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History


DC's first electric streetcar helped build Eckington

DC got its first electric streetcar in 1888 when the Eckington & Soldiers Home Railway went into operation. A ban on overhead wires kept it from running downtown, and the company ultimately went out of business because it couldn't find another option.

I recently wrote about the 100-year history of streetcars in the District, from 1862 to 1962 (the span from the first and last times a streetcar carried passengers in DC), in my book, Capital Streetcars: Early Mass Transit in Washington, DC. The following story about the Eckington line has been adapted from the book.

Eckington developed alongside the streetcar

Eckington was perhaps the first "true" streetcar suburb in the District in the sense that it was designed from the start as a streetcar destination. It originally had been the estate of Joseph Gales Jr. (1786—1860), publisher of the National Intelligencer newspaper and one of the city's early mayors. He had named it Eckington after his birthplace in England.

Real estate investor Colonel George Truesdell (1842—1921) bought the Eckington tract in 1887 with the idea of building a modern bedroom suburb on it. Truesdell laid out his new subdivision as an idyllic suburban community with large house lots, stunning views of the city and desirable modern amenities—including paved streets, stone sidewalks and electric streetlights—that more established District neighborhoods still didn't have.

In 1888, Truesdell obtained a Congressional charter for a streetcar company specifically to serve his pretty new suburb. The line would include an electric station to power the railway as well as the brilliant streetlights to light up Eckington at night. Poles went into the center of the roadway to carry the overhead wires for the streetcars. It was an ideal arrangement.

The railway's original route started downtown at Mount Vernon Square, at the intersection of Seventh Street (the main commercial corridor of the day) and New York Avenue. It ran northeast from there to Third Street, then turned north, passing through the heart of the new development, and continued into the countryside along Fourth Street until it finally ended at the southern entrance to the Soldiers Home grounds, a popular spot for Sunday outings.


The route of the Eckington line superimposed on a modern map. Map by Matthew B. Gilmore

The Eckington line was not only the first mechanized streetcar line in Washington, but it was also the city's first electric trolley line—the word trolley referring to a streetcar that gathers electric power from overhead lines through a pole on the roof of the car.

Some dreaded "the evil of overhead wires"

For many Washingtonians, the revolutionary new Eckington trolley was a marvel to behold. But for other observers, notably Crosby S. Noyes (1825—1908), editor of the Evening Star, it was the incarnation of evil.

When plans for the Eckington project first became public in August 1888, the Star lashed out with a fierce editorial:

"The reform of abolishing overhead wires in the District seems to be progressing backward," it warned. "[N]ow the Commissioners add a new species of overhead wire to the existing network by permitting the Eckington railway to construct an overhead electric system." They should instead be working to "secure to the city the benefits of rapid transit without aggravating the evil of overhead wires," the Star insisted.

Spurred to action, Congress soon passed a series of laws that required all DC streetcar companies to convert from horsepower to some form of mechanized power by July 1893. But they simultaneously banned the use of overhead wires in the downtown area after that date.

The edict undoubtedly was frustrating for Truesdell. After the successful inauguration of Richmond's trolley system early in 1888, it was universally understood that trolleys using overhead wires were the cheapest and most efficient way to power streetcar systems. Trolley systems were already being planned and built in cities all over the country, but they were now banned in the District.

Still, the streetcar was initially successful, and it even expanded to Brookland

For several days after the new line opened in October 1888, crowds formed along New York Avenue, not only to see the streetcars zipping along without horses but also to see the street lit up at night by the electric lights mounted on the iron poles in the center of the roadway.


Opening day of the Eckington & Soldiers Home Railway. Photo from the Historical Society of Washington, DC.

Truesdell soon set about expanding his new railway to serve a wider clientele. Extensions were first built on the northern ends of the lines, one heading north along North Capitol Street and the other extending from the Soldiers Home to the Catholic University of America, which had just been established in 1887, and the adjoining new village of Brookland. With luck, the new destinations would soon fill with streetcar riders.

