The Stories Behind 5 Famous Resorts of Yesteryear
Hotels and amusement parks of decades past were grand affairs that served people with limited means, limited mobility or limited access to most public facilities.
The Augustine Beach Hotel—now known as the Augustine Inn, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.
Leisure is an old idea, but one that is constantly re-invented.
The Romans enjoyed watching people kill each other. The Aztecs enjoyed watching people play a form of soccer, then enjoyed killing the game’s losers. What became polo was invented by the Persians, who sometimes used human heads instead of balls. (Seeing a pattern here?)
In the more-or-less modern West, what to do about leisure has often devolved into a discussion of what to do with the Sabbath and religious holidays, since most people were otherwise working constantly. In England, to this day, people explain the failure of Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan republic on his alleged plan to abolish Christmas.
Working through such issues took a few hundred years, and, in truth, isn’t fully finished. Delaware, for instance, still tries to protect the Sabbath by restricting the hours of liquor sales on Sundays. Hunting on Sundays is also forbidden, unless you’re chasing a fox with hounds.
Even so, we accept that everyone is entitled to some time off and, within the limits of the law, personal discretion in how to use it. In a capitalist society, personal discretion means marketing opportunities and profit. And reluctance to interfere with those is bedrock.
This democratizing trend brings us to the amusement parks and resorts popular with Delawareans about a century ago. Of the five featured here, two (Shellpot and Brandywine Springs) were creatures of trolley companies. Another, Augustine Beach, depended on Delaware River steamers to take holiday-seekers back and forth. Rosedale Beach, which catered to African Americans, could not have existed before the automobile, which allowed blacks up and down the East Coast to gather near Millsboro. The exception, Bellevue Hall, a former du Pont estate, was dependent on nothing but its owner’s millions—proof that old ways endure.
Augustine Beach: From cattle to bikers
In the days before cars and railroads appeared to direct vacationers elsewhere, a waterside getaway just downstream from major population centers had real appeal.
So it was for Augustine Beach, just south of Port Penn, which was a popular vacation destination for people in Philadelphia and Wilmington at the turn of the 20th century. Steamers such as the Thomas Clyde, Pilot Boy and Ariel made daily runs to The Piers, as the site was then known. Adult fares were 30 cents.
Augustine Beach takes its name from Augustine Herman (ca. 1621-1686), a Bohemian explorer and cartographer who agreed to map the region for Lord Calvert in exchange for a 20,000-acre estate. That estate, Bohemia Manor, touched the Delaware at its eastern end and included Augustine Beach.
The spot’s history as a resort began when Adam Diehl and a partner arrived in the late 1790s to raise cattle, a business they apparently did well in. In 1804, Diehl and William Guier, a Philadelphia merchant, owned $14,000 worth of livestock, which they grazed on 140 acres of marsh grass before shipping the animals upriver to butchers in Wilmington and Philadelphia.
By 1816, however, the partnership had dissolved, and Diehl busied himself with a large brick structure—the Augustine Beach Hotel—that he had constructed two years earlier.
According to an architectural survey from 2012, the building’s floorplan suggests a structure intended as a hotel, with a first floor of two large rooms for eating and drinking and an upstairs with private rooms.
How much business the hotel did in its early years is unknown. The property changed hands several times before 1867, when it was taken over by Simeon Lord, a Philadelphia hotel keeper with big plans. Lord built 100 bath houses on the beach and added a frame extension on the north end that housed a dance pavilion. Lord renovated the dining room, and may have been the owner who combined several first-floor rooms to create a large lobby.
According to a Wilmington Steamboat Company advertisement from 1888, picnic tables were set in an “elegant grove.”
The Augustine Beach Hotel was later inherited by Lord’s son, Simeon Jr., who ran it until 1893. A series of other owners followed. In 1915, visitors could also enjoy a miniature steam engine train, merry-go-round and shuffleboard.
The resort declined after World War I, and the Thomas Clyde made its last run in the 1920s. By the 1940s, the hotel was described in advertisements as a taproom, indicating that its owners had given up on renting rooms.
The economy also declined for local residents. During World War II, men in the area worked in war industries such as shipbuilding and ammunition manufacture. After the war, they didn’t come back. The local tomato cannery closed in 1954.
A state boat launch was built in the 1970s, as well as a nuclear plant in Salem, N.J., whose cooling towers can be seen across the river. The 1814 hotel building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973, and now operates as the Augustine Inn.
Views of the boardwalk and dance pavilion at Brandywine Springs Park.
Brandywine Springs: A getaway for the 19th century—and the 21st
Brandywine Springs Park is a two-fer. A county park since 1970, it offers all of what most people consider to be park basics: grills and picnic tables, hiking trails and playgrounds, basketball courts and softball fields. But Brandywine Springs also offers a sort of time portal: Visitors can tour the park as it was a century ago.
