Once Upon a Time I Visited a Speakeasy

Coles Point Tavern

Wherever a river divides two states, except Maryland and Virginia, each owns half the river.  In the Maryland-Virginia case, Maryland's state line is the high water line on the Virginia shore.

After the repeal of prohibition, enterprising Marylanders built a series of 50 or 60 taverns on stilts in the Potomac River exactly at the VA state line. These were easily accessible to Virginians and were popular because MD liquor laws were so much more liberal than those in VA.


Photo by Brian Larkin, June 23, 2004

The Coles Point Tavern, the last extant Potomac River speakeasy, was built in 1954. In the article below, the Fredericksburg Star called it "a weather-beaten bar for a loyal crowd of weather-beaten people." I visited it with Nancy Jane and John in June 2004.


A lesson in values

Date published: 11/16/2003

Except for Isabel, September's weather was the most beautiful of the year in the Northern Neck. A string of perfect days was broken only by one night of a howling hurricane.

Nearly two months later, folks in Westmoreland County and Colonial Beach are still talking about the storm that hit them hard Sept. 18.

The conversations are about opposites, like the near misses by some falling trees and the direct hits by others, the bravery of some folks in the storm and the foolhardiness of others, the worry of the night followed by the morning's relief that it was over, the bewilderment over the destruction and the determination to clean up the mess and get back to normal.

The talk also is about values, of which the most simplistic are the dollar costs to fix damaged property.

The storm was a powerful lesson that to live we must at times just hang on and endure.

Isabel, in her heavy-handed way, reminded us that what matters most is the lives of the people around us and that the best way to help ourselves is to help others.

Isabel taught us anew how scary, problematic and beautiful life can be.

Weather-beaten riverfront 

In Colonial Beach, The Riverboat on the Potomac was a notable casualty of Hurricane Isabel.

The large pier was the sole survivor of Colonial Beach's heyday as a gambling resort, when several piers with hundreds of slot machines were built over the Maryland waters of the Potomac.

Isabel completely wrecked The Riverboat's off-track betting parlor, liquor store, bar and two restaurants.

Twenty-five miles down the Westmoreland County shore, another pier on the Potomac was also battered by the storm.

The Coles Point Tavern was built in 1954. It is now a weather-beaten bar for a loyal crowd of weather-beaten people.

"Just a routine hurricane" was the way bartender and owner Sammy Landman described Isabel.

As the storm neared its peak, pictures on the tavern walls shook from the force of waves striking the building. Last call was about 8 p.m. The last patrons to leave got soaked by waves crashing on the pier.

"Were you scared?" a reporter asked one of them.

"Hell, no, I was drunk," was the reply.

The next day, while most people in Coles Point were trying to chain-saw their way out through fallen trees, the bar crowd was cutting a path to the tavern.

They nailed together a 20-foot ramp to reconnect the pier to shore. The bar reopened for business at 1 p.m.

It had no lights except candles. But it still had ice and the beer was still cold.

Everybody there was happy.

Rebuilding the beach 

If every man, woman and child in Colonial Beach chipped in $527, Hurricane Isabel's damage to public property in the town would all be paid for.

The town of 3,228 people, however, is counting on its insurance and federal and state assistance to cover most of the $1.7 million it will cost to fix public property damaged in the storm.

Replacing or repairing the town's public buildings and equipment may cost $764,000, Emergency Operations Coordinator Ralph A. "Tuffy" Hicks Jr. told Town Council last week.

Rebuilding two piers and the town's concrete boardwalk, as well as replacing other recreational facilities lost in the storm, could add another $485,000 to Isabel's tab.

As much as $200,000 may be required to repair portions of Irving Avenue undermined by the Potomac, another $125,000 is needed to rebuild water and sewer pumping stations, and $65,000 must be spent to replenish beach sand washed away by the storm.

In all, Hicks said, the cash-strapped town may need to find $91,000 to pay its share of hurricane costs, including $20,500 in overtime pay for police and other town employees and $53,000 for debris removal.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has already sent or promised Colonial Beach $194,000, Hicks said, and the town also is discussing its losses with its insurance company.

"We're hoping we can get the beachfront back in shape for next spring's tourist season," he said.

Wind and water 

Five popular waterfront restaurants in Colonial Beach were wrecked by Isabel.

