Saturday, July 25, in Dewey Beach, Del., was hot enough to kill dogs, a breezeless Crock-Pot of a day that stupefied sunbathers and smothered anyone foolish enough to try mini-golf in nearby Rehoboth Beach. Dewey vacationers—many of them college-aged kids crammed into group houses—sweated out last night’s beer, soaked up some radiation, and rallied for another night out.

Then two of them bumped shoulders on the deck of the Rusty Rudder, Dewey’s biggest and most popular bar. Four people started fighting. Bouncers threw them out, but 10 others joined in, then 20 more, all flowing past the doormen. Within minutes, Sgt. Cliff Dempsey was radioing for backup to help contain what was evolving into a full-on riot, with hundreds of people shouting, snarling, and fighting on Dickinson Street.

Dempsey knew Dewey cops were vastly outnumbered. There were about 200 rioters to the 20 Dewey cops on-scene before state police reinforcements arrived.

“Ten to one?” Dempsey smirked boyishly later, recalling the fight. “Not bad odds.”

Dewey Beach is 1.7 miles long. From Route 1, the town’s central artery, you can walk a single block in either direction before meeting water—the Rehoboth Bay borders the town on the west, and the Atlantic Ocean on the east. Just one tidal surge, you think, and it would all disappear.

A marquee at the town’s entrance advertises the bands blowing through town that week. The crosswalks teem with girls in bikinis and shirtless frat boys lugging 30-packs of Miller Lite. The highway ahead is a corridor of traffic lights and bar signs. At night, the town glows and hums like a giant bug zapper. Greeting placards bookending the town read dewey beach: a way of life.

The town’s year-round population holds steady at around 300. On summer weekends, the population can swell to 30,000. Dewey by day is a beach town; Dewey by night is pure Dante, a sea of clawing bodies.

(Photograph by Rob Kunzig)

This Dewey is ruled by three bars. At the town’s north end, the Starboard holds sway. A fixture for 50 years, it has both the weight of tradition and the pulse of a classic beach-town party bar. With low ceilings, lower lighting, and Grey Goose Tiffany lamps, the Starboard feels like the kind of place Springsteen could have played before graduating to arenas. A lineup of top-shelf cover bands keeps the crowd moving. Every summer, the Starboard sponsors the Running of the Bull, in which hundreds of partiers don red neckerchiefs, get high-noon drunk, and chase a furry costume down the beach.

Down the street, the Bottle & Cork touts itself as the Best Rock and Roll Bar in the World. While it isn’t, it’s certainly not the worst. The summer lineup gets more eclectic and impressive each year, with the Old 97s, Citizen Cope, George Clinton, and Ween all playing this year. Charming, unpretentious, and shaggy, the Cork’s saving grace is an open roof, which drains the swamp factor out of the crowded shows.

The Rusty Rudder is Dewey’s most famous bar. With three bars and the biggest deck in town, the Rudder has an industrial feel: You wait in line to get in, to get a drink in a white plastic cup, and to follow the crush of bodies wherever they’re going—usually the deck, where another crush of bodies awaits. There’s a line for the bathroom, where urine and beer and vomit commingle in sinks, urinals, and, on busier nights, trash cans.

When the bars empty out at 1 a.m., the police dispatcher calls Code One. Officers, Dempsey says, go from proactive to reactive. Jaywalkers can jaywalk, open containers may more or less remain open; Dewey officers watch the crowds for signs of a developing brawl and make sure drunks don’t totter into oncoming traffic. Dempsey and Lt. Billy Hocker often lean against their cruisers on Dickinson Street, watching the Rudder crowd flood past, waiting for the calls that follow closing time.

(Photograph by Rob Kunzig)

Sometimes it’s simply assault—an argument escalates, fists fly, and the pugilists cool off in the drunk tank. But twice, in the two weeks following Memorial Day, it was armed robbery; and twice, in the same two weeks, it was rape, the first perpetrated next to the Dumpsters behind Seasons Pizza, within easy view of passing crowds.

Dempsey looks like a G.I. Joe, muscular but trim. When some passersby ask him to take off his shirt, Hocker grins and says “They love them some Cliff Dempsey.” Last summer he had two of his ribs caved in during a bar brawl.