Truesdell had always wanted to extend the line on its southern end farther into the downtown area, but that meant coming up with an alternate power source because of the ban on overhead trolleys downtown. Truesdell was determined to find a propulsion technology that wouldn't break the bank. He, like other railway directors, was convinced that using underground electrical power was not economical.

Another power option was too dangerous, and batteries didn't work either

One alternative was to set electrical contacts right in the pavement between the tracks on the roadway, which was certainly a much less expensive approach than digging underground conduits lined with continuous power rails. Each streetcar would get power momentarily from one of these contact plates as the car passed over, propelling it on to the next plate.

The company experimented with such a system in late 1890 on a stretch of test track along North Capital Street north of Boundary Street. However, the "surface contact" system they tried was a bust. The contact plates in the street were supposed to be electrified only when a streetcar was directly over them, but there was no practical way to ensure that they did not stay charged when they were in the open. It was soon obvious that the railroad couldn't deploy a system that might randomly electrocute people or horses stepping on the plates, and the experiment had to be abandoned.


An experimental surface contact streetcar. Photo from the Library of Congress.

Next, when in late 1890 the company began building its downtown extension, it tried using battery-powered cars. The extension ran south from New York Avenue along Fifth Street Northwest and then turned east on G Street and continued to the Treasury Department, bringing the Eckington line into the heart of the downtown commercial district. With this southern extension in place, the company could offer a twenty-five-minute ride all the way from Brookland down to the Treasury Department, although it required a transfer at New York Avenue from a trolley-powered to a battery-powered car.

For the new Southern extension, the company bought the latest Robinson electric cars, elegant carriages finished in mahogany with gold trim that had three sets of wheels intended to facilitate going around curves. Pretty as they may have been, the Robinson cars were too pokey, and recharging their batteries was slow and expensive. In 1893, after just two years, the company gave up on batteries.

The struggle over overhead wires continued, but ultimately failed

The railway soldiered on, its fight for overhead wires soon degenerating into a game of chicken with the Star and the DC commissioners. Exasperated that an overhead trolley system could not be installed to replace the failed battery cars, the railway converted its downtown extension to horsecars, ignoring the fact that horsecars were supposed to have been phased out by that time.

More horsecar lines were added in 1894 while the original overhead trolley line along New York Avenue and to the north continued to operate. The company's directors figured that people would be so fed up with these outmoded cars that Congress would give in and allow them to install an overhead trolley system.

The Evening Star editors were doubly upset about this turn of events. Not only were horsecars back, but the Eckington company had also missed a revised July 1, 1895 deadline for taking down the poles and overhead wires on New York Avenue, which the newspaper referred to as "obnoxious obstructions."

After the Star redoubled its public complaints, the company tried a new tack. The overhead wire system on New York Avenue was removed, and that portion of the Eckington line began running…yes, more horsecars!

The Washington Post commented that switching to horses "will mean a considerable increase in the expense to the company, which already has its stables full of horses that are not in condition for use, and it will give the residents on the line a poorer service. But the company is taking a rather grim satisfaction in the matter, as they are already losing money on their horse service, and they think that the additional loss will be a sort of investment as an object lesson to the public on the benefit of rapid transit, trolley or otherwise."

As it turned out, the public was the one giving the lesson. "Eckington is at present a very much disgusted community," the Post reported. Customers stayed away from the balky, outmoded horsecar service, which they found insulting. Ridership plummeted as rapidly as expenses soared. A year later, the overextended company was bankrupt.

A final try didn't work

A last desperate effort went into making the Eckington line viable. In early 1896, the company hosted the demonstration of a streetcar powered by compressed air, which it gambled would be both publicly acceptable and economically viable. The compressed air system used the pressure of air from canisters stored underneath the passenger seats to push pistons that turned the car's wheels. The compressed air was heated with steam to increase its force as it moved out of the canisters.


This double-decker streetcar saw brief service on the Eckington line. Photo courtesy of the National Capital Trolley Museum.

However, the public did not care for the compressed air cars, finding them smoky, dusty and smelly. The cars also tended to be slow on uphill grades. The compressed air experiment, on which the hopes of the company had been pinned, was quickly abandoned.

