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History


A streetcar used to run from H Street to Berwyn Heights, near College Park

Like those in a lot of other US cities, DC and surrounding areas' best-known streetcar lines tend to be ones where service survived into the 1950's and 1960's. However, routes like the Washington, Gretta, & Spa Spring, which perished during the 1920's heyday of streetcar service, often had a lasting effect on the urban landscape.


A map of the WSS&G streetcar line. Click for a larger version. Map by the author using OpenStreetMap.

Land speculation helped birth the streetcar

The town of Berwyn Heights, Maryland began in the 1890's as a subdivision on the east side of the B&O Railroad tracks (now the MARC Camden Line) just south of Branchville Road (now Greenbelt Road). However, development was slowed by competition from subdivisions on the west side of the B&O tracks, which were served by the Washington, Berwyn, & Laurel Streetcar starting in 1900.

In 1905 a group of land speculators, including Ohio Congressman Samuel Yoder and Benjamin Stephen, the owner of Gretta, the estate that would later become Riverdale Heights, bought up most of the available land in Berwyn Heights. They then obtained a charter for a streetcar line to be called the Washington, Spa Spring & Gretta, which would serve Bladensburg (then home to a well known spring with supposedly curative waters), the Gretta estate, and Berwyn Heights.

Construction on the WSS&G progressed slowly, in part due to funding difficulties: Congressman Yoder funded nearly the entire project with his personal assets. In August 1910, a single-tracked line along Bladensburg Road from 15th and H Streets NE to the Bladensburg School (now the Prince George's County library system's Bladensburg Branch) finally opened.

An extension to Berwyn Heights

After the opening of the line to Bladensburg, work began to construct an extension along Edmonston Road. To save money, this portion of the line wasn't electrified, and passengers were instead required to transfer to "Edison-Beach" battery-powered cars.

The Berwyn Heights extension was opened in 1912, but the Edison-Beach cars had difficulty climbing the final hill from Good Luck Road into Berwyn Heights—some passengers reported being asked to get out and push—and service was soon truncated to Brownings Road in Riverdale.


58th and Berwyn, the northern terminus of the streetcar in Berwyn Heights. It's now a quite suburban intersection. Photo by the author.

In October 1913, the Washington Railway & Electric Company (then one of Washington's two main streetcar systems, and the operator of the competing Washington, Berwyn, and Laurel line) agreed to operate the line as an extension of its H Street Line. Although the new operators electrified the entire line to Berwyn Heights, they decided that patronage was insufficient to justify through service, and the practice of requiring a transfer at Bladensburg School continued.

The Washington, Gretta, & Spa Spring Streetcar stops running

In 1916, the WSS&G corporation went bankrupt and the line was sold to the Washington Railway. The line continued to be unprofitable, and in 1921, Washington Railway terminated service north of Riverdale Heights.

Two years later, the District of Columbia decided to pave Bladensburg Road and required a payment of $150,000 to maintain the streetcar tracks. Given the unprofitability of the line, the company instead replaced streetcars with buses on the Bladensburg Road section of the line in April 1923. However, the Public Service Commission did not immediately allow buses on the Bladensburg School-East Riverdale section of the line, and it remained in operation as a streetcar shuttle until April 1925.

Finally, in 1949, Capital Transit—by then the operator of DC's unified streetcar network—replaced the 10/12 H Street-Benning Road line, which the WSS&G had served as a branch of, with the X2 bus. The H Street-Benning Road line had been one of the first streetcar lines in the city, and was the first of the city's major trunk lines to be completely replaced by buses.

History


Watch how cities have spread over the last 6000 years

Those of us who love cities might think of the world as a collection of them, but it obviously wasn't always that way. This video shows a timeline of how cities popped up and spread across the globe, starting with Mesopotamia in 3700 BC.


Watch cities pop up as humans move across the globe. Video by Max Galka.

Max Galka of Metrocosm used extensive data on urban settlements recently out of Yale University to create the video. In it, cities appear at the time they were first documented, with the earliest cities' dots being yellow and the newest ones being red.

Galka also gives context by noting different historic events at the bottom of the map, like the beginning of the Egyptian Kingdom and the formation of different dynasties in China.

The first North American city that appears on the map is St. Louis, in 1000 AD, about a hundred years before the first crusade.

What surprises you about this video map?

