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How Ward 8's thoroughfares have changed since 1870

In 1870, the areas between the old city and the District line were still fairly rural. But many of the thoroughfares that shape the city today were already around then. Let's look at the roads that connected communities in what is now Ward 8.

1870 map of DC roads. From the DC Public Library.

Until 1871, the District was made up of the cities of Washington and Georgetown while the rest was in unincorporated Washington County. Present-day District neighborhoods like Brightwood, Columbia Heights, Tenleytown, and all land east of the Anacostia river laid outside the city in Washington County, DC. An 1870 map held in the Washingtoniana Room at the DC Public Library shows the roads that ran through the city's early suburbs, including those that crisscrossed Ward 8.

Nichols Avenue
What's now Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue SE, the thoroughfare that runs from the junction with Good Hope Road all the way to just short of the Maryland line is an old Native American path. Long ago it was colloquially known as Piscataway Road, after the dominant regional tribe in the 1700s.

When the US Insane Asylum (today Saint Elizabeths Hospital) opened in the 1850s, Piscataway Road changed to Asylum Road or Asylum Avenue.

By the late 1860s, people were calling the road Nichols Avenue, after Dr. Charles H. Nichols, the long-time superintendent of Saint Elizabeths.

The road carried this name for over a century before taking its present designation.

Good Hope Road
Another major thoroughfare still traveled today is Good Hope Road. The origins of the name Good Hope Road have been debated for years. Some have speculated the road's name is derivative of the Good Hope Tavern that once stood at the modern-day intersection with Naylor Road, while others have told of Native American origins.

In 1924, John Harry Shannon wrote of Good Hope Road in the Evening Star:

"It was one of those gray, level, shadeless roads, bordered by signs, gas stations and ice cream, and sausage refectories which nearly all of us have come to call a good road. It was without the virtues and the charm of a bad road."
Hamilton Road
Further east, the 1870s map shows "Hamilton Road" running north-south. Churches, schools, and cemeteries that once lined Hamilton Road now line Alabama Avenue.

An early generation of Allen AME Church is depicted in the 1870 map near the junction of Good Hope Road and Naylor Road as an "African Church." Today the church stands at 2498 Alabama Avenue, and is notable for a 2010 visit by President Obama.

In June 1908 the District Commissioners formally changed Hamilton Road to Alabama Avenue.

Naylor Road
One road name in use in 1870 that remains on the map today is Naylor Road, named after Colonel Henry Naylor. His early forefather came to America as an indentured servant before the Revolutionary War. As reported by the Evening Star in his January 1871 obituary, Naylor, was an "old and highly respected citizen of Washington county, died at his residence, Mount Henry, near Good Hope, yesterday afternoon in the 73d year of his age."

Naylor was "born, raised and lived continuously on his farm, but was well and favorably known throughout the District." For years Naylor was responsible for the care of the land records of Washington County, duties later performed by the Recorder of Deeds. Naylor was an officer of the militia, holding a commission as colonel, and several times he was a member of the Levy Court. He is buried in Congressional Cemetery.

The communities that were outside the city in 1870 have changed dramatically in the nearly 150 years since. But the basic framework of thoroughfares has remained fairly constant, especially in Ward 8.

While many things have changed, it's sometimes amazing to find things that have stayed the same.

John Muller is an associate librarian, journalist and historian. He has written two books, Frederick Douglass in Washington, DC, Mark Twain in Washington, DC, and also writes at Death and Life of Old Anacostia



Great stuff as usual.

I've always wondered about Uniontown/Anacostia and Alexandria. Let's say in the time that Frederick Douglass lived at Cedar Hill. Was it an option to get to where the Wilson Bridge is now, and take a ferry? Perhaps that was a cheaper option?

by Jay Roberts on Aug 27, 2014 2:42 pm • linkreport

The photo below shows the entire map, including what looks like a ferry line running from Oxon Hill to Old Town Alexandria.

by aces on Aug 27, 2014 6:28 pm • linkreport

"Piscataway" is not just an Indian tribe, but is also the name of a historic village located between Clinton and Accokeek, MD, with a large Catholic church. The village seems tiny and insignificant now, but 200 years ago it had a travelers' Inn, and was the eventual destination of today's M.L. King Ave. if a traveler were to continue south many miles on the long meandering Livingston Road thru rural Maryland. So possibly the road was named after that eventual destination, Piscataway village. The name "Livingston Road" is also interesting. As Jim T. on this forum can attest, there are today EIGHT confusing and separate "Livingston Road's" extending broken up in pieces, from Congress Heights all the way southward to the town of Indian Head, MD. - and according to an 1870's map, the northernmost one, branched off of Asylum Road near the large farm of a Mrs. Livingston. These eight used to be all one connected road, before MD. Highway 210 was built approximately 1945. I would also not describe Good Hope Road as "level" - it's actually hilly. As far as ferry service, there was a 19th-century ferry from "Mount Welby" (the prominent white manor house that's visible today from the Wilson Bridge, to the left of National Harbour). Some say that "Alexander Ferry Road" in Clinton near Joint Base Andrews, was named because it led toward that ferry - although somehow the road is not spelled "Alexandria".

by slowlane on Aug 28, 2014 1:44 pm • linkreport

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