At this point, the bankrupt line had already been purchased by a group of investors led by financier Oscar T. Crosby (1861—1947). In 1898, the Crosby syndicate also gained control of most of the other street railway lines in the District and began operating them under one holding company, called the Washington Traction and Electric Company. In compliance with the Congressional edict, the new conglomerate finally began installing underground electrical conduit systems on the portions of the former Eckington line that were within the downtown area. The struggle to find an alternative to underground conduits had failed.

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History


DC once had its own Arc de Triomphe

Paris's Arc de Triomphe is world famous, but did you know DC once had its own version?


Photo from the DC Public Library.

The Washington, DC Victory Arch sat on Pennsylvania Avenue, at the corner of New York Avenue and 15th Street NW.

It was a temporary structure built to commemorate the end of World War I. This photo, from 1919, shows the US Army on parade following the end of the war. Presumably the arch was made of plaster, like the White City of Chicago, and thus never intended to be permanent.

Here's another view, showing the arch from ground level.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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History


Modern Washingtonians have a mandate to remember black Georgetown

Most people know that Georgetown once had a large African American population that is, for the most part, not around anymore. Dig a bit deeper and you'll find that in the 1930s, Georgetown was the first neighborhood in DC to undergo a process later known as gentrification. In fact, this process—and the role historic preservation played in it—is central to the history of the neighborhood and its current state.


Photo by the author.

Among the first qualities of Georgetown cited by people extolling its charms is the historic architecture of the neighborhood. And it's true that Georgetown as a neighborhood is a virtual ark of American architecture from the late 18th to the early 20th centuries. One of the reasons the building stock has survived is that Georgetown entered a long economic lull in the late 19th century. It was an age of benign neglect which spared Georgetown from dramatic demolition and expansion that a more prosperous time would have inevitably brought.

By the time interest grew again for living in Georgetown in the 1930s, the fog of nostalgia had descended. The first flickers of a wider preservationist movement (Colonial Williamsburg was formed in the 1920s to wide acclaim) sparked a drive to save Georgetown as it stood.

Displacement from Georgetown started with historic preservation

That, at least, is the sanitized version of how Georgetown became Georgetown. A more accurate picture of how the depressed neighborhood with pockets of poverty and racial diversity transformed is less rosy. Two significant Congressional acts can be credited with the change.

The first was the Alley Dwelling Act of 1934. This act created the Alley Dwelling Authority, a city agency that was granted the power to condemn and demolish cramped alley dwellings. While the act had an air of a progressive policy—one that refused to allow people to live in squalor in the nation's capital—the act also had an implicit (if not entirely explicit) goal to evict black residents specifically.

Preservation in places and time like Georgetown in the 1930s is a decidedly double-edged sword. Regardless of the intentions behind the changes (and they were almost certainly not entirely pure), when existing housing stock is deemed substandard and the tenants forced out so that the home can either be demolished or modernized, the end result almost always meant the previous tenant was not welcome back afterwards. The conditions were ameliorated, yes, and in many cases in Georgetown the architecture was preserved, but the people who lived there were forced out.

This duality is on view when you consider the story of Pomander Walk in Georgetown. This is a tiny street lined with tinier houses. While some claim that they once housed slaves, they certainly did not since they were all built in the late nineteenth century. They did, however, house African American domestics and other laborers who worked in the houses and factories of Georgetown. (It was also originally called Bell's Court, after Alexander Graham Bell who lived nearby. At some point it was renamed Pomander Walk after a 1910 play of the same name by Louis Parker).

By 1940, the city had apparently used the Alley Dwelling Act to "improve" Bell's Court. In that year the President of the Georgetown Citizens Association (a predecessor to the Citizens Association of Georgetown) wrote to the city sanitary commission:

With many thanks I wish to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 14th relating to Bell Court [sic]. Of course we noticed the wonderful change [cessation of wood cutting and regular seven to eight day cleanings] that had been wrought in that alley, and for the first time in many months we felt that we could drive through the alley with a feeling of security. It is a long time since it has been as clean as it is now. I am sure that some of the people who live there will contribute their full share in keeping up the sweeping.
Clearly the residents were not sawing wood daily for their own amusement. This was their livelihood. They would walk the streets of Georgetown selling firewood to the residents, cutting the wood's length to fit the resident's fireplaces. Despite it being the resident's livelihood it didn't fit in with the idealized picture of what Georgetown was supposed to be. There's no room for grime in amber.

