They needed to leave the city. It may have been just for an afternoon, but they had to free themselves of the heat, the dust, and the grime. Lowering the central air conditioning or taking a drive with open windows were not options. This was summer in the early 1900’s. These urban dwellers were seeking relief from cities such as Baltimore, Maryland and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Fortunately, a cool breeze was not too far away. With a picnic basket or light overnight bag in tow, they could walk to their city wharf and board a steamship for the upper Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay. One place in particular was the choice of many passengers: Betterton Beach, Maryland.
The allure of this five-acre waterfront, family-oriented beach, remains to this day. A public beach that has the air of a private sanctuary among the birds and the gentle waves. With its fresh water from the over 20-mile long Sassafras River, jelly fish are nonexistent here unlike in lower parts of its confluence with the Chesapeake Bay. The water is cool and clean, and once you pass the initial beach pebbles it gently slopes to a deeper area so you can enjoy a swim. You may even see Bald Eagles fly past (I saw two!) as the Chesapeake is one of the area waterways where the birds make their home.
Betterton’s popularity has long history
Early 20th century city folks who enjoyed this location were not Betterton Beach pioneers. Betterton’s first recorded visitor was Captain John Smith who traveled to the town on Aug. 1, 1608 to meet with the Tockwogh Indians in search of a northwest passage to the Pacific Ocean. The town honors Smith’s visit with an annual festival, Betterton Days, the first weekend in August.
Three hundred plus years later, thousands began following Smith’s path to Betterton, albeit on a much more comfortable ride. At a traveling rate of speed of about 10 miles per hour, people enjoyed the journey as much as the destination.
The last large steamship ended its Betterton route in 1951. “It was the Wilson Steam line,” said Candi Sorge, a curator of the Betterton Heritage Museum and former Betterton mayor. “It would run from Baltimore. It left there at
8 a.m. then would come up and stop at an amusement park south of Betterton called Tolchester, and some people would get off at Tolchester because it had a ferris wheel and roller coaster. But for people who were either staying over or wanted a larger beach they would stay on the boat to come to Betterton get here about 11:30 a.m., change into bathing suits and swim. There were snack shops, some of the hotels had dining rooms for lunch, and then the boat would leave here about 4:00 p.m., stop at Tolchester and they’d get back to Baltimore about 8:00 p.m. For kids and families it wasn’t very expensive. It was a fairly cheap way to have a good day.”
While the name does seem to hint that you will have a “better” day here, for visitors it’s the sign at the town’s entrance that fills them with anticipation: “Betterton: The Jewel of the Chesapeake.”
This beachside gem has maintained its brilliance while other former resort towns, both on the Bay’s Western and Eastern shores, have either been destroyed or dramatically altered. Betterton is the last intact community of the steamboat’s golden age. What an era it was for Betterton. “Around 1900-1910 was the big building boom for the (Betterton) hotels and the resort aspect,” said Sorge. “There was a bowling alley, a movie theater, lots and lots of stuff to do and the steamboats were the major form of transportation. We had about 12 hotels around town and people would come and stay. And that all went on until after the Second World War. Then with a little more prosperity, cars became much more available, and people began to go to Ocean City over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge,” said Sorge.
Preservation of a unique past
Like its shoreline, Betterton’s success has ebbed and flowed. Yet, its residents - approximately 350 at the last U.S. Census count, which doubles when seasonal folks return - were determined to preserve its rich history. They formed a united front to save the last remaining church in town, which was built between 1916-17 and no longer in use. The archdiocese decided to sell the building. Prime real estate such as this, walking distance to the beach, attracted developers. “They were interested in tearing it down and putting up condos,” said Sorge.
“I was mayor at the time and we got together and we realized we just couldn’t let this go,” Sorge stated. “So, the town bought it. We renovated it with lots of grant money. The town offices, the business offices, and the Betterton Heritage Museum are there, and the town council holds its meetings here, we have movies and concerts, and of course it has the playground and the Little Free Library. It’s kind of the center of the community.”
Their efforts did not go unnoticed. Betterton received the 2012 Preservation Award from the Maryland Historical Trust for this effort. It was selected because “the project not only preserved an important town landmark, it also brought the community together while creating a much needed community space.”
Betterton’s care and dedication to its past does not end at its museum. Traveling just beyond it on Main Street you see the beach at the foot of the street. You feel a sense of a time gone by as you descend. On your left and right are ornate, Victorian-style homes and structures from the Betterton Historic District, which was constructed between 1880-1930 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Attractive pedestrian lights were installed in the district “to encourage foot traffic rather than car traffic,” said Sorge. Ahead is a sandy oasis and calm water. You have arrived at a place hard to find for summer beach travelers: relaxation without busy crowds.
“It’s a different destination then it was when it was a fishing community or an amusement, honky-tonk kind of place, but it’s still a destination. And that’s what we’re trying to keep it.”
If that’s not enough to add Betterton to your list of future day trips consider this: the county within which it resides, Kent County, is a scenic, unspoiled peninsula. You will see all three of the Maryland’s finest “triple “C’s” in abundance, corn, cows, and churches. It may be difficult to find a more picturesque ride to a beach.
“I think the fact that we’re still here, that we’ve been able to evolve throughout history and we’re still a destination for people,” is why Betterton matters and is worth saving according to Sorge. “It’s a different destination then it was when it was a fishing community or an amusement, honky-tonk kind of place, but it’s still a destination. And that’s what we’re trying to keep it.”