On Faulkland Road west of Wilmington, the land now occupied by the park has probably been a resort of sorts for millennia. According to Mike Ciosek, president of the Friends of Brandywine Springs, members of the native Lenape tribe went there to drink the mineral water, a habit they passed to European settlers.
A hotel was built in 1828, then other things followed. By the turn of the 20th century, Hyde Run, a tributary of Red Clay Creek, was lined with a carousel, a moving-picture theater and a boardwalk that featured a bandstand, restaurants, a pool hall, shooting gallery, kiddie rides and a funhouse called Katzenjammer Castle. A dance pavilion stood in the middle of Lake Washington.
A brochure from 1899 promised “a newly fitted up Excursion Grounds, replete with every modern idea; fitted with all forms of respectable amusements, rich in surpassingly beautiful natural scenic surroundings, safe for the children, delightful for the grown folks.”
It’s all gone now. The park never re-opened after its 1923 season and the buildings gradually disappeared, often cannibalized by neighbors who used the materials in their homes.
Then again, it isn’t gone at all.
Since 1994, Ciosek and the Friends have been excavating and marking the sites of the amusement park’s major features: the entrance archway, the ladies pavilion, the boardwalk, the soda and ice cream stand, and, of course, Chalybeate Spring, where the Lenape once came to drink.
Excavations at the spring—covered in Victorian times with a rustic canopy—revealed its concrete foundation to be a couple of feet below the current ground level. According to Ciosek, the county parks department will regrade the surrounding area to restore it to its earlier appearance.
“When we find a building, we put up corner posts and a sign with a photograph to show where the building stood and what it looked like,” Ciosek says. “So people can literally stand beside the sign and see what it looked like in 1900.”
A hotel operated at Rosedale Beach Resort from the early 1900S.
Rosedale Beach: What segregation wrought
Spending a weekend on the water should be easy. But in the early 20th century, that wasn’t for African Americans, who were barred from most resorts and amusement parks.
Near Millsboro, however, history and family made some space. Rosedale Beach Resort on the Indian River offered blacks (and others) a hotel, boardwalk, dance hall, restaurant, and picnic and beach facilities. The resulting crowds attracted entertainment that included some of the biggest stars of the era: Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Lloyd Price, Sam Cooke and Fats Domino.
“People came from all around New York, Philadelphia and Washington,” former manager Floyd Vause told the Wilmington News in 1980.
In Sussex County, African Americans’ wedge was their relationship with the Nanticoke tribe. Over the centuries, Nanticokes and African Americans worked together and lived with and married each other.
“They are related in many ways,” says Tamara Jubilee-Shaw, who researched Rosedale’s history for the state’s historic marker program. “Sometimes it’s a point of contention over whether they are Nanticoke or black, but history does show that they worked together.
Sometime in the late 19th century, Nanticoke farmer and fisherman Isaac Harmon (1829-1900) purchased a nine-acre tract on the riverfront. Calling it Noah’s Park, Harmon used the property for bathing, playing baseball and religious meetings. It was subsequently purchased by several members of the African American Vause family and, in 1937, incorporated as Rosedale Beach Inc.
Jubilee-Shaw, however, believes that Rosedale Beach was actively used for recreational purposes much earlier than its incorporation date. A hotel operated on the site from “the early 1900s,” she notes.
“In the pre-integration era, there were very few places people of color could go for entertainment and-or hotel accommodations,” Jubilee-Shaw says. “Therefore, many people traveled to Rosedale Beach from points north, south and west along the East Coast. Church groups, college students, family groups and individuals would come to Millsboro.”
The hotel also included a members-only bar, The Young Man’s Republican Club, which admitted only registered party members.
In 1946, Billboard magazine reported that “Rosedale Beach, famous show spot of Millsboro, Del., has inaugurated Saturday night barn dances (for traveling hunters coming into town) for the winter for the first time in its history.” Five years later, the headliner was Lucius Venable “Lucky” Millinder (1910-1966), a rhythm-and-blues and swing bandleader who is also credited with discovering Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
Jubilee-Shaw’s father, Leroy Jubilee, recalled sneaking into the hotel as a child, despite being told by his mother to stay away.
“I used to sneak in the back door to hear the music and strummed on my guitar just like the musicians on stage there,” recalled Jubilee. “Fancy yachts would ride by so the passengers could listen to the thumping and swinging sounds coming from the hotel, but they could not go inside. This was the South, and people of different races could not mingle in public facilities.”
But what segregation gaveth, integration took away. Business took a downturn in the 1950s, and Rosedale Beach entered bankruptcy in 1961. The company re-organized in 1963, but thereafter operated more quietly as an ordinary hotel.
