(Editor’s Note: The following is a series on the men and women who have spent their summers protecting all those who came to Ocean City for fun and safe vacation.)
OCEAN CITY — Edward Lee Carey is the only person to have served on the Ocean City Beach Patrol who can make the claim that not only was he on the patrol, but that he was the patrol – the entire Ocean City Beach Patrol.
Ocean City has been around for years. Since 1875, when the first major hotel was built just off the beach, Ocean City was founded as a haven for visitors seeking fun and relaxation in the sun along the Atlantic Ocean. It was a sleepy little town, with only a couple of places to stay, but it grew steadily as more hotels sprung up season after season. The unusual thing about the growing number of businesses starting up in the coastal town was how many were owned and operated by women. Given the fact that at the turn of the 20th Century, women didn’t even have the right to vote, let alone the freedom to work any job they wanted, it was extremely unusual to have so much of a town and its property owned and operated by women. One of those women business owners was Savannah Dennis. Her mother had built the Dennis Hotel, and Savannah followed in her footsteps, opening up the Del-Mar Hotel.
In 1911, Savannah met and married Edward James Carey. The very next year, “Ned” (as he was known around town) and Savannah would welcome their son, Edward Lee Carey.
Edward would become possibly one of the first “Boardwalk kids” in Ocean City. Two years earlier, Savannah and several other business owners had gotten together and invested in the construction of a permanent Boardwalk along the beach. They used to have one that they rolled up at high tide and stored on the porches of the oceanfront hotels, but that proved too difficult to maintain day after day. Now Edward would spend his summer days traveling up and down the five-block walkway, watching as the tourists came and went and studying the ocean in front of him.
He also saw a lot of changes in the sleepy little resort town. As a child he watched as tourists from as far away as Washington, DC were making the trip directly to the beach by train in under six hours. When the 1920’s roared in, it brought a lot of additional wealth and wild times. People had more money and more leisure time, and a lot were heading to the beach to enjoy both. Women’s skirts were going up past their knees on the Boardwalk, jazz music was playing at dance halls, and on the beach the wool bathing suits of the past had made way for lighter cotton ones.
It was a time when people were taking chances in their lives, and that included in the ocean. In the past, few people ever went into the surf past their ankles, if at all. Visitors to the shore these days were starting to go into the waves up to their waist and further. Unfortunately, this meant people were also getting into trouble.
The lifesaving station in town was run by Captain William Purnell of the Coast Guard. It was the station’s job to save lives in the Atlantic, and this meant not only rescuing ships and sailors in distress, but swimmers in view of the station’s watchtower. The surf washed right up to, and often under, the Boardwalk at that time. By the end of the 20’s, the beach had gotten so narrow that bathers began moving up the beach beyond North Division Street and out of the visual range of the Coast Guardsmen in the tower.
Purnell became alarmed at the growing number of swimmers who were getting into trouble in the surf and, on occasion, drowning. The mayor, William McCabe, was equally concerned about the growing risk to the people who were keeping the town alive. It was 1930 when the two men decided to take action and create a “Beach Patrol” that would be responsible for the safety of their visitors. They turned to Edward. He was now 18 years old and knew the people in town, the vacationers coming to the beach and the dangers of the surf. The town supplied him with whistle, a bike, and a First Aid kit and sent him out to the Boardwalk.
All alone, Edward was the first beach patrol.
Today, everyone is asked to “swim near a guard.” For Edward, the reverse was true. His instructions were to go wherever the people were. Every morning he would ride his bike down the Boardwalk to any area that seemed to have the most people in the water. By this time, it extended all the way to 15th Street, and it was a lot of beach for the young man to cover. Most days, people stayed and swam around Caroline Street, but with each season, the crowds grew and migrated everywhere along the Boardwalk. The growing number of rescues would require more people, so Edward went about recruiting new members to help him serve on the beach patrol. He gathered an assortment of young men including a football player from the University of Maryland, a champion swimmer from Baltimore and some local kids he’d grown up with, including the mayor’s son. With seven guards, the beach patrol as we know it now was born.
Edward and his patrol kept a watchful eye on the swimmers for the next four summers. Then came Aug. 23, 1933. It was called the “Chesapeake and Potomac Hurricane” and it changed everything for both Edward and the town. Ocean City had seen hurricanes before, but nothing like this. One account read, “in the early morning the terrified inhabitants, looking from their windows facing the ocean, saw an awful sight: the waters had receded toward the southward, and where the Atlantic had rolled the night before, miles of sandbars lay bare to the gloomy light. Then, a dull roar came near and nearer, and suddenly a solid mass of wind and rain and salt spray leaped upon the island with a scream.” A wall of water hit the coast. One man and his grandson were swept six miles inland by the storm surge, but somehow managed to survive. When it was over, a giant hole had been carved through town.
Edward watched in the years that followed as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers widened and developed that hole and turned it into the Inlet by adding a protective jetty. Despite the damage the storm had done, the town realized that this new outlet to the sea would be a boom for them. Ocean City would be changed forever.
Edward seemed ready for a change as well. He was 21, and looking for more than just a summer occupation, so in 1935, he left the patrol that he helped found. He would marry Margaret Rogers and move on to other endeavors until 1939, when he would return for three more summers to run the OCBP.
In total, Edward ran the OCBP for seven years, which by current standards is a relatively short time. But with every rescue that is made by a member of the beach patrol today, Edward’s impact is still felt.
Edward Lee Carey spent his later life in Berlin. He passed away in 1962.