Georgetown's adopted policies that pushed black residents out

There are obvious racial dynamics to these changes. Reacting to the increased demand for housing, property owners of homes occupied by black residents hiked the rent or put it up for sale. Redlining prevented the black residents from being able to finance a purchase. In one case retold by a descendent, a family was kicked out of their flat at 1505 26th Street because they could not find a bank to provide a mortgage when it was put up for sale. When a grocer around the corner offered to lend = the money, the seller raised the price even more and eventually sold to an out-of-town buyer (who was presumably white).

This dynamic was put into overdrive by the adoption of the Old Georgetown Act in 1950. It took the notion of preservation and improvement that had previously applied just to the alleys and applied it universally. This act is widely praised in Georgetown and serves as the heavy artillery for preservationists. You cannot even replace a window in Georgetown without the approval of the US Commission of Fine Arts, a body that spends most of its time evaluating the design of federal buildings and monuments or the nation's coinage.

The pressure exerted by this new mandate was simply too much for the remnants of Georgetown's African American community that still hung on in the 1950s. Even if they wanted to improve their home, the cost to do so consistent with historic preservation was too steep. Within a few decades the community—which was once more than 30% of the entire neighborhood and constituted the vast majority in smaller pockets like "Herring Hill" by Rock Creek—was gone.

This is the history of Georgetown

This is not a subset of the history of Georgetown. It is not an isolated facet of the history of Georgetown. It is the history of Georgetown. In order to save buildings and convert our neighborhood into the jeweled birdcage it is today, we ejected people, thousands of people. Everything we celebrate about the beauty of Georgetown today was inextricably linked with this expulsion.

This is not meant to be a rejection of Georgetown or the fruits of this preservation and improvement. But it is a call to acknowledge the dire cost that came with that, and to acknowledge that the cost was born by those least able to bear them.

It is obviously too late to undo this, but nonetheless our community does far too little to acknowledge the dreadful bargain that was struck at the dawn of modern Georgetown. In exchange for the permanent fixation of our physical form in a federal amber, we carved out parts that didn't fit the sanitized vision of a 19th century port town.

Remembrance is all we have left. And the remembrances of those who lived in Georgetown's black community when it still thrived should be preserved and cherished as much as the grand estates of Dumbarton Oaks or Evermay. And we are lucky that many of those memories have already been recorded in the 1991 publication Black Georgetown Remembered. (It's from that book that I pulled the story about the family being priced out of 105 26th Street above).

The book is being republished to celebrate the 25th anniversary of its original publication. In addition, a reunion/panel discussion will take place at Gaston Hall at Georgetown University on February 24th at 7:00 pm. Original contributors to the book, including ANC Commissioner Monica Roaché will be on hand to recollect their community's rich history. I encourage all to come.

Preserving memories is significantly more difficult than preserving structures. But the mandate is all the same.

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History


DC tried fixing its housing shortage by building tiny houses... in the 1880s

Last fall, DC Councilmember Vincent Orange proposed building 1,000 "tiny houses" for low-income residents and millennials, but the idea drew wide criticism as being "gimmicky" and potentially discriminatory. What many don't know is that Orange's initiative wasn't the first time District leaders sought to solve big housing problems with small houses.


Tiny houses in DC. Photo by Inhabitat on Flickr.

In Washington's earliest years, alleys housed horses and privies. As African Americans began streaming into the city during the Civil War, most alleys were converted to residential uses and many small wood shacks went up. These quickly became overcrowded and concerns about disease and crime followed.

Between 1872 and 1878 nearly 1,000 houses in Washington's alleys were condemned, with housing reformers and public health activists pushing to clear out these blighted, crowded, and "insanitary" spaces. But in 1878, Congress re-organized the District government by creating the commissioner system. Unlike the earlier government, the reconstituted Board of Health lacked the authority to condemn insanitary buildings.

