A century ago, the Plimhimmon Hotel was the most famous and iconic structure in the then-fledgling resort town of Ocean City, Md. Old pictures of the place, with its elegant oceanfront porches, expansive decks, and swooping, cone-shaped tower, have a way of leaving us modern folks weak at the knees from yearning for the splendor of yesteryear.
But there is much more than nostalgia to the story behind this hotel. The woman who built the Plimhimmon Hotel back in the 1890s, Rosalie Tilghman Shreve, grew up in plantation-era luxury in Talbot County, Maryland. She was the great granddaughter of Col. Tench Tilghman, who famously served as an aide de camp to General George Washington during the Revolutionary War. She was the daughter of Gen. Tench Tilghman, a West Point grad whose accomplishments in life were all over the map, but usually pointed in the direction of trying to bring prominence and commerce to then sleepy, isolated Oxford.
Gen. Tilghman started up a big military academy in the heart of town. He led a campaign to launch construction of a grand Episcopal church. And he served as president of the Maryland & Delaware Railroad, which sought to deliver a prosperous rail link between Oxford and distant big-city markets.
Home base for this branch of the Tilghman clan was Plimhimmon, a farm just outside of Oxford. As you approach town today along Route 333, you can see the long private driveway that leads to the old farm. It’s on the right, just before you reach the Oxford Cemetery, which is the final resting place of both the colonel and the general.
About the time Rosalie reached her teens, the Tilghmans hit on hard times. Her father sided passionately and publicly with the South during Civil War. One of Rosalie’s brothers died fighting for the Confederacy. The loss of slave labor after that war put the profitability of the family’s farmland in a precarious state. The railroad project turned into a debt-ridden, drawn-out affair, and the Maryland & Delaware Railroad went bankrupt along the way. The famous Tilghmans found themselves in a state of near destitution.
“This family, one of our oldest and most respectable, once very wealthy, are now reduced to that state which is even worse in my estimation than actual poverty, large debts, large pride, large wants: small income, and small helpfulness. They are now without servants…the young ladies on Wednesday and Thursday milked the cows, while their father the General held the umbrella over them to keep off the rain…the general has to harness his own carriage horses and probably black his own boots.”
At age 17, Rosalie married Thomas Jefferson Shreve, a Confederate war veteran who had finished his military service as a prisoner of war on Pea Patch Island in the Delaware Bay. That’s probably where he contracted tuberculosis, which soon became the death of him. At 19, Rosalie found herself a widowed mother of two. Her father died not long thereafter.
At some point in the midst of all this ill fortune, Rosalie made her way to Baltimore and started to run a boarding house. I have seen one report that put it on Madison Street and another that had it located at Franklin and St. Paul streets. According to family legend, there was one day in this period when Rosalie went to a nearby market to stock up on food for her guests. She asked a young black boy at the market if he would help her carry things home, and then she gave him a little tip for his efforts. More on that boy later.
After getting a taste of entrepreneurial success, Rosalie was hungry for more. She turned her attention to Ocean City, which was in the 1890s in the earliest phase of its transition into a popular resort. The summertime-only boarding house she launched there, Goldsborough Cottage, was a financial success as well. Then, in 1894, Rosalie went all in on Ocean City. She bought two lots on the ocean at 2nd Street and set out to build the grandest hotel in town.
Named it after the old family plantation in Oxford, the 48-room Plimhimmon Hotel was a luxurious affair for its time. Among the extravagances that wowed guests were a shared modern bathroom on every floor and electricity powered by the hotel’s own steam engine. That steam engine produced more power than the hotel needed, so Rosalie sold its spare output to nearby building owners.
Obviously, she was quite the businesswoman. But that wasn’t as unusual as you might think: There were actually a number of savvy businesswomen working in Ocean City back then. In fact, Rosalie was one of the key players in the so-called “Petticoat Regime” that pretty much ruled the town in the early part of the 20th century. (There is more about that in the chapter on Ocean City in my first book, Eastern Shore Road Trips: 27 One-Day Adventures on Delmarva.)
By 1926 there were 32 hotels in Ocean City—and 30 of them were run by women. Another of the “Regime” leaders, Ella Phillips Dennis, summed up the situation in town this way:
“Ocean City is 70 percent run by women, built by women, and the men are all henpecked.”
For quite a long stretch during its six decades of operation, the Plimhimmon Hotel was the pinnacle of Ocean City high society, with a parade of prominent Marylanders passing through its doors to enjoy parties, concerts, and, most of all, meals. A “light supper” there might include “broiled spring chicken, corn fritters, butterfish, cold ham, oysters poullette, hominy grits, peas, potatoes, grilled apples, rolls, corn-pone cake and peaches.”
And the topic of that menu brings us to a final twist to this story. Do you remember that little boy who carried Rosalie’s groceries home from the market one day in Baltimore? That errand somehow sparked the beginning of a lifelong friendship between a black man from the big city and a white businesswoman from the rural Eastern Shore, who was the daughter of a Southern-sympathizing slave owner and the widow of a Confederate veteran. The boy’s name was Robert Downs, and he served as the chef at the Plimhimmon for more than 40 years.
The Plimhimmon Hotel burned down in 1962. Today, the Plim Plaza Hotel occupies the space where the Plimhimmon used to stand—and yes, that is a replica of the old Plimhimmon dome that you can see while walking by today
• written by Jim Duffy and posted on Dec. 15, 2018
• copyright 2018, Secrets of the Eastern Shore and Whimbrel Creations, LLC—all rights reserved