Back in the Jazz Age, the river’s edge was the coolest place to be.
Before Overlee and Upton Hill, when Arlington was still rural and wild, summer meant cooling off in streams and springs. Fourth of July was a time for parades and fireworks purchased just over the county line in Fairfax. There were trolley rides into Washington, D.C., where the Senators played ball. And there were local baseball teams to watch, too. For Arlington’s African-American community it was the Old Virginia Blues, founded in 1910, and later, the Virginia White Sox and the Green Valley Black Sox.
Looking for a beach? There were plenty along the banks of the “refreshing Potomac,” (as described in one advertisement) where people sunbathed, canoed or swam. The area also boasted two amusement parks. Luna Park, which was located near the present-day intersection of South Glebe Road and Jefferson Davis Highway, opened in 1906 and featured, among other things, a shooting gallery and lion tamers. That is, before it burned down. The park was razed in 1915.
In the 1920s, locals flocked to Arlington Beach, a popular spot for swimming and fun near where the 14th Street Bridge is now. “Just think of it!” rhapsodizes an Arlington Beach brochure, preserved by the Arlington County Library’s Virginia Room. “The finest sandy bathing beach at any resort within 40 miles of Washington is located right here, almost at your door.” Visitors enjoyed a diving platform and night swimming under searchlights, with dance music provided by the Washington Jazz Orchestra. The adjacent park featured a roller coaster called “The Whip,” along with aerial swings, a Ferris wheel and a ride called “The Dodgem.”
Located near Arlington’s own Hoover Airport (a precursor to today’s Reagan National Airport), Arlington Beach closed in 1929 when the Washington Airport Corp. bought the property for more landing space. But newspapers reported crowds of 12,000 when it was in its heyday.
Arlington resident Robert McAtee remembers going to Arlington Beach and to a beach in Rosslyn in his youth. “But I was afraid of the water,” he says, so he didn’t go often. The rest of summer passed more simply. Saturday nights were spent at the Ashton Theater on Wilson Boulevard in Clarendon.
“Twenty-five cents to get in,” McAtee says. “If you went to the District, it cost 35.” During the day, they rode bicycles, played baseball, made ice cream or hiked along the railroad tracks.
“It was the country [back then],” reminisces McAtee, now 99, who still lives in the house he grew up in. Although his neighborhood—Arlington’s historic Maywood—is hardly the country anymore.