A city's love affair with the sea


A NEW BOOK by Baltimore writer Victoria Crenson, "Bay Shore Park: Death and Life of An Amusement Park," is drawing attention to the once famous seaside resort that long was a part of Baltimore life.

Ms. Crenson's focus is on nature's persistent and magnificent reclaiming of the land, surely a powerful reason for remembering the old place. But there are other reasons as well.

On humid summer Sundays in the 1930s and '40s, Baltimoreans resembled lemmings moving inexorably toward the sea, via any streetcar that would get them to Fayette and Pearl streets in West Baltimore.

There they would board the No. 26 streetcar (the preferred means of travel for most of the Bay Shore era) and head for Bay Shore Park, where the Patapsco River meets the Chesapeake Bay.

Ray Wheatley, who at the time was a motorman on the No. 26, recalled that "we'd seat 55 people in each car and stand 100 in the aisles."

Somehow the No. 26 got going, wending its way through East Baltimore to Eastern Avenue to Dundalk through Turner's Station, then across the Bear Creek Bridge (before it got washed away in a big storm) to 9th and D streets in Sparrow's Point.

"There were so many people aboard," Wheatly said, "we couldn't stop for anything. If something was on the track we just hit it!"

At the end of the line, the No. 26 met a three-car "jerkwater" that traveled back and forth from 9th and D to Bay Shore itself -- a 10-minute run each way.

Awaiting the crowds at the park were a merry-go-round, tilt-a-whirl, miniature railroad, auto scooter, roller coaster, penny arcade, shooting gallery, soda fountain, bathhouses, beach club -- and the always rolling, cresting waves of the river and bay.

But in 1947 Bethlehem Steel bought the park -- and promptly closed it. Even so, demand for seaside bathing remained high among Baltimoreans.

Enter Baltimore industrialist (and perennial candidate) George P. Mahoney. Mahoney the entrepreneur decided to build another bathing beach just to the north and east of Bay Shore on a sandy spit called Pleasure Island.

Pleasure Island opened about a year later -- May 30, 1948. It offered a gala casino for dancing, parking for 600 cars, a five-acre midway, a huge bathhouse and about seven glorious miles of pure, lovely white sandy beach.

Mahoney dreamed even bigger dreams for his new Pleasure Island. To entice the Bay Shore crowd denied its regular haunt, he planned to buy another island to the north, Hart-Miller Island, and combine it with Pleasure Island to make one spectacular resort.

On Pleasure Island itself Mahoney planned a 500-room hotel, club house, picnic groves and a posh marina. All were to be connected by a new causeway. A miniature railroad would provide fun transportation from the parking areas to the facilities.

For Hart-Miller Island, Mahoney's plans were even more grandiose. "The island," an advertisement promised, "will be accessible only by yacht and seaplane. It should be a haven for the yachting set."

Sadly, even the best laid plans often go awry. Pleasure Island closed in 1964, a victim of changing tastes, and the gossamer dream of a luxury resort on Hart-Miller Island simply got lost in the shifting sands of time.

But back to Sunday at Bay Shore.

As darkness descended, the picnickers began to board the cars for the journey back to the city. Often they were still boarding at midnight, according to Wheatley.

"The last car out," he recalled, "was 1 a.m., and we tried to get everybody rounded up by then because there was no other way home. Still, we were never sure we had everyone aboard or that we were taking everybody home at night who we brought out during the day."

To hear Wheatley tell it, there could be stray bathers down there still, wandering around in the bushes, vines and weeds that have long since taken over the place.

Ms. Crenson's scientists, looking for flora and fauna, may yet find some Baltimorean's long-lost cousin from those long-ago days.

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