That led to a return of tiny houses in alleys. In 1890, the Washington Evening Star described the concentration of poor people in DC's alleys as a result of increasing property values. Small houses in alleys created housing for Washington's poor and profits for the city's real estate speculators, the paper reported.

Critics assailed the move as pandering to influential real estate speculators. "Construction of houses in the alleys promised profits," James Ring told Congress in 1944. When he was speaking, Ring was the administrative officer for the National Capital Housing Authority, and the Senate was holding hearings on extending a deadline to vacate Washington's remaining alley dwellings.

What Ring said next about the period between 1880 and 1892 is important: "There were philosophically inclined persons who sincerely believed that well-built little houses in the alleys were far better socially than insanitary alley shacks."

Ring went on to describe a construction boom in Washington's alleys, what he called "a very active period of buying and selling the rear ends of street lots."

In a 2014 the DC State Historic Preservation Office published a survey of alley buildings, along with a history of their development. Architectural historian Kim Prothro Williams wrote that the 1880s construction boom simply replaced small insanitary wood buildings that lacked indoor plumbing with small insanitary brick buildings that lacked indoor plumbing.


1880s house in Naylor Court, just east of 10th Street NW. Photo by the author.

Washington's first tiny house movement ended in 1892 when Congress passed a law prohibiting construction of new houses in alleys less than 30 feet wide and lacking sewage connections. The Washington Post astutely observed that the new health laws would have an immediate impact on the city and its growing suburbs. "Cheap abodes for the poorer class of people within the city limits will no longer be obtainable," the paper reported in April 1892. "Facilities will, therefore, have to be found for transportation to the suburbs, where the man drawing a moderate salary can own a lot, build a comfortable home, and then be able to reach it."

Fast forward 100 years to a Washington that is increasingly unaffordable, with a growing population, and which is struggling with finding ways to reduce reliance on the automobile. The roots of these contemporary urban ills may be seen in the solutions for nineteenth century problems.


Row of houses built in the 1880s, Snow's Court in Foggy Bottom. Photo by the author.

Orange's tiny houses proposal could mean Washington may be coming full circle to embrace the benefits of housing and economic diversity. Though the Washington City Paper compared the potential outcome of Orange's proposal to the creation of new fangled Hoovervilles—"Orangevilles," a columnist called thema more apt comparison would be to housing that was widespread in Washington nearly a century before the Great Depression.

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History


Before moving to DC, Walt Whitman was a Brooklyn house flipper

One of Washington's many adopted sons, Walt Whitman is among the most decorated figures in American literature. A lesser-known fact about Whitman is that he wrote one of the earliest descriptions of speculative real estate development, displacement, and gentrification.


Walt Whitman around 1855. Photo from the Library of Congress.

Whitman's essay, "Tear Down and Build Over Again," was published in the November 1845 issue of The American Review. From the perspective of a housing supplier, he explored urban redevelopment, aesthetics, and the attachments to place longtime residents have.

What makes Whitman's essay unique besides its early date is that it was written not by a housing reformer or displaced resident, but by an entrepreneur making money from the creative destruction of New York City neighborhoods.

"Let us level to the earth all the houses that were not built within the last ten years," Whitman wrote in 1845. "Let us raise the devil and break things!"

Penned more than a century before the Housing Act of 1949 introduced urban renewal to aging and distressed city neighborhoods, Whitman was writing on the eve of his brief career in Brooklyn as familiar urban character: the house-flipping gentrifier.

According to University of Cambridge literary historian Peter Riley, Whitman was itching to get into a booming Brooklyn real estate market. Riley examined Whitman's notebooks and analyzed "Tear Down and Build Over Again" to contextualize how the poet jumped on the real estate "speculative bandwagon."

Between 1846 and 1855, notes Riley, Whitman bought and built several properties. Profits from redevelopment and house flipping allowed Whitman to buy an un-mortgaged home for his family and financed publication of Whitman's first book, Leaves of Grass, in 1855.