Often, the crimes he responds to are so absurd they verge on hilarious. In June, a brawl erupted at Mama Celeste’s, a popular after-hours pizza eatery. A 40-year-old woman waited on the last pie of her $80 order. While her head was turned, a pie disappeared; the last she saw of it was a pair of sneakers bolting out the door. Apparently, a pair of teenagers jacked her pizza.

The woman became enraged, accusing the teens around her of aiding and abetting the thieves, in particular an 18-year-old girl who held a carton of cheese fries. The 40-year-old sent the fries flying and threw the first punch.

When Dempsey arrived, melted cheese and tomato sauce were everywhere, the $80 tower of pizza toppled and smashed into the floor. The woman was bruised and scraped up from her tussle with the teens, and the 18-year-old sported incisor marks on her forehead.

The summer’s first foot chase occurred when Nate Hollis, a seasonal patrolman, pulled over his bike and attempted to flag down a man for carrying an open container of alcohol. The guy panicked and bolted, huffing and sweating his way down a side street. Hollis, a recent college graduate, pedaled behind, waiting for him to run out of energy.

The Dewey cops maintain a stoic attitude. Early-morning runs to Royal Farms or Wawa keep the officers caffeinated and alert. But when an assault call squawks over the radio and they gun the engine down Route 1, their movement and eyes carry the same spark that ignites the Rudder crowds and sends revelers shrieking into the night like bottle rockets: an intense, intoxicating love of Dewey Beach.

The amount of money that changes hands every weekend is staggering. At Nalu, an aggressively Hawaiian-themed bar at the town’s south end, a rail gin-and-tonic costs $5.75. Nalu’s rail gin is McCormick, which retails at around $8 for a fifth and can doubtless be bought cheaper wholesale.

(Photograph by Rob Kunzig)

It’s easy math: Cheap booze in an expensive drink sold at high volumes between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. means big money.

Steve “Monty” Montgomery, owner of the Starboard, defends the markup as standard. You typically charge four times the cost of the drink, he says, to compensate for the various band and licensing fees incurred in the course of a given night. While the Starboard charges $6.50 for a gin-and-tonic, it serves it in a 16 oz. cup—and you get Tanqueray.

“I just don’t believe in crappy stuff,” says Montgomery.

While the bars are loaded, the town isn’t. With a negligible tax base—no gross receipts tax on businesses, and a property tax that applies only to rental dwellings—Dewey’s government depends on housing transfer taxes, building permits, and parking fines. And in this recession, Dewey is hurting. In 2008, the town ran a record $800,000 deficit. While July 2009 nudged the town into the black, it seems that the only business not making a fortune in Dewey Beach is the municipal government.

Dewey Commissioner Diane Hanson has served on the town council for two years and is now shooting for mayor. A cornerstone of Hanson’s campaign is a staunch opposition to redevelopment of the Ruddertowne property, which would create a commercial-residential complex that would change a lot of things in Dewey—for one thing, tearing down the Rusty Rudder. For another, Its plans call for violating the town’s 35-foot height limit, the better to load in dozens of condos, a commercial space, and a parking garage.

“I feel like it would totally change the character of our town,” she says. And a large majority of residents agree—in a Sept. 2008 referendum 86 percent of Dewey voters approved enshrining the 35-foot height limit in the town’s charter, where it would be invulnerable to appeal from businesses.

“I think that’s a really high number of people to agree on anything,” Hanson says.

Hanson’s vocal support of a 35-foot height limit has spread the suspicion among business owners that she’s anti-bar. Not so, she protests. “There’s nothing wrong with bars,” she says. “So long as the people who go there show a little respect. I mean, we have children here. My mother comes here—she’s 94. And people are walking down the street using the F-word.”

Hanson says she’d like to work with the bars to create a restaurant district, a nightlife defined by culture and not by debauchery. Interestingly, Dewey Beach Enterprises—the developer targeted by the 35-foot height limit—just finished overhauling the restaurants that comprise the current Ruddertowne complex, creating an older, more mature nightlife. If Hanson’s vision will be executed anywhere in Dewey, it will be at Ruddertowne.