Sold in the 1980s and all buildings razed, the site of Rosedale Beach is now a condominium development, Gull Point. A state historic marker was erected in 2011.
Woolton Hall, a Gothic castle with a view of the Delaware, was built in 1885 in what is now Bellevue State Park.
Bellevue State Park: Another du Pont gift
Some du Ponts loved to garden, so we have Longwood Gardens. Some du Ponts enjoyed gutting out European mansions and bringing the pieces home to play with, so we have Winterthur.
Other du Ponts, however, were jocks. So we have Bellevue State Park.
Squeezed between I-95 and Philadelphia Pike in North Wilmington, 328-acre Bellevue offers a tennis center, a fitness track and paved trails, plus picnic facilities. There’s also Bellevue Hall, a former du Pont mansion, which may be rented for special events such as weddings.
The park’s history begins with Hanson Robinson (1815-1871), a wool merchant who, in 1855, spent $100,000 building a Gothic castle, Woolton Hall (get it?), from whose dark stone towers he could see the Delaware River. In 1893, the property passed to William du Pont Sr. (1855-1928), president of the Repauno Chemical Company, a division of du Pont that manufactured dynamite.
Du Pont married and divorced, then was remarried to a divorced woman. That had social consequences, so du Pont and wife No. 2, Annie, lived away from Wilmington—first in England, then in Virginia, where, in 1908, they bought Montpelier, the former home of James Madison. Du Pont also acquired Bellevue for those times when he absolutely, positively had to be in Wilmington, but he lived mostly in Virginia. After du Pont’s death, Montpelier went to a daughter and Bellevue to his son, William du Pont Jr.
Willie, as he was called, apparently missed Montpelier. After taking over in 1928, he had the old Robinson place rebuilt from a three-story castle to a two-and-a-half story mansion that mimicked Montpelier. Even the yellow-painted stucco exterior and the garden facade are identical. Beyond that, however, Willie was “far more interested” in his sports facilities, according to a 1987 management plan by the Delaware division of parks.
Willie was an enthusiastic rider and owner of thoroughbred race horses. His father had built stables at Bellevue, but du Pont Jr. built a racetrack, steeplechase fences, two galloping tracks, paddocks and more stables. He later became internationally recognized as an authority on the design and construction of horse racing courses. Du Pont designed more than 25 steeplechase and flat racing tracks.
Du Pont Jr. also married twice, which led to more sports infrastructure. (He and his first wife, Jean Austin, were the parents of the notorious John du Pont of Newtown Square, Pa.) Second wife Margaret Osborne du Pont was a renowned tennis player. For her, Willie installed outdoor and indoor courts, plus a swimming pool, which the state filled in when it took over in 1976. There was a steep circular stairway that descended from the mansion’s library to an underground tunnel that, in turn, led to the du Ponts’ 15,000-square-foot sports house.
Shellpot Park in North Wilmington was little more than a shady place to picnic in its early years.
Shellpot Park: Creature of the Trolley Company
Today mainly a strip of green along Shellpot Drive in North Wilmington, Shellpot Park could only have existed in the era of the trolley car.
Little more than a shady place to picnic in its early years, Shellpot grew to include a scenic railway, dance pavilion, roller rink, carousel and roller coaster. Operating from 1893 until 1934 at the foot of Penny Hill in Brandywine Hundred, it was the creation of the Wilmington and Philadelphia Traction Company, which used it to lure people onto its trolley cars on weekends, when they might have otherwise stayed at home.
For adults, comedy was a top attraction. A July 1913 Shellpot newspaper ad listed such performers as Adeline DeNette (singer and dancer); Ravie, Troy and Anna Stone (comedy songs and dances); and Martie Jacobs, “eccentric comedian.”
There were unamusing aspects, too. Like most amusement parks, Shellpot was segregated. In 2001, Wilmington artist Edward Loper Sr. recalled visiting as a child during the one week of the year in which African Americans were admitted.
“When that week would be on, black people would flock to that park because they were just glad to go to an amusement park,” he recalled. But, added Loper, “They didn’t allow blacks to go into the swimming pool.”
According to amusement park historian Jim Futrell, Shellpot was always smaller than competitor Brandywine Springs. But it underwent a burst of development after the trolley company bought out Brandywine Springs’ private trolley system, thus nudging it toward extinction. At Shellpot, a large wooden rollercoaster, the Wildcat, was built in 1925.
But that didn’t stop the decline that afflicted all trolley-owned amusement parks after World War I. Private automobiles gave Americans more options of how and where to spend their leisure time.
In 1932, Shellpot sold its carousel to Dorney Park in Allentown, where it remained until being destroyed by fire in 1983. Then, in January 1934, in the middle of the Great Depression, Shellpot was severely damaged by fire. The facilities were only partly insured, so the park never re-opened.