History


Here's why Arlington's streets have the names they do

Did you know there's a rhyme and reason to how Arlington County's streets are named? Here's an explanation of Arlington's street-naming system.


Photo by Arlington County on Flickr.

While Arlington was originally part of the District of Columbia (until 1846), it was not incorporated in the plan of Pierre L'Enfant. Unlike its larger neighbor, Arlington's streets don't follow a strict grid, but development has still followed a somewhat rectilinear pattern. The street-naming system dates back to 1932, and was undertaken in order to convince the Postal Service to allow "Arlington" as the mailing address for the entire county.

The county is divided into northern and southern sections by Arlington Boulevard, a major east-west thoroughfare which bisects the county.

In contrast to Washington, east-west streets are numbered. Since Arlington does not have quadrants, but instead has halves, most streets are identified with "north" or "south" relative to Arlington Boulevard. The directional suffix follows numbered streets, but precedes named streets. Numbered streets increase with distance from Arlington Boulevard in both directions. Accordingly, it is flanked on the north by First Street North and on the opposite side by First Street South. Numbered streets are usually "streets," but when additional streets fill in blocks, "Road" and then "Place" is used.

Named streets run north-south. Like DC, the first letter of the street name and number of syllables indicates where in the grid a street is located. The origin for the named streets is the Potomac River. The first "alphabet" is made up of one-syllable words, the second of two-syllable words, the third of three-syllable words, and the fourth is just one street: North Arizona Street. As distance from the Potomac increases, letters increase successively.

Instead of using "Place" to indicate a second street of the same letter filling in the street grid as DC does, Arlington just uses another word of the same first letter and syllables. In that regard, Danville Street could be followed by Daniel Street. A look at a progression of successive letters shows the strata of the alphabets in Arlington's street grid.

None of Washington's state-named avenues continue into Virginia, so Arlington uses a different methodology for indicating major streets. Like the street bisecting the county, major east-west roads are typically called "boulevards". Examples include Wilson and Clarendon Boulevards.

Major north-south streets are often called "drives." Examples include Walter Reed and George Mason Drives.

Many roads pre-date the addressing system of 1932, and have kept their historical names. These include "roads," highways," Spout Run Parkway, and Columbia Pike.

This post first ran back in 2009. Since the history hasn't changed, we thought we'd share it with you again!

History


The story behind Georgetown's street grid

If there is one thing that people love the most about Georgetown, it's the small blocks filled with 18th and 19th century homes. But how exactly did it come to be that way?

Much of the land that would eventually become Georgetown was originally granted to a Scotsman named Ninian Beall in 1703. Beall named this 705 acre plot of land the Rock of Dumbarton in a reference to his native country.

The location of the land that would become Georgetown became an important aspect to the town's early development. Located as it is just south of Little Falls, this land is the farthest north that ocean-bound ships could reach on the Potomac. As such, it was a natural location for a tobacco port. Landowner George Gordon constructed a tobacco inspection station along the Potomac shore and soon a thriving commercial port developed.

In 1751, merchants of this new tobacco port successfully lobbied the Maryland colonial legislature to authorize the creation of a new town. The men chosen as commissioners of this new town approached George Gordon and George Beall (son of Ninian) to purchase their land. The Georges were not interested in selling their land and sued the commissioners for condemning their land. A jury full of Bealls and Magruders (ancestors of the Magruders grocery store) awarded the Georges 280 pounds.

Whether the decision to name it Georgetown was in honor of these two gentlemen, or the reigning monarch, King George II, is a fact lost to time.

The commissioners then had the land surveyed and broken up into 80 lots. Gordon and Beall were given the privilege of first selecting two lots each. Gordon chose his first. Beall refused to recognize the legitimacy of the commissioners and decline to choose his lots, at least until faced with the possibility of receiving nothing, at which point he chose two lots under extreme protest.

As you can see below, the blocks that were first laid out for the town only encompasses a few of the central blocks of modern Georgetown:

The layout of Georgetown was a typical modest colonial town. The 80 lots were separated by only two streets and two narrow lanes. In the 1780s, several additions were annexed to the town. As you can see from this map of 18th century Georgetown, the street grid that still exists was already layed out, despite the fact that there were not many buildings off of Bridge St./Falls St. or High St. (what are now M St. and Wisconsin Ave. respectively):

While the physical structures hadn't filled in the street grid by the 1790s, Pierre L'Enfant nonetheless concluded that Georgetown was too developed with its own town plan to be incorporated into his Baroque plan for the city of Washington.

