“Little Las Vegas” in Charles County 

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. 

The Waldorf Motel and Restaurant featured flashy neon signs intended to attract visitors to this popular site along the US 301 strip. Image source: Historic Site Files, Charles County Government.

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.  

Although located off the shore of Colonial Beach, Virginia, the Reno Casino was considered to be within the jurisdiction of Charles County, Maryland, because it was in the Potomac River, which is wholly in the state of Maryland. In this way, Virginians were given easy access to Maryland’s slot machines. Photo source: In the Midst of These Plains: Charles County Buildings and Landscapes

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. 

The Wigwam, demolished in 2013, was one of the most notable of the casinos that lined US 301. In the later twentieth century, the building housed Walls Bakery. Image source: Historic Site Files, Charles County Government. 

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.  

The Blue Jay Motel, constructed by Arthur Farrar, served African Americans who came to US 301 during the era of segregation. Image source: Historic Site Files, Charles County Government. 

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. 

The White House Hotel is one of the few slot-machine era motels remaining in the county. Image source: National Park Service, Historic American Buildings Survey.  

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

Maryland Heritage Areas Funding Helps Share the Story of Frederick Douglass

By Ennis Barbery Smith, Assistant Administrator, Maryland Heritage Areas Program  

Public domain image of Frederick Douglass from the Met, Rubel Collection, via Wikimedia Commons

Frederick Douglass – the widely recognized abolitionist, human rights activist, orator, writer, and son of Maryland’s Eastern Shore – is one of the original pillars of Black History Month. Although documentation indicates he was born in February 1818, he did not know the exact date. After fleeing Maryland to self-emancipate, he chose to celebrate his birthday on February 14, and celebrations of February 14 as “Douglass Day” popped up shortly after his death in 1895. Eventually, Carter G. Woodson laid the foundations of Black History Month in February – in part – because Black communities were already celebrating Douglass’s life and contributions around this time.  

While the exact date was uncertain, Douglass knew the location. In the first chapter of one of his autobiographies, he says, “I was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, and about twelve miles from Easton, in Talbot County, Maryland.”  

The entrance to Frederick Douglass Park on the Tuckahoe
Photo by Mark Sandlin, provided courtesy of Talbot County Tourism

The new Frederick Douglass Park on the Tuckahoe is taking shape as a place where visitors can come to reflect on Douglass’s time in Maryland, not just during Black History Month, but in any season – even during a pandemic, when many indoor history museums have limited capacity.   

Talbot County acquired the 107 acres of shoreline and wetlands for the park in 2006 using Program Open Space funding. Cassandra Vanhooser, Talbot County’s Director of Economic Development and Tourism, said that it was clear to her immediately when she learned about this land, in close proximity to Frederick Douglass’s privately owned birthplace, that the new park was well positioned to honor Douglass’s legacy and to share the story of his life with visitors.

The County pulled together a team of historians, local leaders, and Frederick Douglass descendants to guide the development of the new park. In 2018, the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority (MHAA) awarded a matching grant to Talbot County for the creation of two plans:  a master plan to map out the park’s infrastructure and an interpretive plan to explore the stories that the park will evoke for visitors. After a series of public meetings and many hours of behind-the-scenes work, the County hopes to share these plans with the public in March of 2021. 

A view of the landscape at Frederick Douglass Park on the Tuckahoe
Photo by Mark Sandlin, provided courtesy of Talbot County Tourism

Ms. Vanhooser described the park’s unspoiled wetlands and viewshed, saying, “This is the landscape into which Douglass was born, the world that shaped his youth.” She went on to say “What Douglass was able to accomplish in his life is extraordinary by any measure. His words transcend time and place. They are as inspiring today as they ever were, and that is why we are telling Frederick Douglass’s story here.” 

When visitors make their way to the park today, they will find serene, undeveloped views of the Tuckahoe River, evocative of what Douglass would have seen in his lifetime. Four new interpretive signs located at the park describe Douglass’s life on the Tuckahoe, his journey away from Maryland to freedom, and his important roles as a conductor on the Underground Railroad and as an internationally recognized voice for the abolition of slavery.  

