Local History: Postcards From Paradise

One reads “Monday morning. You have been good to me—and I know it this morning when everyone is in their fine clothes. E.” The other is scrawled across the front of the image and continues onto the split-sided back: “Dear Mother, So pleased to get yours this A.M. Have so much to tell you and yet nothing very interesting or new…..If nothing happens will reach Laurel about 9am. Shall bring my furs for you to keep this summer….M”

Curious and quirky, these handwritten notes grace postcards from 1909, one addressed to Ohio and one to Gaithersburg. Pictured on the front of each is a colorful, imposing image of the Cabin John Bridge, which at the time was the largest stone arch in the world. At the turn of the 20th century, not only was the Cabin John Bridge a national landmark written about in papers from Washington DC to Tennessee, but the Cabin John Hotel was one of the best known places around the capital. Congressmen and diplomats wined and dined there and even a few presidents savored the famous fish and chicken dinners served in the elegant inn. 

Photos and postcards of the historic landmark were popular at the time. The Washington DC photographer Alexander Yowell had his studio under the bridge, and for many years took photos of weekend visitors according to local historian Richard Cook. One old image shows a stand alongside the bridge, possibly Yowell’s, offering ‘Postcard & Tintypes Bridge Pictures.’

Cabin John becomes noticeably quiet for the month of August as residents escape the oppressive heat, yet in the early 1900s Cabin John was a summer paradise that people escaped to. The postcards are a reminder that it was one of the most well known resorts this area has ever known. (This was a good ten years before JS Tomlinson of the American Land Company began offering lots for sale, the “little farms” of Cabin John Park). 

Local newspapers called the Cabin John Bridge and Hotel resort a “favorite diversion of all Washingtonians” and regularly wrote about the goings on at the hotel. In the summers of the early 1900s the hotel and its surroundings entertained thousands of urban “pleasure seekers.”

The Cabin John Hotel’s beginnings were modest. Joseph Bobinger worked as a stone mason on the Union Arch Bridge, while his wife Rosa set up a small roadside stand alongside the bridge and sold drinks, food and her famous chicken dish. It was the demand for Rosa’s cooking, and perhaps her business acumen, that led the couple to purchase 100 acres of land on the west side of the bridge in 1870 to build a hotel and restaurant.

Their business evolved from a small German-influenced tavern to an elaborate Victorian folly with over forty rooms filled with the finest European furniture and carpets, cavernous banquet halls, intimate dining rooms, an orchestrion, and formal gardens of exotic plants and flowers. The orchestrion, a large music box or organ, was a huge attraction. One of the Bobinger grandsons recalled in Elizabeth Kytle’s 1976 Time Was memory book that a beautiful stained, leaded glass room housed the instrument that came from Berlin, and how “you could hear it for miles; the music would go all over the park and the whole area.” 

Across the road, on land acquired several years later, they built outbuildings, including a stable, an ice house, a gas house and one of the largest asparagus beds in the country. The old gas house, which sits next to the tennis courts, is the only building that remains today. In 1900 the Bobingers added an amusement park that boasted a scenic railway and carousel in an effort to attract even more visitors to the resort. These were the years that the hotel was “blooming.”

Visitors who arrived by the Cabin John street car that terminated in Glen Echo crossed a pedestrian footbridge to the exquisite hotel gardens dotted with summerhouses. Lush landscaped lawns stretched from Conduit Road (now MacArthur Blvd) to the canal and Potomac River. Day-trippers enjoyed dining at the hotel or cold drinks in the garden’s gazebos, boating in the creek, and listening to live music. 

The summer of 1903 offered a new program from Haley’s concert band and the screening of motion pictures in the magnificent Palm Garden, Cabin John’s own riverside theater. The film of the Corbett-McGovern fight was a real crowd-pleaser. “Cabin John continues to entertain great throngs of visitors, despite the cloudy weather. There are so many attractions at this park, in addition to the unrivaled band concerts and the famous black bass and chicken dinners of the club house, it is not surprising that at a season when the city itself has little to offer in the way of an evening’s amusement, that Cabin John Bridge should flourish, whatever the weather” proclaimed The Washington Times.

The hotel’s popularity slowly waned, in part due to competition from Glen Echo, rowdy fights and prohibition. Its doors were shut in 1926 with its history locked inside. Four years later, in 1931, a suspicious fire destroyed the Cabin John Hotel. Looking back from a quiet August day, it’s hard to imagine this bustling grand resort that once stood in this neighborhood, the music of the orchestrion drifting all the way to Persimmon Tree Road.

By Rachel Donnan

Contributing Writer

[See photos by accessing the article in the Village News Archive: 2019 August Newsletter]

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