This design independence has survived to the present day as Georgetown lacks the circles and radials of the rest of downtown Washington. What didn't survive was the separate street naming scheme. With the exception of a few streets, Georgetown's streets were renamed to be consistent with the Washington street naming scheme when it was merged with Washington city in 1872.

Much of this information comes from the Chronicles of Georgetown.

This post originally ran back in 2010, and was crossposted at the Georgetown Metropolitan. A recent visit to Georgetown inspired our staff editor to dig it back up!

History


One of Silver Spring's earliest schools had a merry-go-round, boat rides, and a carnival

Once houses had gone up in postwar suburbs, communities needed stores, schools, and other services. Sometimes builders provided these, but other times it was up to the public sector or entrepreneurs. That's how Silver Spring's Alexander School came to be.


The Alexander School, c. 1955. The Ferris wheel, bought used from a Pennsylvania carnival, is in the foreground. Photo courtesy of Kaye Kendall Giuliani.

Meeting suburbia's need for childcare and schools

In Silver Spring's Four Corners community at the intersection of Colesville Road and University Boulevard, suburbanization began in the 1920s and accelerated through the 1930s and into the war years. By 1942 enough families had bought homes that Montgomery County met the demand for new schools by building Four Corners Elementary School. Plans to build 238 temporary houses for wartime workers exacerbated the need for more educational infrastructure.

For younger children and to provide daycare during the summer, Hilda Hatton bought a six-acre former farm, one of the area's last remaining large agricultural parcels, and founded the Benjamin Acres School. Named for the colonial land patent out of which the property was carved, the Benjamin Acres School opened in the summer of 1943 as a day camp and nursery school for children ages four to 14.

Hatton operated the school until 1947 when she relocated to Annapolis and reopened it as a boarding school. She sold the property, which by that time included a two-story residence that had been converted into a school building and a swimming pool, to Ernest L. Kendall. Kendall (1906-1990) was an Oklahoma native and educational entrepreneur who had just resigned from his position as principal of the Capitol Page School in Washington.


Ernest L. Kendall teaches a history class at the Capitol Page School. Library of Congress photo.

Ernest Kendall goes to Washington

Kendall arrived in Washington in early 1931. He was a graduate of Southwestern Oklahoma State University. After school he began working in public education and by 1930 he was the superintendent of schools in Granite, a small Oklahoma town south of his birthplace, Weatherford. Kendall worked briefly in sales while he acquired his District of Columbia teaching credentials while studying part-time at the George Washington University.

Desperate for full-time employment, Kendall approached Oklahoma Representative James McClintic. The legislator suggested Kendall join the Capitol police force or that he start a school for pages. Kendall chose the latter. The District of Columbia School Board accredited Kendall and the school, a dank space in the Capitol basement, where Kendall developed a rigorous curriculum and extracurricular activities, including sports teams.

In 1946, Congress assumed control over page education and transferred administration of the Page School to the District of Columbia. Kendall received a contract to continue as the school's principal through June 1947. At the end of that term, Kendall and all of the other staff were dismissed. Four months later, he bought Hatton's Benjamin Acres School, renamed it the "Alexander School"—to get a top listing in telephone directories—and set about navigating Montgomery County's tortuous regulatory mazes to transfer the existing school license and to embark on an ambitious construction program to enlarge the school's facilities.

"He had a vision of what he wanted to have as school. So he wanted [it] to be a wonderland type of place," recalled Kendall's son Fred, who began his career as a camp counselor and who later became the Alexander School's principal. "It was exciting because there was a swimming pool there. Beautiful, beautiful grounds with old trees and things." Kendall built age-specific playgrounds and added an auditorium wing to the existing building. "He added a merry-go-round. He added a boat ride, like you see at carnivals and stuff, smaller version. And a merry-go-round and a Ferris wheel, small [in] nature," explained Fred Kendall.


Former Alexander School/North Four Corners Park Location. Base map from Google Maos, inset from Sanborn Fire Insurance.

Suburban amusement park, or school?

The Kendalls believed that their students needed a well-rounded education that included rigorous coursework, lots of healthy play, and exposure to the performing arts. The auditorium Ernest Kendall built was outfitted with professional lighting and sound systems. During the school year children performed in elaborate productions and in summers it was filled with cots for naptime.

