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Remembering the Heyday of a Chesapeake Bay Amusement Park

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Picture this: it’s a perfect summer day. Not too muggy or hot. Ideal for doing something outside. So you pack a picnic, gather up the family and head down to the boat docks at the Baltimore harbor for a lazy trip to the beach.

You board a side-wheeled paddle steamer and settle in for a relaxing cruise across the Chesapeake Bay. Two and a half hours later you arrive at your destination — Tolchester Beach.

“It was basically someplace we could take people out of the city and just relax,” said Danny Burris, an Eastern Shore native and Tolchester Beach enthusiast. “Basically, it was a beach. It evolved to something more because of competition. You had all these numerous other places so you had to sit yourself above everybody.”

The way that Tolchester Beach made itself stand out from all the other beaches on the Eastern Shore was simple — it became an amusement park, the largest one on the Delmarva Peninsula. It operated from 1877 until 1962.

“They had everything from roller coaster, to what they called the Whip rides. They had go-karts, which they called Custer cars,” Burris said. “Basically, it was an amusement park atmosphere, the Ocean City of its day.”

Today, it’s hard to find anyone who ever visited the amusement park in its heyday, despite the fact that millions of visitors once alighted on Tolchester’s shores. It closed before Danny Burris was even born. But that isn’t stopping him from trying to preserve the park’s memory.

As the de facto curator of the Tolchester Beach Revisited Museum, it’s Burris’ job to educate visitors about a part of the shore’s history that has long since passed.

“For me, it’s that one thing in your life that comes into your life, you don’t know why you’re doing it, you just know it’s right,” Burris said. “You know what you’re doing is for the benefit of future generations. For me, it’s an absolute love of this stuff.”

By this stuff, Burris means a collection of memorabilia and keepsakes from the amusement park, which are housed in a tiny shanty set off the main road in Rock Hall. The collection was started by an Eastern Shore transplant named Bill Betts who was fascinated by the park. Betts died in December at the age of 92 and the museum’s upkeep has fallen to his friend and apprentice Danny Burris.

“This was his home away from home and this was his life. Every weekend, nobody ever had to ask him to be here. He was here,” Burris said. “So now between me and my wife and my three daughters, we try to keep that same drive and show it back to the public.”

For as small as the museum is, it holds a lot of artifacts, from original signage, to arcade games, to old-timey photos of the park at the pinnacle of its operation. Burris walks me through the collection and points out some of his favorites.

“They had a steam engine that everyone who ever went there had to ride. I don’t care if you were two or 102. The little steam train was named Jumbo, Burris said. “That is probably the most photographed piece of amusement park memorabilia that we have.”

Catty corner to the miniature yellow train car is a wooden wheel that park-goers would spin for prizes in the bingo and novelty hall.

”The wheel is actually in the photograph we have right here. You can see this wheel. You can still hear the wheel run. It still works perfect,” Burris said.

Then Burris takes me into a small room that holds dozens of photos of various rides, including Pike’s Peak, the Whirlpool and something called the Tickler.

Hanging on the wall in identical flimsy plastic frames are two wool bathing suits, circa 1920. Back in the day before everyone owned a bathing suit, the park had thousands of these on hand to rent to visitors.

“The gentleman’s is the black one. It looks like a bib overall with the legs cut off. It is 100 percent wool. Mind you, you wore this in the summertime, so you were itching and scratching,” Burris said.

When he first met Bill Betts, Danny Burris was a 550-pound truck driver who desperately needed a life change. By introducing him to this local history, Betts opened a door for Burris. The museum gave him a seemingly never-ending project on which to focus his energy.

After Burris had gastric sleeve surgery last year to reduce his weight, tinkering with the museum’s collection became integral to his recovery.

“I’d come visit Bill. I figured at least I can go down there. At least I can do something,” Burris said.

When Burris’ mentor passed away, it was up to him to carry the mantle of the museum. He happily took on the task.

“The museum is for Kent County. But for me, it’s about giving back to a friend who the last 12 years gave me everything,” Burris said. “And it keeps his memory alive.”

Music: "Sea of Love" by Tom Waits from Brawlers / "Life Boat" by Penguin Cafe Orchestra from Oskar und Leni - Soundtrack

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