Artifacts (including a seven-ton oyster midden, or dump site) discovered by archaeologists from the William and Mary Center for Archaeological Research document a Native American presence dating to 500 B.C., long before John Smith visited the area during his voyage of discovery in 1608.
During Colonial times, the region was dotted with plantations and farms settled by such notables as the families of George Washington, James Monroe and Robert E. Lee. Economic activity was primarily related to fishing and farming, which remain important to the local economy. Development of the town began in 1878, when Henry Kintz purchased a 650 acre tract on White Point (now referred to simply as The Point.). The first survey of the land was recorded in 1882; and by 1883, the Colonial Beach Improvement Company had been established by prominent D.C. businessmen for the purpose of developing the area as a summer resort town for Washingtonians.
By 1906, steamers such as St. Johns were transporting thousands of visitors from the D.C. area to Colonial Beach, which now had a thriving boardwalk area, hotels and other amenities to accommodate the throng of visitors. The advent of the automobile led to the decline of steamboats and the resort era, as families took to the road to enjoy multiple weekend trips rather than extended summer vacations popular in the early 20th century.
Colonial Beach was the epicenter of the century-long Oyster Wars that lasted from the mid-19th Century to the 1960s. Oysters were as hot a commodity as gold and crucial to the area’s economy until respected and well-liked local farmer and father of three, Berkley Muse, accused of illegally dredging oysters, was shot and killed by the Maryland Marine Police. This incident effectively ended the Oyster Wars and led to the creation of the Potomac River Fisheries Commission
Legalization of slot machines in Charles County, Maryland, in 1949, and a 1632 land charter led to a decade-long casino era. Businessmen from both sides of the Potomac River seized the opportunity to capitalize on the lucrative venture, erecting wharves from the Virginia side of the river to small casinos built on piers in the Maryland-owned (courtesy of the 1632 charter) Potomac. Offshore, a large gambling barge, Pleasure Island, shuttled guests from the Virginia shore to its floating gaming house full of slot machines. In 1958, under pressure from civic and religious groups, Virginia officials convinced the Maryland legislature to amend its slot machine law, disallowing the use of slot machines in establishments unreachable from Maryland soil, and the casino era ended.
Colonial Beach’s rich cultural history is depicted in beautiful murals on buildings throughout Town, illustrating its bygone era, and evident in the form of the remaining 19th and early 20th-century architecture. The privately-owned Bell House (once home to the father of Alexander Graham Bell), a fine example of the Stick/Eastlake style built in the mid-1880s, still stands majestically along Irving Avenue. Dennison Street Inn, the former home of the first mayor of Colonial Beach, has been refurbished in period style and is now a bed and breakfast.
The Museum at Colonial Beach, housed in one of the Town’s oldest structures, features permanent and changing exhibits, personal collections, photos, and artifacts that tell the stories and preserve the history of our beloved town. For more information, visit the Museum at Colonial Beach webpage.
~Mitzi Saffos, curator, The Museum at Colonial Beach