It may seem hard to believe today, but 60 years ago, Nevada and four Southern Maryland counties were the only locations in the nation where slot machines legally paid in hard cash.
The Southern Maryland counties circumvented a governor’s veto in 1947 and individually legalized their slot machines in the late 1940s. Although more money was wagered in Nevada, Maryland had three times as many establishments with federally taxed gambling devices.
St. Mary’s, Calvert, Charles and Anne Arundel counties had a total of 9,300 gaming machines that earned revenue of at least $24 million, according to the Slot Machine Study Committee’s report of 1963. Before these gambling machines were outlawed completely in 1968, they were a key part of Southern Maryland’s economy during this time period, and casinos were the area’s main tourist attraction.
Betting on the Beaches
Calvert County had 704 total slot machines in 37 establishments in 1961, according to a 1962 Baltimore Sun article. Twelve distributors owned all of the machines in the county. The slots brought in an annual income of more than $136,000 with a tax of 0.5 percent on all gross receipts.
“In the 1950s, there was lots of money flowing and people would come down to Chesapeake Beach and North Beach to gamble,” said Randy Hummel, the oldest town council member in North Beach.
Slots originally came to Calvert in 1947, shortly after they were legalized by a referendum vote. According to newspaper reports of that time, there were slot machines located all over the county. Although most machines were legal, there was also a lot of under-the-table business occurring, concealing what many would call the shadiness of the industry.
“We were sometimes told not to make a gambling arrest unless it was cleared first,” retired Prince George’s County police officer Dennis Campbell said. “In the ‘60s, many people went from [Washington,] D.C. to Calvert County. I would see so many accidents from when people would drink at the casinos, and try to make it back home.”
One of the more prominent Calvert casinos was located at the Rod ‘N’ Reel Restaurant in Chesapeake Beach. This building is still standing today with legal gaming machines. These pull-tab gambling machines aren’t classified as slots under Maryland’s current statute. The distinction between legal machines and slots is that permitted machines are loaded with preprinted tickets dispensed in a predetermined order, whereas slot machines now contain a computer that prints tickets according to a computation of odds. This definition was decided in a 2001 court case involving the Rod ‘N’ Reel known as Chesapeake Amusements Inc. v. Riddle.
Pull-tabs are permitted to operate at the Rod ‘N’ Reel under an “NG” license, which permitted commercial use. Other establishments that were not under this license were not allowed to have pull-tab machines unless they were operated by a nonprofit organization.
Chesapeake Beach also had an amusement park that was located within close vicinity of the Rod ‘N’ Reel casino. The park closed down shortly after slot machines were outlawed in Maryland in 1963.
“You have to wonder if the slot machines were keeping that park open,” Hummel said. “My gut feeling tells me yes.”
Another Chesapeake Beach establishment that went through a more recent legal battle of its own was the Crooked I Bar & Grill. Senate Bill 864 was a law passed during the 2012 Maryland legislative session, altering the definition of slot machines. Legislators concluded that the Crooked I’s electronic machines fell within this category and were deemed too similar to slots.
According to its 2012 lawsuit, Crooked I made 95 percent of its revenue from the electronic gambling devices. Crooked I’s owners were challenging the Senate’s bill on the basis that other small gambling venues in Southern Maryland were allowed to still operate with their machines. One of Crooked I’s owners, Christopher L. Russell, told the court that his business was being targeted because they were from Montgomery County, reports from the Daily Record state.
“We’re not part of the old boys of Calvert County,” he told a state Senate committee during the legislature’s special session on gambling in August. “Sorry,” he added sarcastically.
Eventually the courts permitted Crooked I to operate with the pull-tab machines that were almost identical to their Chesapeake Beach counterparts. This did not prevent the business from closing down in March 2014 after nine years, according to the company’s Facebook page.
Chesapeake Beach resident James Trombley remembers when there were slot machines available that kids could play.
