Welcome to the home of the Berwyn Heights Historical Committee. Please feel free to provide feedback or attend one of our regular meetings on the 4th Wednesday of each month in the G. Love conference room located at the corner of 57th Avenue and Berwyn Road.
Berwyn Heights’ oldest home, dating to the 1790s, is on the market again. An open house is scheduled for Sunday, August 23, 2-4 p.m. It is listed for $349,000 with Long and Foster: https://www.longandfoster.com/homes-for-sale/5933-Natasha-Drive-Berwyn-Heights-MD-20740-303106966.
Sportland was in foreclosure in 2014 and was eventually purchased by an investor, who fixed it up and turned it into a rental property. It looks pretty nice from the curb, but needed a lot of work when the BHHC toured it in 2014.
BHHC members Debby Steele Snyder, Sharmila Bhatia and Kerstin Harper attended the open house and had the opportunity to speak with former Sportland owner Pat Brown. Pat was happy to share information about what the house used to look like when her family lived there, as well as rumors that continue to circulate: the house had tunnels serving as escape routes when it was an underground railroad safe house; a Civil War hospital and a distillery during prohibition.
In 1942, the old Branchville Road that used to form the northern boundary of the Town of Berwyn Heights was reconstructed along a new alignment as Greenbelt Road. This included a new overpass across the B&O railroad tracks, making it possible to close the dangerous Berwyn grade crossing. When that crossing was barricaded, sometime in September or October 1942, it became necessary to redirect traffic bound for Route 1 via State Road 434. Route 434 connected Edmonston Road and Baltimore Avenue along La Belle Avenue (today Pontiac Street & 57th Avenue) and Waugh and Central Avenues (Berwyn Road).1
The Berwyn Heights Commissioners wanted to make an outlet from La Belle Avenue to Branchville Road along Huntley Avenue (58th Avenue). But there was a little problem: Huntley Avenue stopped at Newby Avenue (Tecumseh Street), now just a paper street between block 26 and 27. Traffic, including Capital Transit buses, would have had to zig and zag along Newby and Howell Avenues to reach Greenbelt Road and cut into the property of a prominent citizen of the Town.
Samuel Moyer, an attorney for the Department of the Interior, who served as Town Commissioner from 1926-1936 and President of the Berwyn Heights Volunteer Fire Department from 1924-1935,2 owned the now historic house at 8911 57th Avenue, as well as an adjoining orchard that lay in the path of the proposed road. He did not relish the taking of a slice of his land and suggested the Town purchase a right of way through unimproved properties in block 27, which belonged to the Berwyn Heights Company and Burch Realty.3
The Town Commissioners approached Berwyn Heights Company Vice President Margaret Benson and Burch Realty and they agreed to sell the Town the required land to make the new outlet.4 The State Roads Commission built the road, which was taken into service in 1945 as Route 251. In 1990, the State Highway Administration renovated these streets and transferred them to the Town.5
The extension of 58th Avenue to Greenbelt Road resulted in a re-subdivision of the properties in block 27 and their subsequent development by the Berwyn Heights Company.6 Some of these properties no longer conform to today’s zoning standards and require variances when improvements are made. As recently as October 2019, the Town Council held a hearing on a variance application for 8906 58th Avenue and granted an exception for lot size and frontage width to allow the owner to build a house on the property.7