But was it wind or water that wrecked The Happy Clam and The Riverboat on the Potomac?

The question may appear academic, but to Happy Clam owner Richard Moncure, Riverboat owner Tom Flanagan and the insurance companies involved, the answer could be costly.

Both Moncure and Flanagan say they are debating with their insurance companies over whether it was wind or flood that wrecked their popular establishments.

"We're anxious to get going and rebuild," Flanagan said, "but our insurance company is not so anxious for us to get started."

Moncure said representatives of a flood-insurance company "came right on in" and settled his claim satisfactorily.

But flood insurance will not compensate him for losses resulting from the interruption of his business, he said.

His business and property policy with Travelers Property Casualty Corp. might pay his loss-of-business claim, but only if the damage was caused by wind, fire or some peril other than flooding.

Travelers representatives "didn't arrive on the property until six weeks after the storm," Moncure said.

He said that when they finally showed up, Travelers' representatives said the high tide and waves that flooded the place caused all the damage to The Happy Clam, including its resulting loss of business.

"We know that the winds were blowing 95 to 100 miles an hour at Dahlgren, which is just four miles away. And we have an eyewitness who saw a window blow out of our restaurant at 9:30 p.m. The high water didn't arrive until 11:30 p.m. For Travelers to say there was no wind damage is absurd," Moncure said.

Travelers spokeswoman Jennifer Wislocki said Moncure's claim is still under consideration, but would not discuss it further for privacy reasons.

Moncure said his restaurant will cost $380,000 to rebuild, plus another $100,000 for its contents. He said he has spent $80,000 of his own money in hurricane-related expenses.

"If Travelers would just pay me what I've paid them in premiums for the last 25 years, I'd be OK," he said.

Flanagan estimates it will cost between $2.5 million and $3 million to rebuild The Riverboat.

"We'll get it built back one way or the other," he said.

Resurrecting a fallen giant 

Of the thousands of trees that fell in Westmoreland County in Hurricane Isabel, the black oak at 512 Monroe Bay Ave. in Colonial Beach may have been the biggest, oldest and most famous.

The giant stood 108 feet tall, measured 332 inches in circumference and shaded about 11,000 square feet of ground on a summer day.

It was the biggest black oak in the United States, according to American Forests' National Register of Big Trees.

It was also about the same age as Westmoreland County, which is celebrating its 350th anniversary this year.

"One person counted over 325 rings and another counted over 350," said the tree's owner, Betty Sydnor Wilson of Temple Hills, Md.

Wilson said she played beneath its branches when she was a girl, wanted her ashes scattered by it when she died and taught her children and grandchildren to love the tree, too.

At a family crab feast a week before the storm, she said, she gathered youngsters under the tree to listen to its leaves rustling in the moonlight.

After Isabel, when her grandchildren saw the tree's wreckage, a 3-year-old asked, "What happened to my big yard?" and a 5-year-old hugged what was left of the tree and said, "I'm going to miss you, big tree."

"I can't tell you how many people stopped by to tell me how sorry they were about the tree and how much they were going to miss it," Wilson said.

When it fell, the tree broke three rafters and demolished the chimney of the house, a summer cottage Wilson's parents built in 1937 when she was a girl.

She was lucky. Six houses in town were condemned or declared unsafe after Isabel, and another five were seriously damaged by falling trees. Two waterfront condos were undermined by the storm.

A tree company removed the last portion of the champion tree's trunk last week.

"The tree is gone. My memories of it are locked in my heart. You just go forward," Wilson said.

The tree may be no more, but a box of its acorns is now in a refrigerator at American Forests' Historic Tree Nursery in Jacksonville, Fla.

The nursery sells about 20,000 seedlings a year of the offspring of historic trees connected with famous people or events, said the nursery's Susan Corbett.

After 90 days of cold stratification, the acorns from Wilson's tree will be planted in pots in a mist house. By next fall, Corbett said, the nursery hopes to have a few dozen seedlings of the former national champion ready for sale.

"Black oaks are kind of rare," she said. "We certainly want to give one to Betty to replace her big tree so that future generations can enjoy the new tree as much as she enjoyed the old one."

To reach FRANK DELANO: 804/333-3834 DelanoBigtree@aol.com

Date published: 11/16/2003