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An Isolated Fishing Village

Once an isolated fishing village that has since grown into one of the east coast’s premier vacation destinations, Ocean City, Maryland has a wonderful and storied past. An Englishman named Thomas Fenwick,the namesake of the Delaware resort that borders Ocean City to the north, once owned the land where Ocean City now sits. All who are now involved in the city’s tourism today can look to, and thank, Isaac Coffin. As grandfather of the local tourism industry, Coffin attracted visitors came from all over the eastern seaboard looking to relax on the pristine beach, enjoy abundant fishing, and to collect seashells. At the time, the area was simply an undeveloped strip of sand, not the Ocean City, Maryland that we know today with its high-rise condominiums, amusements, shops, restaurants, and iconic Boardwalk.

An early 1960s postcard of the Satellite Motel, long gone. Since the 20th century, motor hotels have lined the upper blocks of Ocean City.

During the early period, the appeal of Ocean City as a resort was largely in its natural beauty, and many came just to watch the waves breaking on the shore, view the sunset over the bay, or feel the winds of the sea rustling the dune grass. The first beachfront inn was made available to visiting guests in 1869. Shortly after this, the town was surveyed and the decision was made to develop 250 beachfront lots. The corporation that was formed to develop the land sold 4000 shares of stock at $25 each. Ocean City at this time was known as the “ladies resort to the ocean”.

Becoming a Tourist Destination

The Atlantic Hotel, for many years the northern-most attraction in Ocean City, was opened on July 4th of the year the resort was officially founded: 1875. It offered 400 rooms, billiards, and entertainment for gentlemen and offered the natural beauty of a small coastal town along the Atlantic Ocean. A railroad from Berlin was developed in 1878, which allowed travelers to cross the Sinepuxent Bay directly to the resort and the town was incorporated in 1880.

Atlantic Hotel sign
The modern-day boardwalk sign outside of the Atlantic Hotel. While it was founded in 1875, the hotel has been owned by the same family since 1923. 

Ocean City was slowly developing during the interim years as a true summer resort.  In 1933 a major hurricane separated the resort from Assateague Island. The Army Engineer Corps that responded to the disaster had the foresight to see the merits of the stormed-carved inlet and reinforced it to make this new gateway between the Atlantic Ocean and the Sinepuxent Bay permanent. The inlet now is vital for allowing easy access to the Atlantic for fishing, boating, and other watersports.

prize doll
Trimper’s Rides, first known as Windsor Resort, helped draw in tourists beginning in 1893. Ocean City’s Life-Saving Museum houses some of the old game prizes, like this doll from 1935.

Bridging the Gap

In 1952 and 1964 respectively, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel were completed. This increased access to the resort from the south and west and the fame of Ocean City as the Mid- Atlantic’s premier resort grew. The importance of these two gateways to the shore cannot be underestimated as prior to their completion the only access to the peninsula was by skirting the bay and descending on the resort from the north.

The Ocean City tourism industry exploded in the 1970s with high-rise condominium becoming the preferred form of architecture. This distinguishes Ocean City from the Delaware resorts to the north, which primarily offered small cottages at the time and now single-family homes are commonplace.

Panoramic ocean views became a signature of Ocean City. In the 1980s and 1990s in lieu of scientific findings, the town began the first of a series of beach replenishment projects to combat a growing erosion problem. The westward movement of the coastline is countered by pumping massive amounts of sand from offshore onto the beach and re-establishing the dune line in front of Ocean City’s beachfront.

Museum surfboat
An old restored surfboat on display at the Life-Saving Museum.

Ocean City Today

From humble beginnings as a quiet ocean getaway, the resort has now grown to a booming vacation destination with a year round population of just over 7,000 residents and a transient population of over 300,000 on weekends during the summer season. The history of Ocean City is one of growth but also one of small town roots and Eastern Shore culture. Ocean City is the small town by the sea reborn as the famous resort destination in an endless cycle of summer and winter. The heart of the town is the ocean and its future is bound with the waves and winds that blow off the sea and its people.

Today, Ocean City is most famous for its award-winning beach, iconic Boardwalk, Seacrets and a vast dining and nightlife scene, and highly anticipated annual events like the OC Air Show, July 4th celebrations, the multimillion dollar White Marlin Open, and Sunfest.

If you’re interested in learning more about Ocean City’s past, stop by the Life-Saving Station Museum at the inlet next time you’re in town.