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Early
Wartime

For two decades after the Civil war, Virginia Beach was depressed financially and several bad storms hit the beaches, eroding the coastline, grounding ships and destroying even more homes. In the 1870's, Congress established the U. S. Lifesaving Service and by the early 1880's, four small life

saving stations were built, one every seven miles down the coast from Cape Henry to the Carolina border. Small communities settled around these stations and it was from these settlements the resort city of Virginia Beach evolved.

Of these stations, The Seatack Station at 24th Street was the most well known. The growth around this particular station led to the present day resort area. Soon after Seatack was built, a group of Norfolk sportsmen built a hunt club adjacent to the small community that had sprung up around the station. The members soon realized the potential of the area and they formed the Seaside Hotel and Land Development Company. By 1883, they had built their first hotel. They named the area Virginia Beach and built the Virginia Beach Hotel, which could accommodate 75 guests. With visitors to the oceanfront facing a day's ride through the countryside from the closest city which was Norfolk, the popularity of overnight stays grew.

A year later another group formed the Virginia Beach Railroad and Improvement Company. They absorbed the earlier Seaside Company and ran a 19 mile narrow gauge railroad between Norfolk and Virginia Beach. Sixteen hundred acres of land at the oceanfront was purchased by the company and an exclusive seaside resort was planned. In 1885, the beautiful Princess Anne Hotel opened facing the sea. The building was enormous, extending from what is now 14th to 16th street. The hotel had its own steam heating plant and electric light system, which is thought to have been the first in the state of Virginia!

Three years later the hotel was remodeled when the Vanderbilt family invested in the venture after a reorganization of the railroad company. The Princess Anne was enlarged and amenities were added such as a bowling alley, billiard room, tennis courts, children's play areas, hot and cold salt water baths and a large covered pavilion. This started a boom in development at the oceanfront. Seashell covered streets were marked out and beachfront cottages and new hotels went up. The first boardwalk and bulkhead were constructed in 1888, which ran from 12th to 16th streets.

In 1891, the Norwegian bark Dictator sank in full view of the visitors staying at the Princess Anne. The hotel guests and local residents watched in horror as members of the Lifesaving Station attempted to rescue the captain, his family and crew in rough seas. Ten of the seventeen aboard made it to safety. Among those drowned were the captain's wife and their four year old son. The beautiful female figurehead that washed ashore from the wreck was placed facing the site of the sinking as a memorial. In 1962, the eroded and weathered wooden figurehead was replaced by a bronze replica of the Norwegian Lady created by Norway sculptor, Oernulf Bast. The new lady was presented to the city by the citizens of the Dictator’s home port, Moss, Norway. A sister statue was placed in Moss, facing toward the far Virginia shore.

In 1903 the U.S. Coast Guard replaced the small Seatack Lifesaving Station with a larger facility. This newer structure has been registered as a historic landmark and is now preserved as The Old Coast Guard Station Museum. The museum houses nautical artifacts, photographs and ship models that tell the story of the area’s Life-Saving history. The museum can be found at 24th and the oceanfront, just a block south of the Norwegian Lady.

Virginia Beach became incorporated as a town in 1906, with a mayor, city sergeant and one policeman. The resort was beginning to bask in the national limelight of the 1907 Jamestown Exposition in Norfolk when an early morning fire hit the Princess Anne Hotel. A bucket brigade of brave women formed along the waterfront to aid the men who were fighting the fire. Had it been a day later, when the new water system was to come on line, the town might have saved the hotel. It was the end of an era.

The new Seaside Park Casino was built by the Norfolk and Southern Railway and became an immediate draw. With a bathhouse, restaurant and salt water swimming pool, the days were made for fun in the sun. At night the Peacock Ballroom became the major attraction.

The first surfer was spotted in 1912, when James M. Jordon, Jr. received a Hawaiian-made redwood surfboard from his uncle. It was 9 feet long and weighed in at 110 pounds, and could only be maneuvered in large waves, like those from hurricanes or northeasters. "Big Jim", who was recognized as the first man to ride a surfboard on the east coast, would wow the hotel and resort crowds with his surfing ability.

During World War I, local citizens and hotel guests gained a front row seat to the naval spectacle headed to war. Coal-burning battleships called “Battlewagons”, the backbone of the U.S. Navy, were seen sailing in and out of the Chesapeake Bay. After the Americans joined the war, German U-boats patrolled the coasts and torpedoed merchant ships, some within sight of the boardwalk. Crowds would watch as debris and empty lifeboats would float ashore. Ft. Story became known as the "American Gibraltar", arming its positions with 16 inch howitzers to guard the mouth of the Bay.

The Roaring Twenties brought bare legs to the beach as well as prosperous times! A real estate and hotel boom, brought on in part by the completion of a concrete highway between Norfolk and the oceanfront, defined the decade. Virginia Beach Boulevard would remain the main access to the beach for almost the next fifty years. It was during the twenties that the new concrete boardwalk was built, the luxurious Cavalier Hotel was constructed and Edgar Cayce opened his hospital for psychic healing.

With the thirties came the Depression and also one of the two worst natural disasters of the century, the Hurricane of 1933. The township of Virginia Beach was inundated with the highest tides ever recorded here. Cars on Atlantic Avenue were completely buried in sand, homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed causing over one million dollars in damages (in 1933 currency rates). But even in the Depression, people still flocked to the beach, all through the thirties, including the stars! The big band sound came to the Peacock Ballroom and the Beach Clubs, with acts such as Tommy Dorsey, Rudy Vallee, Cab Calloway and Fred Waring. The bands entertained the crowds as they danced the night away.

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