Alexander School students and campers and many Four Corners residents recall an unparalleled recreational facility. Students got a quality education and exposure to the arts. Parents found a safe place for their children during the workday. And, Four Corners children used the school grounds after hours as an unofficial park.

"The school was not so much elitist as it was working parents," explained Fred Kendall. "His idea was that he had customers or clients who had to go to work. And if they had to go to work, they had to have childcare." A 10-bus fleet outfitted with radios provided transportation to the school. Kendall remembers that the school opened very day, even in bad winter weather: "If you had to go to work, we were going to send the bus."


Newly renovated North Four Corners Park and former Alexander School site. Photo by the author.

Ernest Kendall sold the school in 1983 to the Yeshiva High School of Greater Washington. Twelve years later it was again sold, this time to the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission as expansion space for the neighboring Four Corners Local Park. The expansion plans, which included constructing a large soccer field, stalled for more than a decade as neighborhood activists opposed the agency's plans. During that time the vacant lot became a fallow field that neighborhood residents used as a playground and popular dog walking location.

Construction on the new park began in 2013 and was completed in 2015. The new space represents not only an improved Montgomery County amenity—increased parklands—but it also marks a new era of suburban recreation in the space first begun nearly a century ago.

History


Read about Silver Spring's ties to Tammany Hall

For a short time before the turn of the 20th century, a little bit of New York political intrigue played out in rural Montgomery County. A man named Carolan O'Brien Bryant, who tried (and failed) to build an estate in Four Corners also had ties to one of our nation's paragons of political corruption.


New York intrigue found its way to Silver Spring in the 1880s. New York Times, July 20, 1877.

In 1887, O'Brien Bryant began buying large farm tracts from an old Washington family, the Beales. Bryant began building a large estate where he hoped to enjoy old age and host national politicos drawn to Washington. Instead, his brief time there turned out to be a false start in the transformation of Montgomery County agricultural communities into inner-ring Washington suburbs.

Though nothing remains of Bryant's sprawling Four Corners estate, it is an intriguing chapter in Silver Spring history.

Born Carl Bryant, his entire family changed their names in 1859, adding the O'Brien middle name. Bryant first appears in the historical record in the 1860s working as a journalist in New York City. He became part of the Democratic political machine, serving in municipal office and the state legislature before running unsuccessfully for Congress in 1864. During the 1870s Bryant found himself on the edges of the infamous Tammany Hall's Tweed ring as a self-described confidant of William "Boss" Tweed.

"That Infamous Villain, Carolan O'Brien Bryant"

Bryant lived a life shrouded in mystery and bedeviled by controversy. In New York he made a living as a journalist, yet people speculated whether he was an attorney or a real estate speculator. Though he had friends and relatives among New York's elite business and political crowds, most people beyond his immediate family described him as a dishonest cad.

Even Bryant's appearance was a topic ripe for gossip. "He possessed an uncommon personality, and for a long period affected an oddity of attire and manner that accentuated his otherwise unique appearance," wrote the New York Times in Bryant's obituary. "He usually wore his hair very long, and in later years it fell in profuse folds about his shoulders." A witness in a lawsuit against Bryant once told the court, "He is a peculiar looking man, and any one who had seen him once would know him again."

In 1866 Bryant married the daughter of millionaire Manhattan tobacconist, John Anderson. Amanda Anderson Bryant died less than a decade into their marriage and Carolan began raising their two daughters and son alone, splitting his time between homes in Tarrytown and the city. Anderson died in late 1881, leaving two wills and kicking off more than a decade of legal battles over the estate, most of which turned on Anderson's alleged insanity.


Cover from the 800-page New York appeals court case file in the Grand Union Hotel Case.

Anticipating his windfall via his daughters, Bryant moved with them in mid-1882 into a Manhattan hotel. The owners extended Bryant credit for room and board in exchange for a promise of payment with interest once Anderson's estate settled. They also fronted money for the children's education, clothing, and other expenses. "I well recall the circumstances under which the defendants, Bryant, father and daughters, came to [the] Grand Union Hotel," owner James Shaw told a New York court in 1885. "They were in destitute circumstances."

After three years, in 1885, the hotel owners wanted to collect the debt, which they claimed exceeded $19,000. They had learned through newspapers that funds from Anderson's estate for the Bryants were available and Bryant had refused to settle his accounts.

