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A Brief History of Ocean City, Maryland

Ocean City 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 that our Ocean City of today rests upon. All who are involved in the city’s tourism today can look to Isaac Coffin as grandfather of that industry. Visitors came from all over the eastern seaboard to enjoy the pristine beach, abundant fishing and to collect seashells in what at the time was an undeveloped strip of sand, not the Ocean City, Maryland that we know today with its high-rise condominiums, amusements, shops, restaurants and mini golf courses.

During this 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”.

The Atlantic Hotel, for many years the northern-most attraction of Ocean City, was opened on Independence Day of the year of the official founding of the resort as Ocean City, 1875. It offered 400 rooms, billiards, and entertainment for gentlemen and offered the natural beauty of the Atlantic Ocean and this small coastal town. A railroad from Berlin was developed in 1878 that allowed travelers to cross the Sinepuxent Bay directly to the resort and the town was incorporated in 1880.

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 has allowed easy access to the Atlantic for fishing, boating, and other water sports.

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, Maryland tourism industry exploded in the 1970s with the high-rise condominium as 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.

Ocean City is most famous for its boardwalk, salt-water taffy, and its status as the White Marlin Capital of the World. Yet, few know Ocean City produced the first Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard, Charles Calhoun and that Ocean City has had 22 mayors over a period of 126 years, the first being William S. Wilson, elected in 1894. There is much to learn about Ocean City, Maryland’s rich history.

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. Its roots travel back hundreds of years to the Native Americans who inhabited these islands. The History of Ocean City is one of growth but also one of small town roots and Eastern Shore culture. We are the small town by the sea reborn as the famous resort destination in an endless cycle of summer and winter. The heart of our town is the ocean and its future is bound with the waves and winds that blow off the sea and its people.

We love sharing all things Ocean City, Maryland! From Beach Photos to Day Trips, we're always up for something fun. Reach out to info@OceanCity.com to share your favorite photos and stories.

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  1. To Whom It May Concern:
    I was told that Cecile & Wilmer Steele from Ocean View, DE had a summer home in Ocean City. I was told it was on rt 528 and looks like an old “Hollywood brick cottage” style.

    I am wondering if you can provide any information about the Steeles in Ocean City or about the house in question. If it wasn’t the Steele’s is there a story behind the home?

    The Steeles were killed when their yacht exploded (off of BB I believe) in 1940.

    Sincerely, Linda Mihok


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