All Aboard For Back River!

“Be a roughneck for once and ride down to Back River,” he suggested. “There’ll be rough stuff there if you want it, but you’ll he safe enough if you’re good.”

(The Baltimore Sun, 7/23/1911)

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”HEY, wait a minute there! Who you shovin’, Bo! Where boutsya walkin’ at, them’s my feet! Take yer time, Sport, plenty more cars! You shove yer elbow at me once more an’ I’ll bounce you one on the conch! Come on, conductor, give him two bells! Let’s go!”

Ding, ding! They’re off. Hanging on the footboard, clinging to the bumper, standing up between the seats, sweating copiously and all thirsty, the crowds start every night from Holliday and Baltimore Streets for Back River, where the rancous-voiced vaudevillians  sing and dance to the accompaniment of gurgling beer and popping corks.

Rough they are, some of these crowds, and trouble looks sometimes imminent. But a close study of the frequenters of the Back River resorts shows that in spite of all their rough end ready business they are a pretty good-natured throng. Half the time when they talk fight they let it go at that, for all are seeking fun and diversion and they don’t mean half they say.

A trip to Back River is worth taking. Once there were two young men standing at Baltimore and Holliday streets watching the crowds board the cars. One of the men was a chap who knew the last names of half the bartenders in town and could tell unhesitatingly where a drink could be had on Sundays. The other was a gentleman, for he never drank too much, and the pleasures of the plain people did not appeal to him.

The pushing, surging throng fighting for a toe hold on the crowded cars interested him. He wanted to know why they shoved each other so and why they were so keen on getting to Back River. He had never been there, so the other suggested that they take a ride and follow the crowd.

“Be a roughneck for once and ride down to Back River,” he suggested. “There’ll be rough stuff there if you want it, but you’ll be safe enough if you’re good.”

So they plunged in with the rest of the mob, squirmed their way through and succeeded in getting aboard the car. They joined In the pleasant persiflage considered ethical on a Back River car, let their fellow passengers walk on their feet, did a little elbow and foot work themselves and were perfectly contented and happy. Everybody was growling at everybody else, and all enjoyed it very much.

The Back River cars run out Lexington street, turn down Caroline street to Fairmount avenue and thence through Highlandtown to the Eastern avenue road and then on to Back River. It is a long and tiresome ride through the city, but when the car reaches Highlandtown the things that are said make the ride worth while.

Somehow or other everybody says something sarcastic about Highlandtown as the car runs through, which shows ignorance, because Highlandtown is a perfectly good place and full of excellent people.

When the car gets to Eastern avenue and leaves the place where the Bay Shore cars slant off on their straight line, the motorman lilts up a good speed, and a cool breeze sweeps through the car. The people on the footboard take a firmer grip and yell to the motorman to go as far as he likes. The motorman jacks up the controller handle a little more and the car bounces merrily on.


Pretty soon the outposts of the Back River resorts are passed. They are roadhouses and on the porches and at the tables under the trees are coatless ones drinking beer to their hearts’ content. A few drop off the car at these places, but most of the crowd stays on, for they’re bound for the parks which make Back River famous. Past Prospect Park, Liberty Park and the ball grounds, that have received so much attention from the pulpit, the car goes until this side of Back River is reached.

There used to be a wagon bridge over Back River, but that has been torn down and a new concrete structure is being built. So the only way to get across the river is to take the car. At this side there are not so many garish lights, but the car almost empties itself.

The places of those who get off are quickly taken by those who have already visited the resorts there and are finishing up the trip by going to the parks. They crowd on as if the car was the last to be run for a year, but they’re all jolly and when they walk over somebody’s feet they act as if they are sorry it happened.

Now we come to a really pretentious place. It is ablaze with electric lights and there are a whole lot of attractions. There are two towering roller coasters on which the reckless ride, there is a shooting gallery, an arrangement, a couple of ring-throwing devices, a carrousel and several other gentle amusements for the guileless.

But nobody stops for them, and the young man who had never been to Back River before wondered where the crowd was going. He, and his companion followed along until they found themselves in a big shed filled with little white tables, among which strong-armed waiters were rushing bottles, while a thirsty crowd spent its time absorbing moisture and listening to a song from a stage at one end.

Coatless gents who were not interested in the show sought to beguile the “kiddos” who strolled aimlessly around. Fancy of dress and dainty of face were these pretty girlies, but they had an eye open to the main chance and a man who looked as though one bottle of beer would be his limit was passed by stonily. If a live wire who made a noise like real money invited the ladies to sit down they accepted his invitation graciously and the world moved pleasantly on.