Brooklyn row houses around 1935. Photo from the New York Public Library.

Though written 118 years before sociologist Ruth Glass introduced the word "gentrification" to popular and academic discourse, Whitman's essay clearly captures the subject's supply and demand dimensions and the social costs—better housing, good investments (positive) and displacement and alienation (negative) wrapped up in the process.

In modern terms, Whitman effectively described neighborhood upgrading through reinvestment resulting in displacement and the churn of properties from the less wealthy to better off residents.

In other words, Whitman was describing gentrification.

Whitman did have concerns about redevelopment

Though clearly writing as an unabashed capitalist housing producer, Whitman also recognized that the people displaced from the older homes had strong attachments to the properties and to the neighborhoods where they lived.

"Then fled tenants from under roofs that had sheltered them when in their cradles," he wrote. "And had witnessed their parents' marriages—roofs aneath which they had grown up from childhood, and that were filled with the memories of many years."

As Whitman was writing about the loss of old buildings and familiar places by their occupants, he also expressed some disdain for new construction in ways remarkably similar to how contemporary Americans write about McMansions:

"Then there are those who would go farther to view even Charlotte Temple's grave, than Mr. Astor's stupid-looking house in Broadway… To such, greatness and goodness are things intrinsic—mental and moral qualities. To the rest of the world, and that is nine-tenths of it, appearance [emphasis in original] is everything.

He was also witnessing the birth of historic preservation

Whitman also was writing at a time when American culture was developing its own sense of national heritage. By the 1850s, a "Cult of Washington" had emerged that elevated the Revolutionary War hero and first president to near-mythical status.

Besides writing what may be the earliest chronicle of American gentrification, Whitman also captured the birth of America's historic preservation movement. In addition to memorializing Washington through monument construction, there were growing numbers of people concerned about the disappearance of places associated with George Washington.

"… when we bethink us how good it is to leave no land-mark of the past standing, no pile honored by its association with our storied names, with the undying memory of our Washington, and with the frequent presence of his compatriots," Whitman wrote about a decade before efforts began to buy and preserve Mt. Vernon.

"Tear Down and Build Up Again" is an important and relatively un-recognized chronicle of the birth of early American urban redevelopment written by one of the nation's most important poets.

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History


Here's an early design for Union Station

Check out this drawing of Union Station when it was in the planning phase, waiting for Congress to give the green light for construction. It's a fun reminder that even the most grandiose of buildings go through routine planning processes.


Click for a larger version of both the drawing and the accompanying news article. Images from the Library of Congress.

Published in March of 1902, the Times Washington article announcing the coming train depot calls it "a fitting gateway for the nation's Capital City, through which for all time shall ebb and flow the tides of the world's pilgrims to the national Mecca, a fitting beginning for the new Washington."

When GGWash contributor David Cranor passed the article my way, he wondered if the project finished on time or came in on budget.

"Perhaps it will be a reality in two years," reads the article, "for great railway corporations build with magic quickness" Union Station opened in 1908, but it's not clear from the article whether the builders shared that two year expectation. And even if they did, a four year delay on such a huge project doesn't exactly stack up poorly when compared to many infrastructure projects today.

The article says Union Station itself will cost $6 million (about $166 million in today's dollars), with things like buying the land and building the accompanying rail tunnel bringing the price to $14 million (about $388 million today). If you have any information on how much was actually spent on building Union Station, please share it in the comments!


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History


You can see "scars" from old rail lines all over today's maps of the region

As places change, linear routes like rail lines and canals sometimes turn into new roads or trails. Other times, the old lines stay on the map but become harder to spot.


In Deanwood, a line of houses curves along what used to be a railroad route. Images from Google Maps unless otherwise noted.

Typically, new roads or trails replace the long, narrow rights-of-way, which means the shapes you see on a map are the same, they just host a different mode of transportation. In our region, the Georgetown Branch Trail is named for the former Georgetown Branch of the B&O railroad that it follows. Old Dominion Road in Virginia follows the route of the former Washington and Old Dominion Railroad.

