Greater Greater Washington

What's the oldest continuously named street in DC?

I recently embarked on a quest to figure out what was the oldest continuously named street in the District of Columbia. While I initially thought it was going to be a easy task, my initial inquiries came up inconclusive. But I'm tentatively ready to name the victor Water Street NW, a short street in Georgetown.


Image from Google Street View.

Georgetown existed before the District of Columbia. It was founded as a Maryland town in 1751, more than fifty years before the District was established. If any street name from Georgetown's founding were still in use, it would clearly be the longest continuously used street name in DC.

Unfortunately, no street name from Georgetown's founding is still in use today. Here's the original plan of the town:

None of the original street names are still in use, with the one exception of Water Street. Originally, the street we now call Wisconsin Avenue was called Water Street south of the street we now call M Street. Nowadays, "Water Street" is the name we call K Street west of Wisconsin Avenue. But in 1751, this stretch was called "The Keys" and West Landing.

So it's not quite right to say Water Street is the longest continuously named street in DC. At least not based on this information. All of the other "Old Georgetown" street names in use in 1751, like Bridge Street and High Street, stopped being used shortly after Washington City absorbed Georgetown in 1871.

Jump ahead from the town's founding in 1751 to 1796, and more of the "Old Georgetown" street names have appeared, including Dunbarton Street, Prospect Street, and Water Street, which now includes what we today call "Water Street." This is still before the creation of DC, and so they should still preexist any non-Georgetown street names.

All three of those street names continued after the 1871 merger. It's probably safe to say one of those three names is the oldest continuously used street name in DC.

But the question is which of them, if any, is the oldest? We know that the name "Water Street" is the oldest, but was it used to refer to the actual waterfront street before it was called Prospect or Dunbarton?

In a way, we can already dismiss Dunbarton seeing as it has changed its spelling and suffix over the years, going from Dunbarton Street to Dumbarton Avenue, and back to Dumbarton Street. So it's really between Prospect and Water.

But if we're ready to dismiss Dumbarton Street because it once was called Dumbarton Avenue, then Water Street might be the winner after all. That's because, like Dumbarton and Olive streets, Prospect Street was also briefly known as Prospect Avenue after the merger. It appears all the "Old Georgetown" street names that survived the merger were temporary referred to as avenues. Except for Water Street, which doesn't appear to have been renamed.

So barring new information, I'm ready to tentatively give Water Street the title of longest-continuously named street in DC.

A version of this post appeared on the Georgetown Metropolitan.

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Topher Mathews has lived in the DC area since 1999. He created the Georgetown Metropolitan in 2008 to report on news and events for the neighborhood and to advocate for changes that will enhance its urban form and function. A native of Wilton, CT, he lives with his wife and daughter in Georgetown.  

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One, very, minor, slight correction... :-)

"after Washington City absorbed Georgetown in 1871"

That's not quite true. The District government was formed in 1871 and it replaced the individual governments of Washington City and Georgetown. However, Georgetown continued to exist with its own ordinances, street names, etc. It wasn't until 1895 that Congress formally merged Georgetown into Washington.

by Adam Lewis on Dec 11, 2013 10:40 am • linkreport

Cool.

by Jasper on Dec 11, 2013 11:28 am • linkreport

Fun stuff!

What if we widen the lens to the oldest continuously named street in the region?

Alexandria was founded in 1749 with Water, Fairfax, Royal, Duke, Prince, King, Cameron, Queen, Princess and Oronoco (Water was changed to Lee).

by Jay Roberts on Dec 11, 2013 12:11 pm • linkreport

Jay Roberts makes a good point, though I would expand the search even further. Just because Alexandria and Georgetown were the first incorporated areas doesn't mean that there aren't settlements (and road names) that go far back into colonial times.

by Adam Lewis on Dec 11, 2013 12:38 pm • linkreport

I was interested in confining it just to DC proper because it would be nearly impossible to identify the oldest for the region at large.

I considered whether there might be some ancient roads that still have the original names. The only one that came to mind was Reno Rd. since it meanders in a way that suggests it predated the grid. But that is named after a Civil War general.

Is there any other old Washington County road still in use?

by Topher Mathews on Dec 11, 2013 12:50 pm • linkreport

Bladensburg Road and Rock Creek Church Road are the two that comes to mind immediately. Bladensburg predates Georgetown (1742), but until Washington City was built there may not have been much demand for a road paralleling the lower Anacostia.

Rock Creek Church was founded in 1712. (Wow.)