The waiters belong to the regular type of park servitors. Most of them look as if they do prize fighting as a side line and all have an efficient appearance. Few of them are fat and none is unduly thin. They look clean-cut and strong, and putting down trouble is one of their specialties. It would never do to “start anything” when they’re around, for the rash person who thought he could clean the place out would never finish it.

You don’t have to wait long to be served at Back River. As soon as you find a vacant table and take your seat a waiter in a blue shirt and an apron, with a bottle opener dangling from his belt, is at your side. He leans over, with one foot back in the pose of a discus thrower, and he’s off as soon as you give him your order.

In a remarkably short time he is back with about a dozen bottles on his tray. You get yours and he passes on, distributing his cargo to the people surrounding you. That is the way he and his mates do business. They waste no time in idle running back and forth, for they get the orders in a bunch and bring them all along at one time.

This H.L. Mencken photo was taken at the Hotel Rennert in 1933, after Prohibition was repealed, but we are sure he enjoyed many beers like this at Hollywood Park. ( Frank Miller / Baltimore Sun Photo )

All around are people industriously drinking. To sit at a table with nothing in front of you is akin to treason, and nobody does it. They know that the proprietor is not in business for his health. So back and forth the waiters ply and they are seldom empty-handed.

“Where’s that rough stuff you were talking about?” asked the man who had never before been to Back River.

“There isn’t any around,” replied his friend. “See that guy with the cap and the blue coat? His job is to see that nobody gets ugly, and he’s got all this bunch of husky waiters to help him preserve peace. It would be unhealthy to ‘start anything’ here. Anybody who wants a fight would have to go out in the road to get it.”


Adjoining the beer emporium is the dancing pavilion, and no matter how hot it is girls with wonderful hats glide around the floor with their partners while the orchestra grinds out the waltzes and the two-steps.  Everything there is entirely decorous, for a dancing floor is no place for disorderly conduct.

After a while, when the floor becomes crowded and the heat is having its effect on linen collars, the floor manager, or master of ceremonies, or whatever his title is, steps out in the middle, raises his hand for attention, nod announcee in this wise:

“Ladies and gentlemen, it is very hot tonight.”

Loud cheers greet this, for all recognize the truth of the statement.

“The management of the dancing pavilion, therefore, thinks that there won’t be nothing out of the way if any gent who wants to take his coat off does it, providing he is not wearing suspenders. Also collars and neckties.”

Prolonged huzzas burst forth from the dancers, and some of the men take immediate advantage of the management’s kindly suggestion. Those who are so unfortunate as to wear suspenders take them off and put them in their pockets, trusting to the tightness of their waistbands. Then the dance goes merrily on.

After a while the orchestra in front of tho stage starts up a tune, the drop curtain is raised and a brilliantly dressed lady trips out and starts to sing a song. As she sings she smiles at her favorite in the orchestra, and in the middle of her song she starts up a dance. At its conclusion she trips off into the wings and blows a kiss to the audience, whether she likes them or not.

The people who sit at the front tables are exceedingly polite toward the performers. Not for worlds would they omit a ripple of applause, and it makes no difference whether or not they liked the song and dance. They clap their hands because the lady’s feelings might he hurt if the applause was not forthcoming, and they always accord her four or five hand-claps and a little feet stamping. That is sufficient for an encore, and she comes back.

While the two observers were sitting comfortably at a table they overheard the conversation of two men back of them.

“I’m getting pretty durned tired of working so hard,” one of them was saying. “That guy thinks I’m a horse, and when I get through the day, I want to tell yuh, I’m tired. I ain’t no good for anything.”

Five minutes later, when the two visitors had decided that they had seen all of this park’s manifold attractions, they passed the complaining worker and his friend. He of the plaint was wielding a hammer with might and main trying to ring the bell at the top of the try-your-strength device, and with each blow he used probably twice as much energy as his daily work required.

Across the road, at the other park, was a big canvas poster. It told the populace that Mlle. Helena and her company would present Salome, and alongside of it was an announcement of the world’s champion lady boxer. Inside the park were signs urging the people to wait for Salome.

There were not no many lights in this park and whitewash was used more freely than paint. As the two entered the gate they heard the sing-song of a gamester:

“Try yer luck, boys! Try yer luck! Here’s a half for you, an’ a half for you, and a half for you. Come on, boys, try yer luck. All down? Watch the wheel, boys; watch the wheel!”