But in some cases, open land left behind by railroads is sometimes rezoned and filled in with buildings. When that happens, the historic lines might become something like what you see in the image above, where the line of houses along Nannie Helen Burroughs Ave NE in Deanwood curves along what used to be a railroad alignment that ran to Seat Pleasant and beyond.

Here's another shot from Deanwood:

Writer Geoff Manaugh observed that such buildings resemble scar tissue, and blog Web Urbanist coined the term "scarchitecture" for this phenomena.

With the Deanwood examples, there's even clearer evidence of this alignment in the DC Zoning parcels that the buildings occupy.


Image from the DC Zoning Map.

Another great example of this happening in DC is at 7th and K Street NE, where there's an alley that follows an old rail line that ran down West Virginia Avenue.


Just southeast of where West Virginia Avenue hits K Street, you can see an alley that follows the rail line that West Virginia Avenue replicates. Image from Google Maps.

Another examples is the southern end of the Washington & Old Dominion Railroad. Here's a section of the former route along West Glebe Road in Alexandria:

And here's one from along Four Mile Run Drive in Arlington:

Have you seen any examples of this phenomena in the Greater Washington region? Let us know in the comments!

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History


2015's greatest hits: Hidden clues reveal an old road that disappeared from DC

To close out 2015, we're reposting some of the most popular and still-relevant articles from the year. This post originally ran on January 8. Enjoy and happy New Year!

Milkhouse Ford Road in Northwest DC no longer exists as a major thoroughfare. But clues of its past life are still visible thanks to skewed property lines, an abandoned ford over Rock Creek, and seemingly misplaced street names around the city.


In this 1861 map by Albert Boschke, Milkhouse Ford Road appears in what is now Rock Creek Park, but the road has long since vanished.

Milkhouse Ford Road was an old country road dating to the 18th century. It connected Broad Branch Road in what is now Chevy Chase to the neighborhoods now known as Brightwood and Fort Totten. Adjacent landowners built the road, which was the only northern crossing of Rock Creek in the early days of the District. American soldiers crossed the road on their way to the Battle of Bladensburg during the War of 1812.

The earliest and most extensive layout of the road's route appears in the topographical map of the District that German-born cartographer Albert Boschke published 1861.

When neighborhoods went up in Chevy Chase, Brightwood, and Petworth, old and windy roads didn't fit into DC's street grid. Slowly over time, property developers turned stretches of the road into residential lots. You can see the road's path, along with its slow demise, on various historical maps of the city.

By overlaying the Boschke map over maps from both the 20th century and today, we can trace the path of the road with a few adjustments to account for the inevitable inaccuracies of his 19th century mapmaking.

And really, you don't even have to look at old maps to find the road. A pair of hiking boots and an observant eye will reveal the road to anyone curious to find it. Here are some of the sites and anomalies that show us the path of the long-gone road.

A block of spacious front yards


Unusually spacious yards on the 3200 block of Rittenhouse Street NW reveal the old road's path. Photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

On the 3200 block of Rittenhouse Street NW, today's skewed property lines and unusually generous setbacks show that the road passed through what are now the front yards on the south side of the street.


Skewed property lines accommodated the old road's path. Map by the author. GIS data from data.dc.gov.

The 1919 Baist Real Estate Atlas confirms that the road, later renamed Rock Creek Ford Road, passed through what are now the front lawns of houses on this block.

An alley out of nowhere

One block east, an alley splits off to the right of Quesada Street NW. This alley is officially named Rock Creek Ford Road and traces the path of the old road.



The old road (yellow) still exists for this block. Map by the author. GIS data from data.dc.gov.

From this point to the western edge of Rock Creek Park, today's landscape makes it hard to spot the road's path. Subsequent landowners simply disregarded the road when building new developments.

An abandoned ford crosses Rock Creek

In Rock Creek Park, the old road ran over what is now a stream valley hiking trail connecting to the Milkhouse Ford. The trail's packed dirt surface is similar to what the road's original surface would have been.


