Here are 10 cool – mostly free things to see in Ocean City, Maryland. It’s been a family destination for summer fun for over 100 years, but when you’re looking for something besides the sun, sand and ocean, check out these things to see in Ocean City that you may not know about. Eight of them are between the Inlet and 3rd Street, a one mile walk.
1. The Atlantic Hotel
In 1869, Isaac Coffen built the first guest house on a sandy barrier island (now Ocean City) hoping to attract visitors to this scenic seaside spot. Most people in the populated East (Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington DC) would never see the ocean in their lifetimes. The ocean was something one saw only in pictures and heard about in stories. In 1875 the Atlantic Hotel was built facing that beautiful Atlantic ocean with a sandy beach. It was perched between Somerset and Wicomico Streets, and in its day, this ocean-front hotel WAS the destination when coming to Ocean City. It had 400 rooms, a ballroom, verandas, a restaurant and anything anyone could possibly need. Guests came to Atlantic Hotel by stagecoach and later by train. The goal was to escape the dingy, dirty, often unsanitary conditions of city living and breath in the ocean air. It was a luxury for the wealthy – and once the Atlantic Hotel was built, they came in droves.
In 1925 the hotel burned to the ground, and it was rebuilt within a year by its new owner, Dr. Charles Purnell. The Purnell family still owns the hotel, and have kept it up beautifully. Walking into the Atlantic Hotel lobby is like stepping back in time. You can almost feel the pulse of the people who called it home in the summer. The spirit of Dr. Purnell – welcoming his guests and seeing to their needs – is still present (really.. he haunts the hotel). Ask the staff for permission to climb the gorgeous staircase up to the second floor and check out the deck that overlooks the ocean and the pier. They may even tell you a few stories about Dr. Purnell and the history (if they’re not busy with guests). The Atlantic Hotel is one of Maryland’s finest examples of a historical seaside resort.
2. Dolle’s Candy
I once asked the person behind the counter at Dolle’s Candy why their candy was better than the “other Ocean City candy.” As she filled my bag with chocolate covered pretzels she said, “We’re better because our candy is made right here with love every day and shipped out fresh right away. It’s not mass produced off-site and then stored in a warehouse.” Wow! That’s called “chanting the company story.” It was a great show of company loyalty, and she wasn’t even a member of the Dolle family.
In 1910 Rudolph Dolle purchased a fledgling salt water taffy business and set up shop on Wicomico Street. Today the 4th generation of Dolles is running the business and they’ve grown to producing chocolate, caramels, fudge, pop corn and even sugar free candy. All of it is produced and stored in a manufacturing facility right behind their storefront on the Boardwalk at Wicomico Street. It’s amazing to think that a factory producing 650 pieces of wrapped candy per minute is housed amidst all that tourist activity. Ask the staff about the operation. They love to talk about it. And there’s always a warm welcome at Dolle’s.
3. Captain’s Hill – only marked grave in Ocean City
There are no graveyards in Ocean City – not because it’s impossible to bury people there, but because Ocean City was never really a hometown. It was a summer resort, and for families who did live there year round, their “home city” or place where they received services was in Berlin. And that’s where most of them were buried. In 1910 the population in Ocean City was about 70 people.
But there is one lone grave, marked by a 4-foot-high marble tombstone. It sits in West Ocean City in a place that’s known as “Captain’s Hill.” Etched on the front of the tombstone are the words:
In Memory of
Capt. William Carhart
Shipwrecked off this coast
January 5, 1799
Aged 38 years and
On Christmas day in 1798, Captain William Carhart steered his schooner The Hawk out of a Cuban harbor and headed for Philadelphia – his home port. Just off the coast of Ocean City his ship foundered and eventually sank. All was lost. No one knows what happened to the crew and neither the ship nor its contents were every found. But somehow, Captain Carhart was dragged from the ocean and brought here to be buried. His wife paid for this marker which is made of solid marble. There is so much mystery here. So many unanswered questions.
4. Ocean City Life-saving Station Museum
At the very end of the Boardwalk near the Inlet is the Ocean City Life-saving Station Museum. It’s a fully restored station, built in 1891 and it was used by the US Coast Guard up unit 1964. Today it houses thousands of artifacts that not only tell the history of Ocean City, but the history of life-saving. It has the largest collection of life-saving artifacts and equipment in the East. It’s collections include Sands from around the World, The Boardwalk of Yesterday, and Davy Jones’ Locker which has relics recovered from local shipwrecks. Cost is $3 to get in. Oh … and there’s a Laughing Sally on the second floor. This is a life-sized rag doll behind Plexiglas that cackles hysterically when you press a button. Sometimes she cackles when you don’t press the button, which tends to unnerve the museum staff.
