THE HISTORY OF COLONIAL BEACH
THERE IS ALWAYS SOMETHING HAPPENING IN COLONIAL BEACH
Colonial Beach was born out of the imagination of entrepreneurial steamboat owners looking for a resort destination within a few hours of DC. In the late 19th into the early 20th century, a new era of leisure tourism, steamboat travel, and vacation resorts developed.
Prior to the construction of the Harry Nice/301 Bridge in the early 1930’s, Colonial Beach was accessible from significant distances by water and became the steamboat “gateway” for tourists from Washington, DC and Alexandria, VA. In that period, the Northern Neck was more connected to Baltimore and Norfolk (via steamboat routes) than it was to Fredericksburg or Richmond today via land-based highways. Day-tripping and weekend leisure brought people to Colonial Beach — already famous for its “white sand beach”— and developers eventually purchased the farms that were here, divided most of them into lots, and began advertising and selling them. Some tourists were lured back repeatedly and began to purchase the cheap land for various pied-a-terres.
The tourist economy was furthered when in 1949, Charles County, Maryland legalized slot machines. Virginia did not permit legalized gambling, although this era was relatively short-lived, ending in 1958 with changes to Maryland’s laws. Subsequently, Colonial Beach’s popularity as a tourist destination declined, leaving in its place a quiet little town inhabited by full-time residents, some of whom have lived here all their lives and some who have settled in the community after living elsewhere. Colonial Beach also has a significant population of seasonal homeowners and warm-weather tourists that use both new and historically intact accommodations. The watermen industry has, and remains, an important though smaller part of the local economy.
Recovery from Hurricane Isabel in 2003 kick-started a long-term reinvestment in residential properties, with small cottages purchased for renovation or replacement with larger homes more conducive to year-round living. The downtown area has a moderate level of historically intact buildings, especially along the Potomac, and in 2021 the Colonial Beach Commercial Historic District was registered by the State of Virginia and the National Park Service. This has enabled tax credits for preservation-oriented renovation to be put in place. There are also new developments, including renovations of some historic buildings, and new restaurants have located to town. A new organization, the Economic Development Committee, has formed as part of the Chamber of Commerce to encourage and facilitate economic revitalization.
Encouraging business and real estate investment that facilitates locally-focused revitalization will require the cooperation of multiple local organizations. Fortunately, DCB believes Colonial Beach is fertile ground for a revitalized downtown that is true to our town’s past while building an economically sustainable future.
Colonial Beach Historic District
On September 16, 2021 the Colonial Beach Commercial Historic District was declared. The district includes 81 contributing buildings and 4 objects, and does not include any individual buildings already listed in the National Register. It includes buildings that serve the purposes of commerce & trade, social functions, government buildings, religion, education, domestic buildings, and recreation and culture, and reflect multiple architectural styles, including Queen Anne; late 19th and early 20th century revivals—classical, colonial, and gothic; modern movement; and late 19th and early 20th century American movements.
The National Register assesses that the overall historic integrity “remains moderate to strong, with many resources retaining a high level of integrity of location, setting, feeling, and association, and a moderate level of integrity of design, materials, and workmanship…”. The Register further notes that “The Colonial Beach Commercial Historic District contains buildings from all phases of the town’s history. This situation results partly from the use of wood as the primary construction material in the early development of the town and its vulnerability to fire and storms, to which Colonial Beach has been subjected. Infill construction often replaced the damaged, demolished, or deteriorating earlier buildings. The evolution of the town’s tourist economy from weekend excursions in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries toward longer stays and year-round residency also contributed to the diversity of building types and materials found in the historic district. Buildings that survived the effects of weather and time and remained useful continued to be occupied, often serving several different functions over the years, while replacement buildings manifested the purposes, styles, and building materials of their period of construction.”
The district runs along the Washington Avenue corridor to Boundary Street, and includes the Town Pier as well as parts of Colonial Avenue and the Boardwalk. See the map below…