Beach vacations in the mid-Atlantic are a timeless tradition.

Long boardwalks, plied by vendors, musicians and novelty shops, draw tourists of all ages. The smell of food is in the air, and sea gulls coast over clusters of beach umbrellas. Squeals and clanks carry through the air from carousels, roller coasters and kiddie rides. Young people hit the dance floors, and lines form at the slot machines.

Today, you find it at the ocean. Not long ago, you'd find it all on the Chesapeake Bay.

"The Seashore with its Healthful Climate, Saltwater Breezes is at Your Very Door," proclaims a vintage poster for Chesapeake Beach, once an elaborate resort town in Southern Maryland. Visitors from Washington, D.C., and beyond poured off the trains to enjoy "saltwater bathing" and an impressive boardwalk almost 400 feet offshore with a dance hall, bowling area, bandstand and casino. A dramatic roller coaster named the Great Derby extended in dramatic curves over the Bay.

The resort's grand opening in 1900 even earned coverage in the New York Times.

Surprisingly, little evidence of these resorts and beach areas remains along the Bay. But their presence altered the shoreline forever.

In colonial times, life was focused on the Bay. Its waters offered the easiest means of travel, so towns and commerce hugged the shore. Over time, though, Americans moved inland. More town centers opened to the west, with roads to connect them. For large stretches, the shores of the Bay took on the sleepier feel of the rural hinterland-the domain of farmers and watermen.

Then city dwellers returned to the Bay, this time for vacation. This renewed interest in the Bay, for play rather than work, marked a shift in its fate. People who came to the Bay for summer refuge soon began to stay year-round.

As car travel became easier and more affordable, these old summer communities became anchors for the region's earliest suburbs. Some became so well-populated that they merged with other city centers. Their growing presence has put immense pressure on the Bay's water quality and contributed to the overall demise of the resource that first attracted commuters to its shores.

Recreational beaches began sprouting on the Bay's Western Shore by the late 1900s. Buckroe Beach, now a part of Hampton, VA, can even trace its origins to a recreational interest in the area dating to the 1820s. But the beaches got their biggest boost from the proliferation of transportation options that arrived at the turn of the century.

Mass transportation by train and steamboat helped greater numbers of people take affordable trips out of the city. Trains were integral to Chesapeake Beach, because the entire resort was developed to entice passengers onto a new rail line between D.C. and the Bay.

"In terms of the human story, this was the first time that transportation allowed people of moderate means to travel beyond where their legs could take them," said Harriet Stout, curator of the Chesapeake Beach Railway Museum.

Yet the suite of new travel options usually ended at the Bay, not the ocean. While steamboats carried some tourists to the Eastern Shore, the trip to the Atlantic was a long one. And when automobiles entered the scene, no bridges spanned the Bay. Maryland's Bay Bridge didn't open until 1952. Virginia's bridge-tunnel debuted in 1964. So the Bay's Western Shore became a prime destination for generations of vacationers from Baltimore, D.C. and Richmond.

The Bay's safety was a draw, too. A Chesapeake Beach brochure promised "fine white sand... entirely free from objectionable features. There being no undertow or dangerous currents, the bathing is entirely safe for all ages... children may be allowed to splash and play in the invigorating waters to their hearts content."

A 1908 advertisement for Buckroe Beach boasted the area to be "free from all kinds of fever... the healthfulness of Buckroe and its environs are unsurpassed... Nowhere along the Atlantic Coast will be found such delightful bathing, absolutely free from treacherous shoals or undertow."

Chesapeake Beach and Buckroe Beach were among the largest attractions on the Western Shore, paired with amusement rides and hotels, some of which were quite luxurious. The Victorian resort at Bay Ridge, now part of Annapolis, was once hailed as the "Queen Resort of the Chesapeake." The dining hall at Bay Ridge could seat 1,600 people, and the bathhouses contained more than 600 dressing rooms.

But more modest vacation spots, both public and private, dotted the shoreline in Maryland and Virginia.

Gibson Island, a short way south of Baltimore, became a private summer retreat where families could enjoy a cooler and healthier summer, and fathers could make a reasonable commute to the city. By the 1920s, the island had emerged as a major East Coast yachting center.

Sherwood Forest, on the Severn River north of Annapolis, began as a cottage community with a whimsical name. Life centered on the river and a huge range of activities for children, while the dining halls, clubhouse, and community store created a summer-camp feeling for all ages. White cottages were banned after the first few were built-they disrupted the lovely green view of the shoreline. Green or brown exteriors only, please.

Highland Beach, also near Annapolis, had ties to a remarkable number of important African-Americans.

Charles Douglass, son of the abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass, founded Highland Beach after being denied access to Bay Ridge because of his race. He left Bay Ridge by way of land that was owned by an African-American farmer. Douglass later purchased the 27-acre tract and offered parcels for summer homes. W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, and Paul Lawrence Dunbar each spent time at Highland Beach. Frederick Douglass died while his home there was under construction. The house, known as Twin Oaks, still stands today.

Virginia had fewer beaches on the Bay, in part because it has more direct access to the Atlantic Ocean on its western shore. Gwynn's Island was an upscale Bay retreat for residents of Richmond. Buckroe Beach was especially popular, expanding from a 19th century beach at Old Point Comfort.