“Waiting for the school bus, we would run inside the convenience store to bet our lunch money away on the slots,” he said. “I would drop nickel after nickel into the machine hoping that I would finally win big one day. That day never came.”
A boon for St. Mary’s
In 1961, St. Mary’s County had 1,028 gambling machines in 212 establishments, according to The Sun. These machines resulted in an annual revenue of $254,146 after taxes.
Statistics from the Southern Maryland Studies Center show that St. Mary’s was one of the poorest counties in the state prior to Patuxent River Naval Air Station opening in 1943. Because of this, many residents and business owners were welcoming to the idea of slots and the revenue they could produce.
Gov. William Preston Lane (D) vetoed slots in St. Mary’s in 1947, but the county commissioners voted to tax and, thus, legalize the slots.
“I believe that the total of these proposals proves that it is unwise for the state to permit such matters to be handled on a county level entirely,” Lane was quoted in a press release at that time. “If county by county legalizes slot machines, soon the state of Maryland will be a paradise for gamblers.”
The St. Mary’s County commissioners — J. Frank Raley Sr., Frank Bailey and Matthew Bailey — unanimously voted to pass a 5 percent amusement tax on coin and pinball devices. With 1,000 slot machines in the county, they expected an annual revenue of $50,000, according to a report from their 1947 commissioners’ meeting.
The issue of the legalization of slot machines split the county, so Circuit Court Judge William M. Loker organized a grand jury to investigate. Edward Waring, who was mayor of Leonardtown at the time, was foreman of the 1947 jury. After a couple of months, the jury concluded slot machines would not benefit the county.
“What an example for St. Mary’s, the mother county of the state, to set for her 22 children,” Waring said in the jury’s report. “This grand jury requests that the sheriff seize and impound all slot machines, games, devices and contrivances, by law that shall be found remaining in St. Mary’s County.”
A few months later, another grand jury, with George Quirks as foreman, was organized to either pursue the gambling indictments or investigate public officials for violation of laws. This jury reported they would like the county to be put on a cash basis by keeping slot machines.
After much local pressure, Lane approved a law in November 1947 permitting a voter referendum in St. Mary’s on the slot machine issue. The county commissioners then sent a letter to the public stating that the county would make $100,000 annually from the slots, double what was originally expected.
“Probably no county in the state is faced with more serious financial conditions than ours,” the letter read. “Due to the great increase in population, each week new demands are made upon us necessitating additional appropriations.”
Throughout the 1940s, St. Mary’s County’s population had doubled from 14,626 residents to 29,111. In the December referendum, voters chose to keep slot machines, with approximately 2,245 votes for and 1,254 votes against, the Sun reported.
Slot machines thrived in St. Mary’s after the referendum.
“They were everywhere except churches,” retired circuit court judge and former Maryland delegate John Hanson Briscoe said in an interview with The Enterprise. “St. Mary’s County was really in the dumps. It was known for slots. Everything else was suffering. All of the great assets were sitting there stagnating.”
U.S. 301: ‘Sin Strip’ of the 1950s
Of the Southern Maryland counties, Charles was the most widely known for its slot machines in 1961, with 1,926 gambling machines in 214 establishments, according to The Sun. These machines accounted for $414,000 in the county’s $1,739,916 budget.
Charles County received voter approval for slots after a referendum in 1949. This bill specified slot revenues to be used for a reduction of the Charles County real estate tax, reduction of outstanding school bonds, the county library, the volunteer fire departments and the Children’s Aid Society. The bill limited establishments to 35 machines each, and also required those who profited from the machines to be registered voters in the county.
“Charles County was the mecca of casinos in Maryland,” said Campbell. U.S. “301 was littered with casinos.”
According to old Sun reports, U.S. 301 from Waldorf to the Potomac River Bridge was known as “Slot Machine Alley” or “Little Vegas” during the 1950s. U.S. 301 itself became known as “Sin Strip,” and was rumored to have a slot machine in every building along the road. It was not uncommon for celebrities like Guy Lombardo, Paul Newman, Conway Twitty and Dolly Parton to perform in the area. One article from the Baltimore City Paper described Waldorf as a tiny truck stop town along a major shipping route that hosted slot machines in every building and restroom along the highway.