In a little shed he stood, twirling his numbered wheel and handing out money to the men in front of him. But the wise were not fooled. The men who were so lucky had no joy in their faces as each turn of the wheel brought them fortune. They were the “cappers,” and they had to give all those winnings back.

Instead of chairs at the small tables, this park has backless benches, and the tables are arranged in a row. Down in front an orchestra of six pieces makes music, and the show is continuous, with short intermissions between each “turn.”


The same sort of waiters greeted the visitors, but the crowd was a little more picturesque, possibly because the space was more limited and more could be seen at once. The waiters rushed around in the same way, though, and everybody was doing his best to soak up all the malt he could stand.

A girl with a long, spangled skirt was on the stage singing a song and grinning at the orchestra. She was a young girl with a pretty face and her voice met with the approval of her audience. When she had finished her song and made her exit the applause was long and fervid. Two beery individuals were so impressed, in fact, that it took a heartfelt “Cut it out, there, youse!” to silence them.

After the lady had come back to sing an encore she came out and mingled with the audience in quite a bohemian way. Two persons with money invited her to have a little lemonade, and to them she told some of the hardships of a thespian’s life. When a singing and dancing team came on she showed her fraternal spirit by telling her new-found friends that “those kids are all right,” and when they were through she clapped dutifully.

After a while the spotlight was turned on the backdrop, on which was painted a street scene in a way that nobody but a professional and gifted sign painter could equal. When the spotlight hit the scene it made it look so much like a street at dawn that one almost felt like he was sneaking home with his shoes in his hand.

Then up went the drop, revealing a Swiss chalet in one corner and a throne at the other side of the stage. On the throne sat a king with long black whiskers, badly tangled. The crowd judged that he was King Herod and their guess was correct. By his side stood two sumptuously dressed houris, but that is all they did throughout the piece.

After the othhestra had started  some hoochee-koochee music, Salome, bare of feet, galloped on. It was no slim, half-starved Salome that greeted the gaze of the audience. She was a very well-fed person, was Salome, and she looked perfectly capable of taking care of herself against all comers. Some suspected that she was the lady boxer too.

Around the stage wriggled Salome earning her salary. She was clad modestly enough for a Salome dancer, and in spite of her weight she could move around some. After awhile she stopped before the Herod person, who announced to her that since she had wanted the head of John the Baptist that she could have it. Thereupon a little door in the Swiss chalet arrangement opened, and a hairy arm handed out the head.

At least it was surmised that it was a head, but about all that could be seen was a lot of whiskers fastened to a tin tray. Salome grabbed the head and hopped all around the stage with it, tossing it up and wriggling at it as she caught it. Then she got through with it, somebody gave the sign, the door in the chalet opened and the head was tossed back to the property man. After this the curtain went down, and Salome was through for the night.

By this time the people in the park were getting ready to go home. Outside, a big crowd was lining the trackside waiting for the cars, and as each came along there was a glorious rush to get aboard. It had all the fascination of a football game, but some of those who got shoved out of the way and had to wait for the next car were a little irked about it.

The two who had gone to Back River to look at the crowd jumped into the fray with glee: With their primal passions aroused, they succeeded in spilling a fat man off the footboard, and when he started to say bad words, they laughed and the crowd laughed with them. Then somebody came along and tried to oust them, but they hung on joyously and took great delight in threatening dire injury to the would-be ouster.

There was plenty of amusement on the car. A man had a tin horn, and every time he blew it the man next to him threatened to push his face in. Then somebody got into an argument with the conductor, and invited him to drop off and settle it in the road. That got everybody laughing and the conductor, passing on good-naturedly, put an end to the row. A group in the back of the car saw a woman in front.

“Yea, kiddo! Where do yuh show from here?” they shouted.

The lady turned around and gave them a withering glance of scorn. “Not with you, you bunch of pikers,” she retorted, while the crowd laughed. “Ding-a-ling for you. Tin-can yourself, you big boobs.”

A minute later the group thus maligned had effected a change of seats and was chatting pleasantly with the lady of the caustic tongue. Nobody was angry.

When the two dropped off at Holliday and Baltimore streets the chap who had never before been to Back River expressed his heartfelt satisfaction. He granted freely that he had enjoyed himself and be swore to himself that he would go again.

This entry was posted in 1910s, Baltimorons, Beer, Booze, Essex / Middle River, H.L. Mencken, Nightlife, Vices and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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