Visitors to the northern end of Rock Creek Park have undoubtedly noticed the ford north of Military Road. During the Civil War, the Union Army surrounded Washington with forts perched on the ridges of the area's rolling farmland. The Army constructed Military Road to connect these northern DC forts, but before Military Road, Milkhouse Ford was the only Rock Creek crossing in the northern part of DC. It served as a vital east-west route.

In 1890, Congress established Rock Creek Park but was slow to invest in the park's infrastructure until the turn of the century, when it macadamized numerous park roads and paid for the ford to be repaved with concrete. In 1926, the Office of Public Buildings and Public Parks built a bridge across the creek so motorists could avoid the ford. From then until the National Park Service closed the ford to automobiles in 1996, the crossing served as an entertaining diversion for adventurous drivers.


Photo from the National Park Service.

Indentations in the land mark the ghost road

Just east of the ford and Beach Drive, an indentation in the forest marks where the road ascended the stream valley to what is now the Rock Creek Golf Course. Exploring this section requires some hiking boots, but the road's old path is discernible if you look carefully.


The golf course's creation, which lasted from 1907 to 1909, eliminated all signs of the roadway through the rest of the park. But at 16th Street, builders incorporated the road into Brightwood's street network, and it still exists today as a narrow street that cuts diagonally toward Georgia Avenue.


Map by the author. GIS data from data.dc.gov.


Rock Creek Ford Road branching off from Fort Stevens Drive.

The narrow road met what is now Colorado Avenue and Georgia Avenue (then called the Seventh Street Turnpike). This is just south of Fort Stevens, where Abraham Lincoln observed a battle between Union and Confederate soldiers. Missouri Avenue wasn't there yet, so the intersection was not as complicated to navigate as it is today.


The old narrow road as it met the turnpike that is now Georgia Avenue.


1861 Boschke map of DC. Milkhouse Ford Road (now Rock Creek Ford Road) enters at the top-left corner and continues just north of the M.G. Emery estate.


The old road (yellow) still passes through Brightwood. Map by the author. GIS data from data.dc.gov.

From Georgia Avenue to its end near North Capitol Street, Milkhouse Ford Road was eventually renamed Shepherd Road. With a few exceptions, it followed the path of today's Missouri Avenue.

The extant road remains as an alley between the 400 block of Longfellow Street and the 700 block of Madison Street NW.


Map by the author. GIS data from data.dc.gov.



The road ended at an intersection with Rock Creek Church Road in what is now private land. Rock Creek Church Road is a similar old road. It started in Columbia Heights, passed through Petworth, and ended near what is now Fort Totten.


The road ended in the backyard of what is now a residence. Rock Creek Church Road, pictured in the foreground originally extended through the buildings straight ahead.

DC had many old, rural roads before the city's development covered the entire District. Most still exist today as main thoroughfares, like Georgia Avenue or Bladensburg Road. The difference between these and Milkhouse Ford Road is that Georgia and Bladensburg are largely intact today.

You can explore the road's path with this interactive map.

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History


See Metro Center when it was still under construction

In the mid 1970s, Metro's first stations were under construction and on track for their 1976 opening day. This historic photo shows Metro Center station while it was under construction, circa 1975.


Metro Center in 1974 or 1975. Photo source unknown.

In the photo, the basic form of the station is in place. The vault is done, the track bed looks good, and the station's lights are on. But there's clearly a lot of work left to do, including most of the finishing touches.

It's an interesting 40-year-old look at one of our region's most important transit hubs.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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History


64 years ago, the world's first driverless parking garage opened in DC

On December 5, 1951, the world's first "park-o-mat" driverless parking garage opened on K Street NW, between 14th and 15th Streets. The building doesn't exist anymore, but this newsreel is a neat look into one of history's previous attempts at driverless transportation.

The original park-o-mat buildling was just 25 feet by 40 feet, but at 16 floors and with two elevators, it had room for 72 cars.

As downtown DC developed and the city's height limit began to limit land availability, property values eventually made it impractical to keep using this building as parking. Today, a normal building full of people replaces it.

But automated parking does still exist. At least one apartment building in DC, the Camden Grand Parc, has an automated garage. And New York's first "robotic" parking garage opened in 2007.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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