A Whale of a Good Time


On June 1st, 1889, a throng of genteel gawkers stood around the giant carcass. Although dead for weeks, the whale was perfectly preserved and would have appeared completely lifelike if it weren’t for the billowing wafts of formaldehyde that emanated from its thick, elephantine hide. Some of the more adventurous in the crowd purchased tickets to enter the monster’s mouth, which in true Victorian fashion, had been outfitted for comfort with a settee, a table, and carpeting.This was a remarkable, if macabre sight, made all the more so by the fact that this Jonah-style amusement was being offered in the northern part of the Chesapeake’s main stem, hundreds of miles from any whaling port. Indeed, the whale had been killed in Cape Cod, and then pickled, sold, and transported as a tourist attraction for a new resort hot-spot: Tolchester Beach.

Resort towns, indeed vacations at all, were growing in popularity in the end of the 19th century for the new middle classes.  For earlier generations, only the wealthy elite could have taken the waters or colonic treatment at various East Coast sanatoria or, if a stint abroad was fancied, the Grand Tour of Europe.


For the lower and middle classes, however, there had been extremely limited recreational options throughout the majority of the 19th century, for a few reasons. One was time- the workday or workweek had not been regulated, so employees for the large industrial factories had few available hours, besides the Sabbath, that wasn’t already spoken for. In addition, the great outdoors was seen as treacherous and full of disease. Prior to Pasteur’s advancements in germ theory and Lister’s subsequent work with disease transmission, the concept of ‘miasma’ or literally 'bad air’ held sway. Fear of communicable disease, and a lack of understanding about where it came from meant most people avoided the outdoors altogether. Houses weren’t built with porches, no one swam in the rivers, and only eccentrics like enlightenists would dare to, say, build a cabin in the woods next to Walden pond. The world was simply too dangerous, too full of creeping, airborne pathogens ready to strike you down with cholera, yellow fever, or influenza.


This mid-19th century satirical image of the London Board of Health shows that although the miasma theory was taken seriously, it still had the air of the ridiculous, even at the time.

Stage left, enter modern science. It’s easy to forget how quickly some of the major scientific advances in public health actually happened, and what a huge impact these changes would quickly have on everyday people. For example, in the beginning of the 19th century, open sewers full of excrement, effluent, garbage and carcasses, were considered a noxious but accepted part of city life. By the end of the 19th century, cities like London, due to huge strides in science and public health, were installing the first modern sewers and rejecting the pestilent past of their predecessors.

Locally, Baltimore would wait until 1915 to follow London’s example with sewerage, but a better grasp of illness and its causes would lead more city dwellers to seek refuge in the summer months from the increasing population, intense heat, smoke and smog from coal and wood fires, and the stench of a city where a heavy rain turned the harbor into a floating privy.

Nationally, Americans were following the trend to move away from urban America and out into nature by creating the  US Park system (and smaller parks, like Central Park in New York), using bicycles, playing croquet, joining the Boy Scouts, and participating in a whole slew of new recreational activities, most of which were enjoying while wearing funny and ill-suited (though respectable!) clothing. 


For the burgeoning, newly-outdoors-enthusiastic middle class in Baltimore and Washington, the benefits of fresh air, cool breezes, and moderate exercise could be best enjoyed on a new recreational frontier- the Chesapeake Bay. What had, up until this point, been a transportation and shellfish source, was now being eyed with interest by day-trippers who were newcomers amongst the log canoes, watermen, and bugeyes.

This interest was not lost on steamboat firms that were taking advantage of this new opportunity. Steamboats had been the main source of transportation on the Chesapeake since the mid-19th century, and many were kitted out luxuriously, with carved wood panelling, private berths, and menus featuring terrapin soup and roasted Canvasback duck. As the rescreation trend grew, and consumers wanted a new way of connection with the Chesapeake (rather than literally consuming it in a nice consomme’), steamboat lines sought to profit by taking their passengers to the remote, sandy locations on the Eastern Shore.


This image, from the collections of the Maryland Historical Society, advertises Tolchester Beach, a resort town in Kent County which was owned and run by the same company that provided the steamboat service.

Tolchester Beach shared many similiarities with steamboat-serviced beach towns throughout the Chesapeake- it offered amusements, food, lodging, and swimming, all for a fee, and could be reached within an easy day’s trip by steamboat. Amusements, which, in 1889,  atypically meant a beached whale. Normal summer festivities were of the usual sort: bathing in the Bay’s warm water in a rented suit (swimming was such a new activity that most people didn’t have their own, personal swimsuit), sucking on lemons with peppermint sticks, listening to music from the bandstand, riding on a miniature locomotive, or enjoying ice cream in Tolchester’s dairy.


Swimmers at Tolchester. Note the steamboat pier in the background.


Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society. Tolchester’s Carousel.


This locomotive was operational up until the park’s closure in 1962.


Despite amusements with names like “The Tickler,” Tolchester Beach was considered a family destination, and promoted itself to Bible groups, teetotalers, and other such wholesome folk.


There was even a roller coaster!

Tolchester and resort towns of its ilk were so popular that songs were written about them. You can listen to Campbell and Burr’s 1913 tune, “Sailing Down the Chesapeake” here: http://bit.ly/t92X5F

But these resort days lasted only as long as the steamboats did. Upon the construction of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, the hourglass was tilted for beaches like Tolchester. Automobiles and the lure of saltier water, bigger waves,and more thrilling attractions lured the public away from the dun-colored beaches of the Chesapeake to the sugary dunes and twinkling rides of the Atlantic resorts. By 1962, Tolchester was closed and demolished, its rides dismantled and the great old 'dairy’ that greeted steamboat revelers with its arched facade was burned.


Photo courtesy Maryland Historical Society

Parts of Tolchester still live on, however, in bits and pieces saved by savvy  collectors who took away what they could before the resort was destroyed. At Echo Hill Camp in Worton, an old amusement ride, The Whip, has been reborn as a dining hall. And here at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, the old bandstand, once echoing with the brassy strains of ragtime, still entertains visitors to the Chesapeake with tunes of a Saturday evening in the summer.


The music might have changed, and the outfits look a little less starched and proper, but close your eyes, and you could be at Tolchester again, with a lemon and peppermint in one hand and your other arm around your best girl.