I'm guessing that Wheeler, Stanton, Naylor, Benning, Blair, etc. were named after families that lived in those areas, but they're also Washington County road names.

by Payton on Dec 11, 2013 1:10 pm • linkreport

I bet it wasn't called Water Street Northwest in the 18th century, so if Prospect's stint as an avenue can disqualify it, doesn't the quadrant suffix disqualify them all anyhow?

by Lucre on Dec 11, 2013 1:39 pm • linkreport

River Road might be another really old continuously-named road. Browsing a few online historical maps, I've seen it unnamed on one map and listed as "road from great falls" on another. For the roads that aren't part of an actual settlement, one does wonder, back in the 18th century, both how consistent the naming and labeling of these roads was, and now meticulous map-makers were about capturing the names.

by thm on Dec 11, 2013 1:42 pm • linkreport

Turns out that Rock Creek Church wasn't officially known as such until the mid-19th century, although whether it was unofficial is probably lost to history.

Today's Bladensburg Road didn't exist in 1814; the maps of that era show a road to Georgetown, appearing to follow present-day Michigan Ave.

by Payton on Dec 11, 2013 2:10 pm • linkreport

Close to Reno is Belt Rd. that predates the grid and presently sort of starts and stops through Tenleytown and Friendship Heights. I have seen I on some old maps, it might be a contender

by Mooboyd on Dec 11, 2013 3:17 pm • linkreport

Great question! River Road could be a contender. It's identified as such before 1800. I'd have to look it up, but it could be called that as early as the 1740s.

A few things: the Boschke Map (1857) calls Belt Road "Brookville Road," because before Chevy Chase was a thing, it connected to Brookville on the other side of the line. "Belt's Road" does show up in other accounts of the period.

Loughborough and Foxhall roads both date to before 1850. Chain Bridge was built in 1797, but didn't get its name until 1810.

Personally, my favorite historical detail is Murdock Mill Road, which dates to the 1820s.

by Neil Flanagan on Dec 11, 2013 4:12 pm • linkreport

I thought that I once heard that Little River Turnpike has been called that since 1795 and that Rolling Road dated back to the 1730s.

by Another Nick on Dec 11, 2013 5:23 pm • linkreport

@Payton Is this the map you're talking about?

http://www.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://www.tudorplace.org/images/History/Battle-of-Bladensburg-map.jpg&imgrefurl=http://www.tudorplace.org/War-of-1812.html&h=653&w=556&sz=210&tbnid=dZFHMoOUX7bvgM:&tbnh=94&tbnw=80&zoom=1&usg=__gIuHHt8YhxmM3kR7ztq_LHvLldA=&docid=XlXEUHmcTrGsKM&sa=X&ei=uuqoUr-wCoTsyQHZloDgBA&ved=0CEYQ9QEwBA

Looks like there are two roads, one to Georgetown and one to Washington. The one that goes to Washington sorta looks like it follows the present day Bladensburg Rd. I gotta imagine there was a road connecting Bladensburg with the Potomac that existed years before Georgetown and Water Street.

by Frank on Dec 11, 2013 5:56 pm • linkreport

gives a survey map of Alexandria, VA in 1749. Some of the street names appear to be slightly different (Dukes St, Queens St), but Royal, Fairfax, Cameron, Princess, and King all appear to have their names and spellings preserved in the intervening 264 years.

That appears to be the oldest map of the area that shows such fine detail in the Library's of Congress's archives.

by Joshua Cranmer on Dec 11, 2013 6:51 pm • linkreport

http://www.loc.gov/item/98687108 is the link that got eaten by the comment filter.

by Joshua Cranmer on Dec 11, 2013 6:52 pm • linkreport

Ox Road dates back to 1728 (see http://www.ashburnweb.com/history/ ).

by Craig on Dec 11, 2013 8:37 pm • linkreport

TO PAYTON: Stanton Road S.E., I assume was named for Edwin Stanton (Lincoln's Secretary of War). Blair Road N.W. I assume was named for Montgomery Blair (19th-century owner of the original "Silver Spring" farm estate, newspaper editor, owner of "Blair House" next to the White House, a member of Lincoln's cabinet, and has a high school named for him).

by slowlane on Dec 12, 2013 8:02 am • linkreport

@ Payton, [other] Frank - I believe that the Bladensburg-Georgetown Road would have been Bunker Hill Road, which would have continued along what is now Michigan Avenue, then along Columbia Road to the vicinity of Rock Creek.

There is a gap in Bunker Hill Road between 38th Street and the B&O tracks in Mount Rainier. There is still a remnant of the longer Bunker Hill Road at the Brookland Metro station.