A sumptuous estate

The Bryants left the hotel in April 1885. By late 1887, as the hotel lawsuit was working its way through New York appellate courts, Bryant was in the Washington area. He bought two large tracts in Four Corners at the intersection of Bladensburg (now University Boulevard) and Colesville Roads. At the time, Four Corners was a sleepy rural crossroads hamlet with a few stores, a church, and homes.


Four Corners, c. 1894, showing Bryant's properties. Library of Congress map.

Bryant quickly began preparing the land to build a large mansion. He constructed a sawmill and used an existing home on the property as temporary lodging while construction proceeded. Local legends preserved in early 20th century newspaper stories suggest that Bryant salvaged stone and wood from New York mansions and recycled the materials in his new estate. The New York Times described it as a "large and expensive home" and the Washington Evening Star wrote that Bryant had built "a costly and elaborate house [with] fine grounds all around it." Others described it as a "palatial residence."

No photographs of Bryant's Four Corners mansion are known to have survived. Observers described it as lavishly furnished with a full library and art works. As for the grounds, one account noted that Bryant had built a conservatory.


New York World, November 8, 1894.

In 1894, Bryant lost the final Grand Union Hotel appeal and the New York press reported on his "$22,000 Board Bill." Despite the legal and financial setback, Bryant continued work on the Four Corners property. Three years later, he decided to sell the unfinished manse to a trio of Washington speculators.

The sale was completed August 13, 1897; less than a month later, Bryant died in Washington. Born sometime in the late 1830s, he was in his sixties when he died. His daughters, Amanda and Agnes, inherited what was left of his estate, and they lived the remainder of their lives in Allegany County, New York.

Bryant's mansion was destroyed in a "statutory burning"

As for Bryant's Four Corners mansion, it burned to the ground one week after his death. Officials determined that the fire was arson and the new owners were arrested in Washington and brought to Rockville for trial on charges of "statutory burning." Shortly after their arrest, two additional men were arrested and charged with conspiring to blackmail one of the accused arsonists. The criminal and civil cases spanned more than a decade.


Woodmoor subdivision, Silver Spring. Photo by the author.

Bryant and his daughters are buried in Rock Creek Cemetery. By the second decade of the twentieth century, the former mansion site was little more than an overgrown ruin. The property passed through several owners until the 1930s when a Washington developer bought it and began developing the Woodmoor subdivision. Once conceived as a grand Victorian suburban retreat, Bryant's property became an ordinary residential subdivision with no physical clues to its storied past.

History


Where DC used to bar black people from living

One of many pieces of America's shameful racial past was when racial covenants forbade people in certain areas from selling their houses to an African-American family. DC had these in several neighborhoods, particularly Mount Pleasant, Columbia Heights, Petworth, Park View, and Bloomingdale.

According to Mapping Segregation in Washington DC, an interactive map created last year by a group called Prologue DC, covenants took two forms throughout the first half of the 20th century: restrictions in the property's deed, often set up by the developer when building a set of row houses, or an agreement that neighborhood activists would circulate as a petition around a neighborhood.


Lots with racial covenants in DC. All maps by Brian Kraft/JMT.

As the interactive map's text explains, covenants like these did more than just bar African-Americans. Covenants in some areas also prohibited Jews—"In DC this was more common west of Rock Creek Park," says the text.

These effectively kept black residents out of many neighborhoods through the early twentieth century, as this map of the area around Columbia Heights shows.


Lots with restrictions (purple) and the percentage of non-white residents (darker = more non-white), 1934.

Many covenants imposed other limits as well, like requiring "that only single-family houses be constructed or that buildings be a certain distance from the street. They also might prohibit use of the property as a school, factory, or saloon." As Ben Ross explains, covenant limits on building size and use is the forerunner of modern zoning.

Covenants fall and segregation takes new forms

Black homeowners and groups like the NAACP challenged these restrictions—often unsuccessfully—in lawsuits from the turn of the century until finally winning the seminal Supreme Court case, Shelley v. Kraemer, in 1948, and a corresponding case in DC, Hurd v. Hodge (which used a federal civil rights law instead of the Fourteenth Amendment since DC is not a state).

 
Percentage of black residents by Census tract, 1930 (left) and 1960 (right). Darker colors signify more black residents.