5. Indian on the Inlet
This giant carved Indian at Inlet Park has been standing watch since 1976 when it was carved from a 100 year old oak tree by artist Peter Toth as part of his Trail of Whispering Giants. Toth’s Trail includes a wood carving of an Indian in every state in the USA. Delaware’s Toth carving is a well-known landmark at the entrance of Bethany Beach. Though Peter Toth is not an Indian and not of Indian descent, he wanted to leave a “trail” of reminders about the plight of America’s indigenous people.
Sit awhile with this Indian. It speaks to the heart.
For an up-close look at EIGHT of these sites, register for an
Ocean City Ghost Walk.
6. The Trimper Carousel
If there was only one thing you could see in Ocean City besides the beach, I’d recommend the Trimper Carousel. This is a “must see” site that never disappoints – especially when you know the history. It is the oldest continually operational carousel in America and is made up of 47 carved animals, 3 chariots and a rocking chair. Each animal is an individual work of art – art that you can touch, feel and even sit on.
The Menagerie Carousel has occupied this spot since Daniel Trimper put it there in 1912. These horses and their other animal friends – the pig, ostrich, dog, cat, stork, dragon, lion, tiger and camel have been in place even when the ocean waters rushed in during the great storms and covered they hoofs rising once to the animals’ knees. Today it is housed in the Carousel Building with other antique rides and is maintained beautifully by the Trimper family who employ a mechanic and artist who specialize in antique rides to care for the Carousel down to every tiny detail of operation.
There is so much joy surrounding this old work of art. The happy moments shared by children, parents, lovers and loners who have boarded this menagerie over the last 100 years have imprinted the energy around the carousel. Why not add yours to the mix?
The Trimper Carousel is also haunted. Read more about that in this post – Spirit that Haunts Trimper’s Carousel.
6. The Boardwalk Buskers (street performers)
It used to be you had to have a license to perform on the Boardwalk. A recent change in town legislation has opened up the opportunity for ANYONE to perform on the Boardwalk provided they don’t sell anything, block the public right-of-way, or do anything not fit for family consumption.
This has created such a wide variety of performers. There are hoola-hoop experts (I’m not kidding), magicians, palm readers, henna tattoo artists, painters, musicians, dancers, singers and even movie characters who parade in costume making themselves available for photo-ops with the kids.
Every once in awhile, amid the Boardwalk chaos and noise, you find a busker like this young Ukrainian student featured in the 53 second video above. She stood there at Dorchester Street and played Strangers in the Night while the rest of the crazy world passed by. But there were a few of us who stayed for the whole song.
7. The Henry Hotel
This old cedar shingled relic sits on Baltimore Avenue across from Trimper’s Amusements next to the bus stop. It’s on a corner lot that would command big bucks in the real estate market if the owners wanted to sell it. But they don’t. They are leaving it as a reminder of the darker side (no pun intended) of Ocean City’s history.
The Henry “Colored” Hotel is the last standing hotel designated for African Americans dating from when we lived in a segregated society. Prior to 1965 when the Jim Crow segregation laws were in effect, people of color could not spend the night in a hotel that had Caucasian guests. There were separate hotels for them. The Henry Hotel was one of those hotels.
Ocean City wasn’t a popular destination for African Americans as they were not exactly welcomed warmly, but the Black community made up an important part of the workforce – mostly in the hotels. They needed lodging during the summer season when they were filling important employment sectors. These “colored” hotels filled that need. There were also the Black performers appearing in shows at the big hotels and at The Pier. Count Bassie, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington are just some of the more famous guests who stayed at the Henry Hotel. When the Henry’s owned this hotel, they also opened up a jazz club across the street, and a restaurant that served soul food. This was one hopping spot – this corner.
Pearl Bonner, a single mother and educator from Baltimore with three young daughters purchased the hotel and worked it every summer with her girls. The daughters earned some of their money for college working at the Henry and all three graduated from Morgan State University. Pearl has passed away, and her daughters are committed to preserving the African American heritage that the Henry Hotel represents. The house and yard are immaculately maintained, and there’s a sign out front telling the story. If you go by there late at night, you just might hear a little jazz music – a little imprint on the energy surrounding the Henry.