Lt. Governor Boyd K. Rutherford unveils one of the new interpretive signs on September 1, 2020.
Photo by Melissa Grimes-Guy, provided courtesy of Talbot County Tourism

The park is also one stop on a series of four driving tours, shared here, that guide visitors through the landscapes and the places that Douglass experienced in Talbot County. The new interpretive signs and the website showcasing the driving tours were funded in part by the Stories of the Chesapeake Heritage Area (SCHA), with funds from MHAA.   

Gail Owings, Executive Director of SCHA, spoke of the importance of the new park. She said the local heritage area is thrilled to be able to support the County’s efforts. She added “the views of the landscape and water – they set the stage for Douglass’s life,” emphasizing how closely tied the park’s viewsheds are with what Douglass would have seen in his youth, an important time that he reflects on in his writings.  

Visitors can also explore Douglass’s connections to other regions of Maryland by following this state-wide driving tour developed by Maryland Office of Tourism

Black Panther’ – History and Archaeology of a U-boat

Upcoming Lecture – 7:00 pm October 15, 2019

U-1105 ‘Black Panther’ – History and Archaeology of a U-boat

Speaker: Aaron Stephan Hamilton

Author of German Submarine U-1105 ‘Black Panther’ The Naval Archeology of a U-boat

Tickets are free, but each individual must register to guarantee seating. Register here:  https://www.eventbrite.com/e/u-1105-black-panther-history-and-archaeology-of-a-u-boat-tickets-68283262075

U-1105 was the last German U-boat to cross the Atlantic. It departed England for Portsmouth, New Hampshire on 19 December 1945 under the command of U.S. Navy LCDR Hubert “Hugh” T. Murphy.  LCDR Murphy and a prize crew of 38 delivered U-1105 after a harrowing 14-day crossing.  They endured winter storms, heavy seas, and mechanical failures throughout their voyage without being briefed on the importance of their mission.  The crew speculated and “agreed about why it was so necessary to get this one back to the states.  .  .  the boat was built in 1943 and had snorkeling equipment for charging batteries while submerged.  .  . it was completely covered with rubber coating to help escape our sonar and their periscope and optical equipment [was] better in some ways than ours.  The batteries could go longer without charging and required less watering.”  (December 12, 1985 letter from William Ferguson who served on Murphy’s prize crew during U-1105’s Atlantic crossing).

Figure 1. US Navy LCDR Hubert T. Murphy receiving the Bronze Star
(Photo courtesy of Janet Murphy).

The specific combination of technologies on U-1105 attests to a dramatic shift in U-boat tactics in response to Allied victories during May 1943.  U-1105 was the only Type VIIC U-boat equipped with a snorkel, the rubber coating Alberich and the advanced hydrophone array GHG Balkon that conducted a wartime patrol.  It represents a critical evolutionary stage in the development of the modern submarine. 

Figure 2. U-1105 ‘Black Panther’ maneuvering in Holy Loch, Scotland in 1945.
(Photo courtesy of the Royal Navy Submarine Museum).

The Maryland Historical Trust is hosting a lecture on October 15, 2019 at 7:00 pm by Aaron S. Hamilton, author of German Submarine U-1105 ‘Black Panther’ The Naval Archeology of a U-boat, published June 2019.  It is a must-read for individuals intending to visit the U-1105 ‘Black Panther’ Historic Shipwreck Preserve or the exhibit at the Piney Point Lighthouse Museum.  Aaron is an academically trained historian and member of the Battle of the Atlantic Research and Expedition Group who has spent the past six years researching U-1105 as part of a broader study of the technical and tactical evolution of the U-boat in the last year of WWII.  

Figure 3. Aaron Stephan Hamilton at the U-1105 ‘Black Panther’ Historic Shipwreck Preserve.

Join MHT on October 15th to learn more about the history of U-1105 and how it ended up at the bottom of the Potomac River.  Aaron will also show a ten-minute film of U-1105 taken by the U.S. Navy in 1948 during salvage training. This film has never been seen by the public.