"The Hygeia Hotel, the first hotel built at Old Point, became a watering hole for leaders of the antebellum South and North. Important people of this time vacationed here," said author and historian Wythe Holt.

Buckroe developed later into a full-blown public beach and amusement park. It was already booming by the mid-1890s, and grew further when the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad connected it to Richmond in the early 1900s.

Bayshore emerged as an African-American beach next to Buckroe Beach, with one of the earliest resort hotels exclusively for African-American use.

Grandview Beach lay to the north. "From my grandfather's times in the 1890s, there was a dance hall at Grandview beach," Holt said. "Young people would bump down there on the corduroy road with their horses and buggies and dance into the wee hours. Grandview was an old-style, small community, even through the 1940s."

In Norfolk, Ocean View Beach (on the Bay) had a practical start. Michael Cobb, curator of the Hampton History Museum, points to the contrast. "In this area, wealthy Hamptonians were making money from the seafood industry and setting up summer cottages along the shore," he said. "Ocean View started as a resort after the Civil War. People didn't have much money, so they would rent their homes out to make a meager existence."

By the middle of the 20th century, Western Shore beaches were dealt a series of blows that eventually ended the era.

World War II closed many of them. Some never reopened and others limped along with less to offer. In 1952, the Bay Bridge opened in Maryland and ocean resorts became the rage. Resistance to racial integration at the beaches caused attendance to drop further and at least one beach closed in protest. In Maryland, the end of legalized slot machines sent even more tourists to the other side of the Bay.

Some buildings and summer homes were dismantled for redevelopment, while others fell victim to fire and disrepair. A few mutated into public parks, minus the boardwalk flair. Buckroe Beach and Grandview Beach were absorbed into Hampton. Ocean View now exists as a Norfolk park. Both Buckroe and Ocean View Beach have long since lost their amusement parks.

All of the historic amenities at Chesapeake Beach are gone, including the amusement park, but the town continues to be a hub for Bayside tourism. Its golden days are retold at the Chesapeake Bay Railway Museum, a member of the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, located in the original train station.

The most lasting impact of this era is symbolized through the clusters of summer cottages-"summer colonies" as they were known in Maryland-where city folks rediscovered the joys of the Bay. Many of these shoreline neighborhoods still exist, in unincorporated communities with narrow streets, where the remaining cottages contrast with their larger, modern neighbors. Gibson Island, Sherwood Forest and Highland Beach are small but thriving private communities, along with many others on the Magothy, Severn and South rivers.

Today, the number of summer homes is few. The lights are on year-round, and commutes to the city take place each day.

The vacationers from a century ago were in many ways suburban pioneers. They were the first to look over their shoulders-back to the sleepy shorelines where watermen and farmers made their lives-and think of the Bay as a place to play. They came for the day, then the weekend, and then the summer. A select few moved in full time, and many of their children and grandchildren are living there today.

The cottage neighborhoods grew quiet when the beaches closed, but their presence set the stage for new waves of residential development that hit the Bay's shoreline in the late 1980s. Although that earlier, playful era left little direct evidence of its size or longevity, it changed the shores of the Bay forever.

Lara Lutz is the author of "Chesapeake's Western Shore: Vintage Vacationland," a new collection of historic photographs depicting the beach era of the Chesapeake Bay. Wythe Holt and Michael Cobb are co-authors of "Hampton," which includes historic images of Buckroe Beach. Both are available from booksellers and at www.arcadiapublishing.com or by calling 888-313-2665.

Gateway Sites Tell Resorts' Stories

Many of the sites in the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network introduce visitors to various aspects of the Bay's largely vanished resorts. These exhibits are found at:

  • The Chesapeake Maritime Museum, in St. Michael's, MD, has a number of exhibits highlighting the area's maritime history, including an extensive exhibit on steamboats featuring the resorts they served around the Bay. The bandstand from the Tolchester Beach resort, a famous Kent County resort that included an amusement park, is now on the museum grounds and features musicians and other events in the summer.
  • The Steamboat Museum in Irvington, VA, honors the era of the steamboats that plied the waters of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, including those that brought tourists to beachfront resorts. Some of these luxurious vessels were outfitted with carved oak staircases, polished brass and dining rooms set with white linen and silver.
  • The Chesapeake Beach Railroad Museum, in Chesapeake Beach, MD, recreates memories of the Bayside resort of nearly a century ago with exhibits featuring the history of the Chesapeake Beach Railway, as well as artifacts, photographs and exhibits portraying resort life and transportation in the early 1900s.
  • North Point State Park, near Edgemere, southeast of Baltimore, has six miles of shoreline along the Chesapeake Bay, Back River and Shallow Creek. Most of the park is covered by forests, wetlands and fields, but visitors can also check out the Old Bayshore Park ruins-evidence of a premier turn-of-the-century amusement park that includes the 1,000-foot Bayshore pier, trolley station, restaurant and fountain.

The Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, which is coordinated by the National Park Service, connects visitors with the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers through 150 exceptional parks, wildlife refuges, museums, sailing ships, historic communities, trails and more.

For information about these and other Gateways Network sites, visit www.baygateways.net.