But Dewey is nothing, Hanson says, if not a paradox.

“You walk to the ocean and you see the bay. It’s like paradise,” she says. “But right now, it’s more like paradise lost.”

In the summer of 2008, truTV, a reality television network, sent a camera crew to Dewey Beach. The resulting show, Surf & Rescue: Dewey Beach, cobbled together delirious vignettes portraying Dewey as a booze-fueled war zone, complete with DUIs, an alcohol-poisoning ambulance call, an aspiring nurse nailed with blow in her purse, and, for the moms, the story of a 7-year-old lost among a crowd of drunks.

The local reaction was varied but vehement. While some residents raged against the show’s focus on the hedonistic nightlife, others felt the town got its just desserts. When the show aired that September, callers flooded local talk radio station WGMD to weigh in on Jared Morris’ morning show—did truTV exploit Dewey, or was the town exploiting itself?

“I don’t know what Dewey’s idea was in promoting this,” growled one caller. “Unless what they want is underage drinking, girls kissing, and lifting their tops.”

“Marketing Dewey to families?” mused another. “Forget it now. It made the town look delirious with alcohol.”

The truTV crews captured some of their prime shots during the Running of the Bull. The drunk girl paramedic’d away had been drinking since 10 a.m., S.O.P. on the unofficial holiday; the sweet 7-year-old was lost among the runners.

At this year’s Running of the Bull on July 11, thousands of screaming people start filling the Starboard’s parking lot around 9 a.m. They wear red bandannas, shirts, hats, or sashes.

(Photograph by Rob Kunzig)

Because the Running of the Bull raises money for Dewey Beach Police and Rehoboth Volunteer Firefighters, town officials let Montgomery bump his bar out to the sidewalk. Bullfighters eat pulled pork and beef brisket sandwiches while swilling Bud Light from shiny blue aluminum bottles. Some wear foam horns.

By noon, most people are seriously hammered. State and local cops watch the crowd from the sidewalk, counting down the minutes till 2 p.m., when the bull was scheduled to stagger its way toward Dagsworthy Avenue.

On the announcer’s podium, Montgomery, the day’s MC, stands with state Rep. Pete Schwartzkopf and a man whose costume was clearly aiming for “matador” but instead reads as “Elvis.” Montgomery watches the gears turn from behind mirrored sunglasses. A few minutes shy of 2, an old yellow cab rounds the corner and pulls alongside the Starboard. A bulky man wearing a shirt with bull security in big block letters on the back opens the door, and out staggers what looks like a hairy sleeping bag with a cartoon bull head, its two halves moving in disharmony. The crowd roars.

Montgomery reminds the crowd to stay within the cones, to keep away from the surf and, in general, be safe. While the bull’s two halves hold a powwow, police get into position, the radios on their shoulders squawking. Schwartzkopf takes the mic, starts the countdown, and unleashes the crowd, which, per Montgomery’s orders, walks across the first two lanes of highway before breaking into a giddy trot.

The crowd swarms down Route 1, hooks right on Salisbury Street, and spills onto the beach. Lifeguard Captain Todd Fritchman watches from an ATV, radioing the lifeguards stationed down the beach whose job it will be to keep the revelers from accidentally drowning.

The group congeals on the beach, clapping their sandals together and shouting “WAIT-FOR-THEBULL! WAIT-FOR-THEBULL!” followed by “WHERE-IS-THEBULL! WHERE-IS-THEBULL!” At last, the bull’s security detachment crests the dune, followed by the bull itself. The mob screams its approval. Dozens of people, apparently too enthralled to stay put, are already sprinting down the beach, their heels kicking up roostertails of sand. Coded signals in whistle blasts pass from lifeguard stand to lifeguard stand.

“We raised over $6,000 this year,” Montgomery says after the weary bull staggers past the finish line. At the going rate of Bud Light in Dewey—$4, on average—he undoubtedly cleaned up as well. It’s as good a business model as any for Dewey Beach. Profit wildly, but create culture—even if it’s a culture of howling hedonism. Especially if.