Slots were also located on the piers in Colonial Beach, Va. Charles County was allowed to put slots here because they were located in the Potomac River, which was under Maryland jurisdiction. There were 600 slot machines at the Reno, the Monte Carlo and the S.S. Freestone at Freestone Point, Va., according to the Southern Maryland Studies Center. In 1958, Maryland banned this type of gambling, passing a law that prohibited “the operation of slot machines in a structure which could not be reached on foot from the Maryland shore.”
Casinos continued to thrive in Charles County for another decade, seeing record numbers in county revenue, according to statistics from the Southern Maryland Studies Center.
Abolition of slots
Even with the economic development contributed from the casinos, the gambling industry brought a wave of economic, political and local opposition. The casinos continued to be landmarks in Southern Maryland until a law passed in 1963 to phase them out by 1968.
An editorial from a 1963 Enterprise article stated, “If more than 3,000 counties in the United States can operate their local governments and businesses without slot machine revenue, the four counties of Southern Maryland can do so, too.”
David Hume, a Charles County resident, decided to run in the 1962 race for governor on a platform that emphasized outlawing slots. Hume’s advocacy put enough pressure on incumbent Gov. Millard Tawes (D) that he promised the “eventual abolition of slot machines in Maryland.” Tawes narrowly won the election.
In April 1963, Tawes signed a bill to freeze all new slot machine licenses and begin a phase-out process. The phase-out did not officially begin until 1965. During this three-year process, establishments were required to reduce the number of slot machines annually.
Some Southern Maryland residents opposed the anti-slot machine legislation, questioning where the counties would get their revenue without them. Several failed attempts by residents and business owners were made to appeal the legislation and delay the abolition.
“The three southern counties of Maryland’s revenues can’t be denied with the vast undeveloped waterfront they have,” former director of the Maryland Department of Economic Development William A. Pate said in a 1961 interview with The Sun. “Do people in Southern Maryland want quick profits or enduring economic benefits that patient planning would yield?”
All slots were removed from establishments by June 1, 1968. Local sheriff offices in each of the counties assisted with the confiscation of the machines.
“Apparently North Beach and Chesapeake Beach really lost their tax base when slots were made illegal,” Hummel said. “It’s been decades building the economy back.”
“After they closed the casinos on [U.S.] 301 down, it was like a desert,” Campbell said.
Former senator John Thomas Parran Jr. (D) surveyed Charles County businesses and submitted a 21-page report in 1968 stating that 85 of the 164 business that responded would be forced to close because of the slot abolition.
The ban initially resulted in a financial void for Southern Maryland counties. County officials considered dog racing as a supplement to the slots. A dog racing track was designed and almost constructed before officials decided this sport would not sway people to come all the way to the southern counties. Horse racing was not considered because neighboring states were already landmarks for the sport.
“The [Southern Maryland] area has potential to be a garden of economic opportunity,” Pate told The Sun in reference to the financial void the counties were facing. “They have to take advantage of their natural resources.”
In 1971, the House of Delegates legalized any form of gambling, including slot machines in 10 counties as long as the gambling was sponsored by a nonprofit organization. Even with this legislation, legal gambling did not return to the southern counties until the Maryland Lottery in 1973. According to the Maryland Lottery’s website, more than $14.4 billion in revenue has been grossed for Maryland to date.
The slot machine abolition eventually led to the proliferation of video bingo machines — essentially still slot machines, but different enough to clear state regulations —in Chesapeake Beach. The Rod ‘N’ Reel, Abner’s Crab House and Trader’s Seafood and Steakhouse were some of the businesses that took advantage of these bingo machines. All of these establishments still have electronic gaming devices today.