In recent posts I’ve described a couple of instances where state and local governments leveraged the geography of their physical borders. They’ve generated tax revenue from outsiders who had no electoral standing to challenge it. As examples, I discussed situations found in the Southwick Jog of Massachusetts and the interstate highway traveling through northern Delaware. But every once in awhile the tables are turned, and private citizens are able to use geography to stick it to the government. That’s exactly what happened in Colonial Beach, Virginia.
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A whole confluence of events merged in Colonial Beach in the middle of the 20th Century. It’s necessary to understand a little of the geography and the history of this location to appreciate the situation.
A large urban population grew along the Potomac River where the coastal plain met the fall line of the Piedmont: Washington, DC, the capital of the United States. City dwellers needed a break from sweltering summer heat and some time away from the crowds but their choices were limited to the transportation available to them. Steamships became a great option for a river town like Washington, and a wonderful mile-long sandy beach sat just 65 miles downstream on Virginia’s Northern Neck. Developers realized the potential. They built hotels, platted streets and sold lots for summer cottages. They named the whole enterprise Colonial Beach. Urbanites could ride the steamships downriver, relax for a week on the beach and the boardwalk, and sail home refreshed.
Things began to change with the automobile. Road networks improved and expanded. Colonial Beach continued to remain popular throughout the first half of the 20th Century particularly as a weekend destination. However, the roads opened other choices. The end was in sight when Maryland pursued a bridge across the middle Chesapeake Bay to connect Annapolis with the Eastern Shore, which they finally completed in 1952 after years of planning and construction. If Washingtonians could drive directly to the "real" beaches, those strung along the Atlantic coasts of Maryland and Delaware, could some silly sandbar along the river compete?
Colonial Beach’s hoteliers and entrepreneurs struck upon a brilliant idea. They realized a simple fact (that I’ve previously discussed), that the state of Maryland owned this stretch of the Potomac River outright. It wasn’t split down the middle like typical river borders. They also knew that Maryland had a more permissive outlook on social issues than their conservative neighbors in Virginia. Appropriate to this situation, Maryland allowed slot machine gambling and the sale of alcoholic beverages by the the glass. So in 1949 the businessmen of Colonial Beach began erecting piers into the river. At the end of the piers they built casinos, and all of them accessible from Virginia but technically not part of Virginia.
Virginia, as one can imagine, took a dim view of this development. Not only was this an affront to their moral outlook but they lacked any standing to tax the resulting gambling revenue since those activities took place above Maryland waters. Colonial Beach boomed. People called it "Las Vegas on the Potomac" and well-heeled crowds filled the hotels and paraded down the boardwalk. Pictures and post cards portrayed a prosperous, popular setting.
There is an anecdote, probably apocryphal, about Virginia’s attempt to halt the gambling on their doorstep. It falls into the category of "don’t necessarily believe everything you read on the Internet" but it’s amusing so I’ll repeat it.
At one time the State of Virginia said that since the pier to the casino was attached to Virginia that the gambling was illegal. The owners of the casinos solved the problem by sawing a break in the pier, therefore severing the connection to Virginia. Problem solved.
The party finally ended about ten years later. Virginia convinced Maryland to change their statutes to outlawed riverfront gambling in 1958. Colonial Beach faded into an obscurity. Half a century later it may only now be recovering.