Local History: Sophistication & Scandal at the Cabin John Hotel

Nestled between announcements of lost keys and a handkerchief sale at the Rockville Millinery Shop, the Montgomery Sentinel newspaper ran a short but shocking headline: “Woman Killed at Cabin John Hotel.”  While dining at the Cabin John Hotel on the evening of January 5, 1921 Mr. Edward V. Killeen and members of his party “struck up an acquaintance during the evening” with Mrs. Deborah A. Harris and her friends, including Mr. Burnett W. Tanner, and “there was considerable drinking.” As both parties left the hotel to return to the city, it was alleged that Mr. Killeen and Mr. Tanner “became involved in a controversy and that vile language was used.” Killeen pulled out a revolver. Mrs. Harris threw herself between the men in a desperate attempt to stop the squabble. A shot was fired, piercing Mrs. Harris through her hand and heart. She was instantly killed.

Several months later, Mr. Killeen was tried for murder by a jury in Rockville. Two ballots were taken; on the first, three voted for manslaughter and on the second Mr. Killeen was acquitted, to the huge relief of his family and friends in the courtroom. One of his witnesses, Evelyn La Rue, was so overcome by nervousness after testifying that she told others she must take something to calm her nerves when returning to her hotel. The paper reported that she was found in her room seriously ill and died that evening after taking an unknown “dose by mistake.”

Local lore paints a picture of the Cabin John Hotel as an elegant oasis that evolved from a modest snack stand set up by Rosa Bobinger to an opulent resort frequented by congressmen, senators, diplomats and even a few presidents. Society “reveled in the hotel’s charm and setting,” savored its rich European furniture, farm to table food, and gardens. But a number of short news items from the early decades of the 1900s suggest a slightly sordid side of the Cabin John Hotel, including illegal alcohol sales, gambling charges and yes, even murder.

The hotel was founded by Rosa and Joseph Bobinger, originally from Germany. Rosa’s husband Joseph worked as a stone mason on the Union Arch Bridge, while she sold drinks, food and her famous chicken dish to the workers at a stand. Demand for Rosa’s cooking, and perhaps her business acumen, 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 grew from a small German-influenced tavern to an elaborate Victorian folly with over forty rooms filled with the finest furnishings, cavernous banquet halls, intimate dining rooms, an orchestrion, and formal gardens. Across the road, on land acquired several years later, outbuildings included a stable, ice house, gas house and one of the largest asparagus beds in the country. The brick gas house, next to the tennis courts, is all that remains of the hotel today. 

Meals of Potomac bass, oyster cocktails and potted grouse in a champagne sauerkraut, followed by camembert and fancy cake, were served on the hotel’s Bavarian china in elegant dining rooms. The most “popular airs of the day were rendered daily by the orchestrion,” a large music box or organ, and “you could hear it for miles; the music would go all over the park and the whole area.”

Guests meandered among winding pathways bordered by magnolias, wildflowers and flowering shrubs that stretched from Conduit Road (now MacArthur Boulevard) to the Potomac River. Day trippers enjoyed dining at the hotel or cold drinks in the garden’s rustic gazebos, boating in the creek, and live music. John Philip Sousa and his 21 instrumentalists played in the two story cedar summerhouse bandstand. A “Lovers Lane Bridge” was constructed across the canal and one thousand lights were strung up to illuminate the entire gardens from the hotel to the river.

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. Built in 1899, the conservatory-like structure could seat up to 1,200 people. After Rosa passed away in 1893 (Joseph died in 1881), her sons William and George Bobinger took over the Cabin John Hotel and focused on dining and daily visitors to the grounds and no longer offered overnight stays. Local newspapers advertised the resort, a “favorite diversion of all Washingtonians” and regularly wrote about the goings on at the hotel. In the summers of the early 1900s, during its heyday, the hotel and its surroundings entertained thousands of urban “pleasure seekers.” An amusement park was opened on the hotel’s rolling grounds in 1920. But some newspaper stories about the hotel in the early 1900s (not to mention Mrs. Harris’s murder) seem slightly incongruous with the hotel’s lavish, first class reputation. Though the upstairs offered fine dining and European elegance, the basement rathskeller and its slot machines attracted a more raucous crowd.

Several times in 1902 (and later), William was charged with violating local alcohol laws—Montgomery County had been a dry county since 1880—and gambling laws, a pattern of violations that continued with some regularity. “Conduit Road Resort Men Again in Court: Mr Bobinger Charged with Keeping Gambling House,” screamed one headline.

In 1903, legal proceedings were instituted against the brothers by a small group who claimed that the Bobingers agreed to sell the property for $125,000 and had accepted a down payment of $1,000. The agreement of sale was recorded in Rockville. The brothers allegedly refused to complete the deal and claimed they were “not in the proper mental and physical condition at the time the contract was made” and had already leased the property to a Mr. Noonan. A brief 1905 article stated that William and George Bobinger would not be conducting the hotel that season and had sold much of the hotel contents at auction. The hotel would be leased and run as a temperance resort, and no amusements would be operated on Sundays. 

In 1908 (the year that George Bobinger died) the Sentinel reported that the Cabin John Hotel and grounds had been sold to a syndicate that included one of Washington’s most prominent businessmen and the resort would be shut to pave way for a “handsome suburban center” and the continuation of the railway line to Great Falls. In 1909, the popular Palm Garden Theatre, which had been constructed ten years earlier for $10,000 burned to the ground. William and his wife continued to run the hotel until 1914, when they leased it out. Despite the addition of the amusement park, the hotel’s popularity slowly waned, in part due to competition from Glen Echo, rowdy fights and prohibition. After William died in 1926, his wife closed the doors to the hotel for good, its history locked inside. Four years later, in 1931, a suspicious fire destroyed the hotel. 

Once one of the Washington area’s most popular resorts, the Cabin John Hotel had “entertained both prince and peasant.” Standing in the park by the one lane bridge today, it’s hard to imagine this bustling grand resort of sophistication and scandal that once stood in our neighborhood.

By Rachel Donnan

Cabin John Historian/Contributing Writer

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