Follow the links below to learn about the U-1105 ‘Black Panther’ Historic Shipwreck Preserve and the Piney Point Lighthouse Museum:

https://mht.maryland.gov/archeology_U1105.shtml

https://www.stmarysmd.com/recreate/PPL/

Preserving Chesapeake Heritage: Navigating the Tubman Landscape amid Rising Tides

By Jessica Brannock, Communications Intern

In 2007, roughly 17 acres of wetlands within Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) were dedicated to create the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad (HTUR) State Park. These lands and waterways where Tubman lived and worked as a young woman, enslaved by the Brodess family, make up just a fraction of the 25,000 acres of land in Dorchester County dedicated to the HTUR National Monument. While the park’s Visitor Center offers exhibits on the life and heroism of Tubman, the true monument to her legacy is the landscape itself—and it’s disappearing.

Over the course of a decade, Tubman returned to this landscape 13 times and guided 70 slaves to freedom. Hiding in the marshes by day and traveling by foot and boat at night, Tubman and other freedom seekers relied on their knowledge of Chesapeake waterways, plant, and animal life to survive the journey north.

Visitor Center

Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center, LEED silver certified, and constructed on higher ground to protect the building against rising sea levels.

Today, much of the wildlife found in the brackish tidal marshes and hardwood forests of Blackwater NWR are typical of what Tubman encountered over 150 years ago. However, preserving these habitats and heritage is an ever-present challenge as wetlands throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed are threatened by environmental change.

Current water levels in Blackwater NWR are much higher than when Tubman navigated the rivers and marshes to freedom. Since the NWR’s establishment in 1933, over 5,000 acres of wetlands have been lost to sea level rise.

Marshes act as buffers between land and water, filtering out toxins and absorbing the forces of storms and tides, and Tubman would have been familiar with the tidal rhythms that flooded the wetlands with saltwater and ebbed back with the flow of freshwater tributaries. As sea levels rise, however, saltwater mingles more heavily with fresh, destroying salt-sensitive plant-life as marshlands erode and give way to flooding. By the end of the century, climate science predicts that sea levels will rise in the Bay region between 3 and 4 feet.

Saltwater Intrusion 4

Patches of bare forest and exposed tree roots, destroyed by saltwater intrusion are reminders of rising tides, and the imminent loss of habitat that follows.

The HTUR Visitor Center was constructed with the vulnerability of the landscape in mind. The building is sustainably designed to LEED silver standards and includes bioretention ponds, rain barrels, and vegetative roofs. Located near the Little Blackwater River, where Tubman worked checking muskrat traps as a child, the site was strategically elevated, placing the building on higher ground—a precautionary measure against the accelerating rate of sea level rise. With nearly 300 acres of marsh within the NWR lost each year, the wetlands could be fully submerged by 2050.

Actions can be taken to slow the loss and preserve the landscape so valuable for its habitat and history. In 2017, the Conservation Fund, U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Audubon Society partnered to raise 40 acres of marshland within the NWR. This thin-layering process spread 26,000 cubic yards of sediment dredged from the Blackwater River across the wetlands, raising the marshes by 4-6 inches. Along with large scale tree and marsh grass planting, these efforts will help reduce the pace of flooding over the next decade.

As tides rise, the landscapes that hold our heritage will continue to suffer losses to their environmental and historical resources. In the coming years, we must acknowledge environmental threats and face them head on, so that future generations may continue to experience and interpret the legacy of our national treasures.

A Maryland Patriot’s Annapolis Home (Guest Blog)

By Glenn E. Campbell, Senior Historian, Historic Annapolis

William Paca was one of the four Maryland men who signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776, and he served as the state’s third governor at the end of the Revolutionary War. After marrying the wealthy and well-connected Mary Chew in 1763, the young lawyer built a five-part brick house and terraced pleasure garden on two acres of land in Annapolis. The couple had three children, but only one of them survived to adulthood, and they cared for an orphaned niece for several months in 1765-66. In addition to Paca family members, the Georgian mansion also housed a number of enslaved individuals and bound servants.

William Paca House

William Paca House and Garden, located at 186 Prince George Street in Annapolis. Photo: Ken Tom

After William Paca sold it in 1780, the house continued as a single-family home until 1801, then served mainly as a rental property for much of the 19th century. Later owners and occupants added upper floors to the building’s wings and hyphens; this increased the square footage of its potential rental space but disrupted the structure’s original Georgian symmetry. In 1901, national tennis champion William Larned purchased the property, added a large addition and created Carvel Hall, known as Annapolis’s finest hotel for much of the 20th century.

