strip look like “Little Las Vegas,” as it came to be known. Many of the restaurants offered dancing and live bands, often attracting famous performers.
In Charles County, most of the motels were constructed as fully integrated buildings under a single roof. The dominant styles were vernacular interpretations of Colonial Revival and Modernist styles, although Craftsman, Western, and Spanish Colonial Revival styles were present in motels in other jurisdictions. While they were often architecturally non-descript, motels and restaurants distinguished themselves by their roadside signage. Large neon signs dominated the grounds visually, enticing passing motorists to stop at the establishment. The Waldorf Motel, demolished in 2017, was an excellent example of the type, containing several rows of motel rooms, a large neon sign, and a two-story restaurant topped by a neon sign. One of the most notable of the casinos was the 1950 Wigwam. It included a casino building with an attached teepee, a decorative wooden totem pole, and a large Western-themed neon sign. After demolition in 2013, the neon sign was acquired by Charles County and now marks the entrance to the Indian Head Rail Trail on US 301 in White Plains. The extant Blue Jay Motel served African Americans who came to US 301 during the era of segregation. It was constructed by Arthur Farrar and featured in the Negro Traveler’s Green Book between 1959 and 1964.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the pervasiveness of slot machines began to worry many residents. A 1958 issue of Man’s Conquest magazine called Crain Highway the “301 sin-strip,” Charles County “dirty, drunken and debauched,” and accused residents of profiting from “slots, sex and sin.” Another magazine, Real Adventure, described the county as a “modern Sodom with thirty gin mills to the mile and a populace of gun-carrying gangsters and sleazy dames.” By 1961, Maryland had three times as many slots as the state of Nevada and they produced an average annual revenue of $13 million. Reformers in Charles County pushed their case to end gambling, and just as legalization had been a community-wide fight, so was its demise. Due to continuing pressure from many groups, in 1962 Governor J. Millard Tawes announced the establishment of a committee charged with creating procedures to remove slots from the county with the least possible harm. Beginning in July 1965, the slots were phased out slowly over a three-year period. On June 30, 1968, store and restaurant owners watched as the last of the machines were removed from their establishments, and the slot-machine era in Charles County came to an end.
After slot machines were banned, the area’s popularity as a travel destination quickly declined. The construction of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in 1954 offered Washingtonians ready access to Maryland’s oceanside resorts, which caused the decline of riverside resorts and further drained the tourism trade from Southern Maryland. Today, few vestiges of Charles County’s slot-machine era survive. Most of the larger hotels and restaurants along US 301 have been demolished for new commercial developments that serve the rising number of suburban residents living in the county. A few motels exist at the southern end of US 301 in the county, including the former White House Motel and the Bel Alton Hotel.
Learn more about Charles County’s “Little Las Vegas” in the book In the Midst of These Plains: Charles County Buildings and Landscapes, written by Cathy H. Thompson and Nicole A. Dielhmann. You can purchase a copy from the Historical Society of Charles County or from MHT press at https://mht.maryland.gov/home_mhtpress.shtml.