There is an anomalous stretch of Queens Chapel Road between Evarts Street NE and Bladensburg Road in the Langdon neighborhood. Queens Chapel Road used to continue from Hyattsville along what is now Michigan Avenue to 18th Street NE, then down 18th Street to Irving Street, then from there along a mostly abandoned alignment to the stretch south of Evarts Street.

The block of Michigan Avenue between 20th Street NE and Bunker Hill Road is apparently a later edition.

Brentwood Road used to be continuous, running along the present Rhode Island Avenue NE to Mount Rainier.

Blair Road used to connect to Rock Creek Church Road and that was how you would get from Georgetown to what is now Silver Spring before Brookville Turnpike, now Georgia Avenue, was built.

by Frank IBC on Dec 12, 2013 8:36 am • linkreport

Also, back then there used to be a continuous road from Hyattsville to Rockville.

Starting at Queens Chapel Road and going northwest - Ager Road, East-West Highway (just for two blocks), Riggs Road, University Boulevard all the way to Georgia Avenue, then Kensington Boulevard (roadway no longer exists between Georgia and Grandview Avenues) to Veirs Mill, and then all the way to Rockville.

by Frank IBC on Dec 12, 2013 8:57 am • linkreport

For what it's worth, I've seen somewhere that Columbia Rd NW follows what was once an "Indian trail". I wonder if it had a "pre-Columbian" name?...

by Alex Morse on Dec 12, 2013 12:34 pm • linkreport

Columbia Road, Rock Creek Church Road and Blair Road run along or very close to the eastern boundary of the Rock Creek watershed, so it makes sense that these roads follow a major trail from pre-colonial days.

http://www.rockcreekconservancy.org/images/stories/food/rockcreek_watershed_map.jpg

by Frank IBC on Dec 12, 2013 2:05 pm • linkreport

And Wisconsin Avenue follows an old trail that follows the western boundary of that watershed, for the most part. A slight detour along Belt Road, Brookville Road, Bradley lane then back to Wisconsin. And a much larger detour along the length of Old Georgetown Road.

by Frank IBC on Dec 12, 2013 2:08 pm • linkreport

And further out in Maryland, two other ridge trails -

- Arcola Avenue, then University Boulevard (until Riggs Road) - ridge dividing Sligo Creek and Northwest Branch watersheds.

- New Hampshire Avenue north of Adelphi Road, then Adelphi Road - ridge dividing Northwest Branch and Paint Branch watersheds.

by Frank IBC on Dec 12, 2013 2:17 pm • linkreport

@ Frank IBC

Would you happen to know anything about Central Ave that has always perplexed me; it starts at Southern Ave in SE DC ends at Benning Road directly beside the Benning Road Metro and then picks up again about 4 miles later near Langdon & Ft Lincoln

by kk on Dec 12, 2013 3:26 pm • linkreport

@ kk -

I'm not sure but I think those are just two completely separate streets that happen to have the same name.

My mother lived for a few years on Carlton Avenue, just off of the latter Central Avenue.

by Frank IBC on Dec 12, 2013 3:36 pm • linkreport

Klingle Road in DC was put in place so the farmers could take their produce to the docks in Georgetown. Not sure if this was its original name?

by Sally on Dec 13, 2013 4:57 am • linkreport

Another old road that still exists, though just in fragments - Grant Road.

There are at least three sections of it parallel to Nebraska Avenue, between Wisconsin Avenue and Davenport.

East of Connecticut, it exists between 30th and 32nd Streets (and possibly in an alley immediately to the west), and between Broad Branch Road and Ridge Road in Rock Creek Park. And Davenport Street between Broad Branch Road and Linnean Avenue runs mostly along what used to be Grant Road.

"Loughboro Road" (spelling may differ) as shown on older maps is actually what is now either Arizona Avenue or Chain Bridge Road.

Another old one - Adams Mill Road in Adams-Morgan. The actual mill was on Rock Creek right at the Park Road/Klingle Road/Porter Street bridge.

by Frank IBC on Dec 13, 2013 9:26 am • linkreport

What about Rock Creek [Church] Road. It's clearly visible on the following 1793 map http://www.loc.gov/item/88694130

by Kent Boese on Dec 13, 2013 10:58 am • linkreport

Nian Beall's Georgetown land grant was called the Rock of Dunbar-ton to recall the battle where he had been captured

by Bill Offutt on Apr 10, 2014 1:29 pm • linkreport

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