WPHG Summer 2017 Credit Tom, K

In the early 1970s, Historic Annapolis and the State of Maryland undertook extensive archeological investigations to restore the garden to its colonial appearance. Photo: Ken Tom

Concerned that developers might tear down the home of a Signer of the Declaration of Independence, the nonprofit preservation group Historic Annapolis and the State of Maryland bought the Paca mansion and the rest of the Carvel Hall site in 1965. Over the next decade, a team of experts—archival researchers, archaeologists, architectural historians, paint analysts, x-ray photographers, carpenters, masons, landscape designers, horticulturists, and other skilled professionals—restored the William Paca House and Garden to their 18th-century configurations and appearances. The site was recognized as a National Historic Landmark in 1971. Historic Annapolis and the Maryland Historical Trust continue to work closely together as the property’s stewards for today and the future.

DSC_0132

Candidates for American citizenship take the Oath of Allegiance on July 4, 2016. Photo: Ken Tom

Since 2006, Historic Annapolis has hosted an Independence Day Naturalization Ceremony at the William Paca House and Garden. It’s especially fitting to welcome new citizens (over 300 so far!) into the American family at the Signer’s home every July 4th, because William Paca himself became a citizen of the newborn United States on that historic date in 1776. The basic truths and simple yet profound ideals expressed so powerfully in the Declaration of Independence motivated his patriotic action 241 years ago, and they continue to attract people to our shores to share in the freedoms enjoyed by American citizens.

The Life of a Roadside Historical Marker

By Nancy Kurtz, Marker and Monuments Programs

The marker you pass on your journey, embossed with the Great Seal of Maryland, could have been born in the early 1930s, cast in iron and displayed along a narrow roadway in the days when the family car and the road trip were new ideas and local citizens wanted to inform travelers of the people, places and events important in their history.

The Maryland Historical Trust (MHT) and Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) jointly manage the state roadside historical marker program.  The State Roads Commission began the program in 1933 in cooperation with the Maryland Historical Society.  The program was transferred to the Maryland Historical Trust in 1985, with new standards, criteria and placement guidelines added in 2001, including the requirement for markers to commemorate topics that carry statewide significance.  MHT reviews and approves new marker applications.  SHA installs and maintains the markers, and now funds all new and replacement markers.

RM-733h THE BANK ROAD old

The Bank Road marker, when it was young

When either agency is notified of a marker problem, SHA staff pick up the marker and start the refurbishing, repair or replacement process.  A tag is installed on the pole to notify the public of its whereabouts.  If you should notice a sudden unexplained disappearance, a marker on the ground or other problem, please contact Nancy Kurtz at 410-697-9561nancy.kurtz@maryland.gov, or send in a problem report found on the MHT marker website:  http://mht.maryland.gov/documents/pdf/research/MarkerReport.pdf.

With over 800 markers installed since the 1930s, maintenance is ongoing. Markers requiring repair or refurbishing are sent off-site for the work, usually in groups of two or more.  Sandblasting and welding repairs can take three to four weeks.  Repainting can take four to six weeks.  Reinstallation is dependent on weather and work schedule, and usually grouped geographically, so can take two to three months after repainting.  The best time estimate for the whole process would be approximately six months, but can vary according to these factors.

One important aspect of reinstalling a marker is safety.  Roadways, traffic volumes and speed have changed through the years and do not always allow reinstallation in the original location.  Where possible, the markers are placed near a side road to allow drivers to pull off the highway.

RM-733 THE BANK ROAD refurbished

The Bank Road marker, refurbished

The early markers are historic in their own right.  Although some show the scars of damage and repair, we strive to keep them on the roadways well into the future.  The history of the marker program, thematic tours, application procedures, photographs and maps are found on the MHT website, including a keyword search for travelers who pass a marker at today’s highway speeds. To learn more, please visit:  http://mht.maryland.gov/historicalmarkers/Search.aspx