NOTE: Just next door the Henry Hotel is a little blue house. It’s an old Fishing Camp, a place fishermen rented for weekly fishing excursions. It was also the house used in filming Violets are Blue with Sissy Spacek and Kevin Kline.
8. Randy Hofman Sand Sculptures – 3rd Street
When heading north on the Boardwalk from the Inlet, the Randy Hofman sand sculptures are on the right just across from the Plim Plaza at 3rd Street. Hofman is an artist who lives in West Ocean City and has a gallery in Berlin. He has been doing these sand sculptures in this same spot for over 20 years. They are always scripture related and usually feature the face of Jesus. Some stand as high as 10 feet and as wide as 40 feet. Hofman says they are fleeting beings – blown away by time, just like us. All he uses to create these works of art are a few simple hand tools and water. The Plim Plaza provides him with the water and also provide the lights so that the sculptures are lit up at night.
Hofman, who is also an ordained minister, provides a little Scripture pamphlet free for the taking to whomever feels so inspired to pick one up. There is also an empty 5 gallon water cooler bottle that serves as a tip jar. Hofman has given away of 1 million of the pamphlets.
9. Rackliffe House
The Rackliffe House is one of the best examples of a colonial coastal plantation home in the Mid-Atlantic region. It’s the restored home of Charles Rackliffe who built it some time in the 1740s. The house is open to the public – Tuesday and Thursday afternoons and one Saturday a month ($5) so you can investigate the interior and hear a bit about coastal plantation life. But whether it’s open or not you can still walk down to the site and let the spirits of Rackliffe speak to you.
Excavations on the site have led archaeologists to believe that the indigenous people of this region (now referred to as the Assateague Indians) were living there as long as 10,000 years ago. This predates the Egyptian pyramids and the Mayan civilization. It also gives more credibility to the debunking of the Bering Strait migration theory. The Indians were driven off the Rackliffe plantation site and their ancient homeland was reshaped with bricks and mortar and slaves who worked under that oppression of White colonists. That old sorrow is still in the air …. and in the ground. The DNA of the soil at Rackliffe contains the remains of all those who went before … such a long long time ago.
If you love haunted sites, you’ll love Rackliffe. Legend states that John Rackliffe (son of Charles) inherited the house and was murdered by his slaves because he was particularly cruel to them. His wife died shortly after. Some say the slaves killed her too, but the larger tradition states she fell down the steps in the house and broke her neck. Her death left the four Rackliffe children orphaned. Later a widow who lived at Rackliffe during the War of 1812 begged the British army not to press her young son into service, but they took him anyway. She later hanged herself in the attic.
So the Rackliffe House hits the Haunted Trifecta of having a murder, a suicide and an accidental death — not to mention whatever massacre may have happened with the Indians. There are dozens of haunted stories about the house and the land surrounding it. Many of the stories are featured in Tom Patton’s book Listen to the Voices: Follow the Trails. It’s on sale at Rackliffe House.
It’s free to walk the grounds and sense the past.
10. The Assateague Wild Ponies
The entrance to Assateague State Park or National Seashore is just a short drive from Ocean City (and it’s just up from Rackliffe House). If you haven’t seen the wild ponies before, it’s so worth the trip. I love the Maryland side of Assateague because the ponies (they’re actually horses) are really wild. Their herd descends from horses brought by European colonists centuries ago. They’ve been running free on the island for hundreds of years. They live as a protected species living wild in the environment. They forage for their own food, find their own shelter and live among thousands of tourists in the summer.
They are not actually ponies, but horses that have a small stature due to the type of nutrition they get from plants on the island. They appear bony with bloated bellies, but the bloating effect is from the intake of salt which is a huge part of the environment. This year (2014) a colt who was just born to this herd in June. Watching it gets it legs and interact with the rest of the herd is a joy. It’s easy to get a great picture of the ponies as they aren’t particularly afraid of humans. But don’t approach them. Not only do they bite and kick (many an irresponsible tourist has been injured) but they are closely watched by rangers who will give you a stern talking to as well as a ticket if they catch you interacting with them or feeding them.
There are few sites quite like watching wild ponies climb over the dunes, run through the marshes or swim the coastal bay. Treat yourself to visit to Assateague Island.
So don’t just settle for the beach, the food and putt putt golf. Add some of these more unusual adventures to your list of things to do in the City on the Sand. Consider registering for an Ocean City Ghost Walk. All of these mentioned sites (except the Assateague Wild Ponies) are part of the Ghost Walk. Get a deeper, up-close look. Register online.
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