In the years after legal restrictions fell, the percentage of black residents in nearby neighborhoods increased—just what the covenants' creators and defenders, illegally and immorally, feared. Amid this shift, the end of legal school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, and other civil rights advances, many white residents moved to the suburbs.

There, whether intentionally or not, communities wrote zoning rules and school district boundaries in ways that perpetuated de facto segregation.

How covenants from the past still hurt people today

While this legal tactic is long gone, its effects remain. Emily Badger wrote about a study of how young black people are far less likely than their white and Hispanic peers to get help from their parents to afford the down payment on a home. Each generation invests in real estate and gains wealth in doing so, which it then uses to help the next generation—except if, a few generations ago, residents and the government stopped your ancestors from getting some wealth in the first place.

Badger writes, "Historic disparities in the housing market are transmitted over time, from parent to child to grandchild. Earlier generations of blacks were excluded from homeownership by lending practices and government policies, and as a result those generations didn't accumulate the housing wealth that enabled them to pass money onto their children."

Or, as she put it pithily on Twitter:

Correction: The initial version of this post identified some covenants as being in Truxton Circle, but they were actually in Bloomingdale. Also, a sentence has been updated to emphasize that the disadvantages to black residents came from a combination of both the government and private citizens.

History


Learn about Spa Spring, a lost Bladensburg park

Our region is chock full of parks with histories as magnificent as the settings they created, but some have been forgotten. Land that's now part of the Anacostia Tributary Trail System used to be Spa Spring Park, a place with close ties to Washington's history as well as one of the city's most curious historical characters, engineer and reputed con-man James Crutchett.


Anacostia River Stream Valley Park, formerly Spa Spring Park. Photo by the author.

Bladensburg is an 18th-century Prince George's County town that hugs the east bank of the Anacostia River. Just outside of the original town limits there was an undeveloped and frequently flooded tract with free-flowing springs. Today it includes property within the Maryland-National Capital Planning Commission's Anacostia River Stream Valley Park and Bladensburg's light industrial fringes. But 200 years ago it was part of Henri Joseph Stier's 729-acre Riversdale plantation.

By the first decade of the 19th century the springs had been dubbed "Spa Spring" and they were becoming a popular early tourist attraction. Stier's daughter, Rosalie Stier Calvert (1778-1821), wrote some of the earliest surviving descriptions of the springs in letters to her father, a Belgian expatriate who had returned to Europe. "The waters of Spa Spring have suddenly gained such a reputation that Dougherty's house is not large enough to handle the crowds of the fashionable who come to drink the waters every day," wrote Calvert in 1803.


1804 Bladensburg tavern ad touting nearby Spa Spring. Photo credit University of Maryland Libraries.

Though Calvert's father encouraged her husband, George Calvert, to develop the property and be vigilant about "inconsiderate and tiresome" visitors, the spa spring property remained undeveloped for much of the 19th century.

Washington newspapers regularly ran advertisements for local pharmacies that were selling the spa spring's famed water. In 1890 a Virginia newspaper published an unflattering description of Bladensburg that included a section on the spring. "A spa spring of chalybeate water flows uselessly away at one end of the only street of the village," wrote the Fredericksburg Freelance. "And the picture of gloom is completed with two or three taverns, rendezvous for negroes."

Spa Spring changed hands, to a fabled owner

In 1852, Washington resident James Crutchett bought ten acres of the former plantation, including the spa spring site. Crutchett (1816-1889) arrived in Washington in the 1840s with plans to light the city using a gas manufacturing system he patented. His resume includes mounting a gas lantern on top of the Capitol in 1847 and selling objects carved from wood harvested at Mt. Vernon to fund completion of the Washington Monument. Accusations of fraud followed Crutchett from Massachusetts to Washington throughout the 19th century.

Controversy followed Crutchett throughout his life. Newspapers frequently wrote about his questionable reputation and, in 1861 when the Union Army seized his Capitol Hill property, Crutchett was sitting in a Massachusetts jail cell on charges of failing to pay a debt after being taken into custody in Washington.

Crutchett never exploited the spa spring or its water during the 30 years that he owned the property. In March of 1886, in failing health and into his third decade seeking restitution for the Union army occupation of his Capitol Hill property, Crutchett gifted the spa spring property to the federal government. "The use of said spring and land has for these many years not been developed," Crutchett wrote in the deed transferring the property to the United States.


