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Bet you didn't know - Overview of local gambling era presented


PHOTO FROM BAYSIDE HISTORY MUSEUM FACEBOOK PAGE

North Beach, MD - If the whole Southern Maryland region seems like it’s obsessed with gambling, consider this—you should have been around 60 years ago. Back in the late 1940s, throughout the 50s and well into the 1960s, when the Maryland General Assembly pulled the plug—slot machines were a hard habit to break for area businesses, residents and especially visitors.

While the history of the region’s gambling heyday is hard to summarize in a one-hour presentation, Grace Mary Brady of the Bayside History Museum provided an interesting overview of one of mankind’s favorite vices as it pertains to Maryland in general and Southern Maryland in particular. Brady’s presentation—part of the “At the Water’s Edge” lecture series—was delivered Sunday, Jan. 14 at the North Beach Town Hall.

Noted during the presentation was the fact that the Maryland Jockey Club (MJC) was founded in 1743 in Annapolis and is the oldest continuing sporting organization in North America. The club operates or has operated venues for horse racing in Maryland. At one time that oversight covered a lot of turf in locations such as Baltimore, Hagerstown, Bowie, Laurel and Upper Marlboro. At the beginning of the 20th century a racetrack was proposed to be built in Chesapeake Beach. Brady said the track was envisioned to be a location for winter racing. The plan was never realized. Research, however, shows there was a horseracing track in Calvert County back in 1779 in Lower Marlboro.

Gambling fever really enveloped Southern Maryland in the 1940s. Brady said slot machines (aka one-arm bandits) were legalized in Anne Arundel County in 1943 and four years later, Calvert County locations had the machines as well. In fact, Brady pointed out, many Calvert venues may have had slots prior to 1947—illegally. “This was a game-changer for North Beach,” said Brady of legalized machines. An investor in the town’s popular restaurant/bar/dance hall “Uncle Billy’s” was Charles E. Nelson, a Washington, DC bookie who became the focus of an early 1950s investigation of Kefauver Committee, which was looking into organized crime. Brady said Nelson was eventually convicted for income tax evasion.

Charles County—Waldorf in particular—saw the arrival of legal slots in 1949. Waldorf—with a U.S. highway running through it—became known as “Slot Machine Alley” and “Little Vegas.” Brady pointed out that at one time Waldorf had slot machine revenue that exceeded the number in Las Vegas. All across the region, approximately 5,000 machines were in operation at local laundromats, barbershops, grocery stores, bars and nightclubs. The yen for slots expanded to the Potomac River and establishments in Colonial Beach were able to circumvent Virginia law by locating slots parlors on piers in the Potomac, which was under the jurisdiction of Maryland.

The slots craze cashed out in the 1960s when, amid pressure from local clergy, crusading editorial writers and Maryland Governor Millard Tawes, the Maryland General Assembly voted to outlaw slots effective June 30,1968. According to a mid-1990s story in the Baltimore Sun, the Governor Thomas Johnson Bridge—connecting Calvert and St. Mary’s counties—was built by the state as a concession for the heavy loss of slots revenue.

In addition to Brady’s presentation, the Jan. 14 talk also included a summation of recent controversies involving electronic gaming devices in St. Mary’s County from Detective Sgt. Shawn Moses of the St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Office. 

The At the Water’s Edge lecture series is a joint effort of the Bayside History Museum, Calvert Library, Calvert Marine Museum and the Chesapeake Beach Railway Museum. The series continues through April. Brady will make her presentation on gambling in Southern Maryland again March 22 from 7 to 8 p.m. at the Calvert Marine Museum.

Contact Marty Madden at marty.madden@thebaynet.com

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