The land the city was built on, as well as much of the surrounding area, was once owned by Englishman Thomas Fenwick. In 1869, businessman Isaac Coffin built the first beach-front cottage to receive paying guests. During those days, people arrived by stage coach and ferry. They came to fish off the shore, to enjoy the natural beauty of the Atlantic Ocean pounding against the long strip of sandy beach, to collect seashells, or just to sit back and watch the rolling surf.
Soon after, other simple boarding houses were built on the strip of sand, with the activity attracting prominent businessmen from the Maryland Eastern Shore, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Wilmington. They came not so much to visit as to survey the spit. A decision was made to develop it and 250 lots were cut into it, and a corporation was formed to help with the development of the land. The corporation stock of 4,000 shares sold for $25 each.
Prior to 1870, what is now Ocean City was known as “The Ladies’ Resort to the Ocean.”
The Atlantic Hotel, the first major hotel in the town, opened July 4, 1875. Besides the beach and ocean, it offered dancing and billiard rooms to the visitors of its more than 400 rooms, and for years it was the northernmost attraction in Ocean City. By 1878 tourists could come by railroad from Berlin to the shores of Sinepuxent Bay across from the town. By 1881, a line was completed across the Sinepuxent Bay to the shore, bringing rail passengers directly into the town.
The Ocean City Inlet was formed during a major hurricane in 1933, which also destroyed the train tracks across the Sinepuxent Bay. The inlet separated what is now Ocean City from Assateague Island. The Army Corps of Engineers took advantage of nature’s intervention and made the inlet at the south end of Ocean City permanent. The inlet eventually helped to establish Ocean City as an important Mid-Atlantic fishing port as it offered easy access to the fishing grounds of the Atlantic Ocean.
Rapid expansion of Ocean City took place during the post-war boom. In 1952, with the completion of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, Ocean City became easily accessible to people in the Baltimore-Washington Metropolitan Area. In 1964, with the completion of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, a whole new pathway to the south was opened. Ocean City became one of the largest vacation areas of the East Coast.
By the 1970s, big business flourished and gave birth to the construction of more than 10,000 condominium units, creating a spectacular sight of high-rise condominiums that assured every investor of a glimpse of the ocean and pounding surf. However, throughout the 1980s and into the early 90s, the width of the beach began to shrink, prompting the first of a series of beach replenishment projects.
The original pier was destroyed by a fire in 1994. There was a small water park and giant walk-through haunted house with live actors near the end of the pier and a New Orleans-style Hollywood in Wax Museum on the boardwalk side. In the late nineties the Wax Museum was turned into Q-Zar, a laser tag arena. The building now houses the Ripley’s Believe it or Not! Museum.
In 2002, Ocean City undertook the most recent of many, multi-million dollar, beach restoration programs, in an attempt to slow the westward migration of its beaches. The program pumped tons of sand from offshore and deposited it onto the beach. A dune line was also re-established in front of Ocean City’s building line. Another similar project began after the 2006 tourist season closed.
Today, the Ocean City area continues to sprawl westward across the bay and toward Berlin and Ocean Pines. It is part of the Ocean Pines Micropolitan Statistical Area. The resort area now accommodates hundreds of thousands of vacationers a year.
Ocean City now extends just over 9 miles (~15 km) from the southern inlet to the Delaware line. The strip now supports hotels, motels, apartment houses, shopping centers, residential communities, and condominiums. The southern tip houses the Ocean City Boardwalk. The boardwalk is the main shopping district and entertainment area of the town. The boardwalk has many prominent businesses including Fisher’s Caramel Popcorn & Thrashers French Fries. Other notable boardwalk businesses are Dollies Salt Water Taffy, the Atlantic Stand & Dumser’s Dairyland. The Boardwalk has two amusement parks, Trimper’s Rides and The Pier, which was recently renamed Jolly Roger at The Pier, after its sister uptown local amusement park. The downtown neighborhood is marked by Victorian style houses and other older buildings, many of which have been razed in recent years to construct more parking lots, hotels and condos.
Ocean City has a long history of fishing, both commercial and recreational. The town bills itself as the “White Marlin Capital of the World.” During the summer, numerous charter and private boats fish for bluefish, tuna, Wahoo, and other game fish. In early August, one of the largest fishing tournaments in the world, the White Marlin Open, is held. Prize money for the largest White Marlin, Blue Marlin, and Tuna can range over 1 million dollars.
The town supports a year-round population of about 8,000, with the town itself being a major employer. Summer employment in Ocean City rises many multiples above that level, supported by a large number of college-age and young adults—many native to Eastern Europe and the United Kingdom—attracted by numerous job opportunities. In the summer, businesses and government agencies are augmented with about 100 seasonal police officers, plus extra firefighters and other workers.
Tourism in the winter has picked up pace. Where once even many traffic lights were shut down or bagged up, increased traffic from golfers and Ocean City Convention Center conventions has convinced many seasonal restaurants and hotels to remain open. Many bars and restaurants that close during the winter re-open for St. Patrick’s Day.
The city has erected a memorial to the firefighters who lost their lives on September 11. This memorial is located on the boardwalk, about six blocks from the inlet. The memorial consists of a firefighter statue, engraved brick and stone, and a piece of one of the twin towers that collapsed in New York City. Effective 26 April 2010, the town of Ocean City began diverting all of its recyclable waste into the main waste stream. Ocean City’s waste, including all of its recyclable waste, is being incinerated at a waste facility in Pennsylvania in order to generate electricity.