1879 map of Bladensburg. Arrow indicates Spa Spring Park location. Credit: Atlas of fifteen miles around Washington by G.M. Hopkins.

Bladensburg in 1854 had annexed the Crutchett Spa Spring tract. Maps published after the Civil War illustrate the private property as "Bladensburg Park." Despite a clear chain of title, visitors and Bladensburg residents used the property as a recreational site, though it didn't become public property until Crutchett's donation.

Folklore misplaces Spa Spring Park

Today, a lot of people say that the spa spring site is where the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission built a sewage intake facility in the 1940s. Local historian Dick Charlton said in a 2008 interview with the Gazette newspaper that he believed that the spring was capped and that WSSC built a circular brick building on the site. "I suppose you have to do something with [the sewage], but to us, it's kind of a sacrilege," Charlton told reporter Elahe Izadi.


Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission building long believed to be built on Spa Spring site. Photo by the author.

That actually isn't true, though; the WSSC site was was constructed in the area historically known as Spa Woods, a tract situated east of the Spa Spring. The utility bought the property in 1935 from T. Howard and Josephine Duckett. Over the next several years, WSSC bought additional properties and rights-of-way to complete its sewage facility. The brick building constructed there first appears in a county real estate atlas published in 1940 and subsequent Sanborn fire insurance maps.

The actual Spa Spring location ultimately was transferred to the City of Bladensburg around the turn of the 20th century. In 1940 it was one of two parcels Bladensburg sold the M-NCPPC; the other was the city's former jail site (west of Baltimore Ave.). Both parcels were incorporated into new county parklands that flank the Anacostia River.

History


Check out this DC bike map from 1896

Did you know our region had bike lanes all the way back in 1896? This map shows the best way to get around DC and parts of Maryland and Virginia on two wheels before the start of the 20th Century.


Image from the DC Public Library.

The map is one of 70 that the DC Public Library recently added to its Dig DC collection.

These newly available maps are part of DCPL's ongoing effort to digitize the Washingtonia Map Collection, which includes material from various sources dating back to 1612. So far, the collection on Dig DC includes maps from 1768 through 1900.


Image from the DC Public Library.

According to the note above, the direction and frequency of triangles along paths indicates the slope and incline of hills. If topography is your top concern, this map could still be helpful in choosing your best route: The gentle decline of Bladensburg Road as you travel southward into the city could certainly offset traffic considerations.

It's also interesting to note that certain roads—7th St. NW, Connecticut Ave. NW, Pennsylvania Ave. SE, among others—are as preferable now as they were then. One detail begs the question: was Virginia Avenue SW/SE once a preferred bike route?

What else about this map do you notice?

Sustainability


See how much more land is paved now than in 1984

In 2010, there was much more pavement covering more of the region than 26 years earlier. These images from the University of Maryland, highlighted by NASA's Earth Observatory blog, show the change.

The region has grown, in population and in economic activity, and some new impervious surface is a consequence of that. However, the region can grow in ways that minimize impervious surface, by building larger buildings in the core and transit-oriented development around Metro stations. Or it can grow in more environmentally destructive ways, through sprawl.

Some of this new impervious surface reflects already urban places getting denser. That's a good thing; by adding a little impervious surface in Arlington or along Connecticut Avenue, for example, the region saves a greater amount from being built outside the Beltway.

But much of this new surface isn't responsible development. The NASA post points this out, saying,

In addition to the widening of the Beltway, notice how pavement has proliferated in Fairfax and Loudoun counties in Virginia and Prince George's and Montgomery counties in Maryland. The District of Columbia was already densely developed in 1984, so the changes there are less noticeable.

The map also doesn't even zoom far enough out to show places like Frederick, Howard, Prince William, Fauquier, and Stafford counties, where the change is even more dramatic, and where even less of the new pavement is in places that are walkable or oriented to transit.

This is an effect of "height-itis"

Week after week, local boards in many jurisdictions make decisions, like taking housing away from the Georgetown Day School project in Tenleytown, which remove a little potential housing in the core. Those choices don't keep even one square foot of land unpaved (and even if they did, it wouldn't be worth the tradeoff), but they do push a little more growth out to where it affects maps like this.

Our region can protect natural resources, but not until people are willing to make them a priority. Until then, this trend will continue.

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