The recent front-page article from the Richmond Times-Dispatch on the revitalization of Colonial Beach puts the town back in the forefront of Northern Neck news.
Originally, Colonial Beach served as a vacation spot for Washingtonians who came to the town on the steamboats on Friday evenings and returned to the Capital late on Sunday evenings throughout the summer months. Steamboat travel continued in the off months at a less frequent schedule.
My grandfather, whose business was in Washington, considered the Beach to be his home. He served for many years on the town council, and during the winter months he regularly came by steamboat for the council meetings.
The town was incorporated in 1892, as the local population was continuing to grow, providing the service personnel for the great hotels being built along “The Front.” The latter expression refers to the Boardwalk and Irving Avenue frontage on the Potomac River. The Beach is a peninsula, the other “Front” being Monroe Bay, along which the famous crab shores served all varieties of crab concoctions.
Immediately north of town was Potomac Beach, the terminus of the Morgantown Ferry that crossed the Potomac from Charles County, Maryland. The two Wilkerson Crab Shores, one of which survives today, at Potomac Beach, were the only ones facing the Potomac. Between Colonial Beach and Potomac Beach was Classic Shore, a community of homes within the town limits.
The great jewel of the Beach was the Colonial Beach Hotel, a massive frame structure on the escarpment overlooking the Potomac in the direction of Saint Clement’s Island where the first Marylanders had landed in 1634. The building consisted of three sections, the center one of which originally was reputed to have been a home of General Lighthorse Harry Lee, replete with a massive marble mantelpiece. The larger north side of the hotel had double-decker porches with large wooden rocking chairs for the guests to use. The hotel wantonly was razed in 1984, meriting a front-page story in the Rappahannock Record.
At the other end of the Boardwalk was Walcott’s Hotel, with a side wing containing a bar and restaurant entirely paneled in carved oak, as well as an extended porch, also filled with rocking chairs. Regrettably, Walcott’s too fell to so-called “progress.” Along the residential part of The Front were many grand Victorian houses, most of which also now are gone.
One of the Beach’s lesser-known claims to fame is the Union Chapel, a small, frame structure that was shared by the different denominations each Sunday morning for one hour apiece. It was an early version of ecumenism, as well as a wonderful way to keep loquacious preachers from going on too long in un-air-conditioned summer heat.
As congregations grew in numbers, particularly in the summer months, the small chapel proved to be inadequate. In 1906, the Catholics were the first to break off to build their own church followed by the Episcopalians in 1912, and later by the Baptists, leaving the Methodists with the building, which was moved aside when the new Methodist Church was built in 1950, and subsequently demolished for an addition to the church complex. The site merits an historical marker for being one of the earliest ecumenical endeavors.
Colonial Beach has an interesting tie to Kilmarnock in the person of H. W. B. Williams, who as a young man left his home on the Eastern Shore of Virginia to work for the L. E. Mumford Banking Company, in which role he set up new banks across the Northern Neck, the first being the predecessor of the former Bank of Lancaster and the last being the Bank of Westmoreland in Colonial Beach.
He decided to stay at the Beach, where he built the New Atlanta Hotel and served as president of the bank and mayor of the town for many years. He was also the unofficial shelter for homeless, stray dogs that he kept outside of his office at the bank. When he died in 1958, the Richmond and Washington newspapers correctly referred to him as “The Dean of Virginia bankers.”
The current revival of the Beach is long overdue and portends a propitious new era for The Playground of the Potomac.