Karl Wagner, formerly of Dundalk, wrote to me asking if anything remains of Snake Hole. Immediately this question raises the larger issue of just what Snake Hole might be. A bygone local tavern? I certainly remember a few that could have fairly accurately been described as snake holes. And I will exercise restraint by not making the obligatory, and obvious, lawyer joke right now.
No, patient readers, Snake Hole was neither a disreputable bar and grill nor the local chapter of the Maryland Bar Association. In its day, it was the playground for Dundalk’s young and scantily clad. You see, as I was to discover, Snake Hole was a beach.
Way back in 1931, the elders of the Dundalk PTA petitioned the then all-powerful Dundalk Company for a section of waterfront property to use as a bathing beach. Because of the Dundalk Company’s development activity, the population of the Patapsco Neck area had grown from 112 in 1902 to 8,000 by 1930. The PTA felt that this growing community deserved its very own managed and safe swimming hole.
Well, that’s the official story, reported in the 1945-1946 Dundalk Directory, kindly supplied to me by local photographer, historian and raconteur C.H. Echols. But another account in the ever-helpful files of the Dundalk-Patapsco Neck Historical Society has a slightly different spin. According to this account, young men of the area used to frequent Snake Hole, a natural beach on Bullneck Creek where Merritt Point Park is today, and swim sans trunks. In order to preserve public morals, so the story goes, the PTA asked the Dundalk Company to develop the property into a formal bathing beach with a manger who could insure that the people swimming there were not, in fact, naked.
For whatever reason, T.W. Stingley of the Dundalk Company agreed to reserve the property if someone responsible could be found to manage it. Enter J.F. “Don” Might, also known as “Muscles” Might. Muscles, an athletic young man, offered to take the job, and the land was turned over to him to develop.
And to rule. According to several people I spoke to, and even in written accounts, Muscles Might ran Snake Hole, which he renamed the Dundalk Bathing Beach, with an iron hand (one news account from the 1960s used the words “Genghis Khan”).
Might set about to make the bathing beach a successful venture. He cleared the area of weeds and debris and built a bathhouse and a concession stand. By 1945, the bathhouse had been substantially enlarged, and three big rafts were anchored off the beach for use as diving and sunbathing platforms. One raft had “three regulation diving boards, a high dive and several stationary boards,” according to the directory.
Aside from the tyrannical proclivities of Muscles Might, people loved Snake Hole. Echols recalls that, in the ‘30s and ‘40s, there was very little for kids to do in Dundalk. But only a mile from Dundalk Village Shopping Center lay a golden strip of paradise (by local standards) where people could swim, show off on the diving boards, soak up the sun or just see and be seen. Especially during World War II, in an era of gasoline and rubber rationing when no civilian automobiles were produced, people who were no longer able to drive to entertainment could walk down the dirt road at the end of Dunmanway to Dundalk’s own Riviera.
All at a reasonable price. Some recalled having to pay a dime to get in. Others I spoke with did not. This curious result may arise from the rumor I heard that Muscle Might’s near god-like authority on the beach extended to deciding who had to pay to enter. He literally ruled over his tiny kingdom, sitting in an elevated chair with an ever-present whistle and megaphone. The late George “Gooch” Goodman recalled in the 1970s that Might’s “whistle provided good basic training for many of us later commanded similarly in the U.S. Army.”
But through all this, people frolicked and picnicked, boys showed off their moves and girls their scandalous bathing suits, and romance flourished along the banks of Bullneck Creek. Muscles passed away in the 1960s, and the site became Merritt Point Park. Swimming was still allowed for a few years until someone finally asked why the water was always so brown. The realization that this color was the result of rather serious toxic pollution quickly ended the revels of Snake Hole.
Today, the site is part of a Baltimore County park. The old beach is completely overgrown, and only the remains of the wooden diving platform still stands. Today we drive hours through traffic jams, speed traps and the nightmare that is the Chesapeake Bay Bridge on summer weekends just to lie on sand and swim in water. Because we lost our beach. Sure, it was polluted and ruled by a Napoleon in swim trunks. But it was ours. Like so many of the institutions that once helped hold our community together, it’s gone – sunk in the brown, evil-smelling waters of history.
(originally posted 2001)