4 Minutes of Meeting of the Berwyn Heights Town Commissioners, 17 December 1942.
5 Excerpt of Minutes regarding Construction of Route 251, Maryland State Roads Commission, 15 October 1946.
6 PGC Land Records, 1955 Re-subdivision of Lots 8-22, Block 27; Plat Book WWW 26-21
7 Minutes of Meeting of the Berwyn Heights Town Council, 7 October 1919.
On April 18, 1942, two Berwyn Heights youths were killed when their truck was struck by an express train at the B&O crossing where today a pedestrian bridge connects Berwyn Heights and College Park. William Forrester, 16 and David Snydeman, 12 were returning from Keefauer’s grocery store and are believed to have stopped for a passing train. They resumed their trip after the train had passed but were hit by a B&O Capitol Limited going in the opposite direction.1
Ten year’s earlier, on July 21, 1931, a Miss Ethel Thomas of St. Ann’s Orphanage barely escaped with her life when her car stalled in the Berwyn crossing in the path of an oncoming express train. She was helped to safety by Edwin Yost and Andrew Mothershead of Berwyn Heights, who happened to be nearby. Two engineers on the train were not so lucky. Their clothes caught fire when the train rammed the car, and its exploding gas tank tossed a sheet of flames across the locomotive. The engineers jumped from the cab but did not survive. The fireman, also badly burnt, managed to bring the train to a stop.2
Grade crossings had become the scene of many accidents involving motorists in the first half of the 20th century, as the automobile was conquering America and highways started to crisscross the country. By 1930, there were over 220,000 unprotected grade crossings nationwide. Accidents at grade crossings peaked in the mid 1920s, killing nearly 2,100 persons and injuring another 6,200.3 Almost daily, newspapers reported deaths resulting from motorists colliding with trains.
In the D.C. area, collisions occurred with regularity at dozens of grade crossings. Congress passed a bill calling for the elimination of grade crossings in the City in 1927, but it took another 12 years to complete the task.4 Following one particularly deadly accident, in which 14 students returning from a science meet at the University of Maryland were killed when their school bus crashed into an express train at a Rockville grade crossing, public pressure mounted to eliminate them.5 The Evening Star, Washington’s newspaper of record had made it its mission to push for the elimination of grade crossings, and renewed its call to get rid of these ‘death traps’.6 But progress was slow because it required securing financing in the legislatures and from railways, and then relocating highways or building bridges and tunnels.
By 1939, the Berwyn crossing was one of only 12 unsecured grade crossings remaining in the greater Washington area and slated to be closed within a year. The State of Maryland had appropriated $150,000 for the State Roads Commission to build an overpass over the B&O tracks at Branchville Road.7 The reconstruction of Branchville Road (now Greenbelt Road) with the overpass was completed in the fall of 1942, a few months after the deadly accident.
The new safe route over the B&O tracks did not quite end the drama over the Berwyn crossing. The residents of Berwyn Heights and Berwyn chafed under the separation of their communities and resented having to detour over the Branchville Road to get their mail, go shopping and visit their church. Several of Berwyn’s shopkeepers 8 had homes in Berwyn Heights and would no doubt have preferred to keep the direct road open. Town Commissioners brought up the reopening of the crossing at monthly meetings but County Commissioner Edward ‘Ned’ Waters, residing at 8507 60th Avenue in Berwyn Heights, took the matter to new level.
After being elected to the County Council in 1950, Waters organized public hearings and conferences with the B&O Railroad and the State Roads Commission to press for the crossing’s reopening. He claimed its closure was illegal because no prior public hearing had been held; and that the barricades themselves posed a risk to life and limb as cars crashed into them. He insisted a reopening was supported by the Town’s Commissioners, Volunteer Fire Departments, the College Park Businessman’s Association and “every man, woman and child in Berwyn and Berwyn Heights.”9
The B&O Railroad and the State Roads Commission were unmoved, noting that the Branchville Road overpass was funded in conformance with a larger national policy to eliminate grade crossings.10 Waters did not give up and prepared to take the matter to court. However, the County’s attorney refused to “file a spurious and improper court suit… when we [the County Commissioners] do not have a leg to stand on.”11 He resigned shortly after the disagreement and the effort to reopen the Berwyn crossing died. Eventually, the communities on either side of the tracks adjusted to the separation.
Nobody would seriously consider crossing those tracks today. There is a pedestrian bridge now with accessible ramps that spans 5 actively used tracks: 2 Metro Green Line tracks, a Metro test track all powered by electrified third rails, and 2 CSX tracks. Tall fences run along the tracks to keep people away. But the spot has not been without incident. On April 14, 2015, the pedestrian bridge was accidentally knocked down by a construction crane brought in by rail for building the test track. By a stroke of luck, no one was hurt. The bridge reopened a year later and has been open for business since.12 Go on up and have a look. A train might pass below you.
2 “Train-Auto Crash Inquest to Probe Two Men’s Deaths,” The Evening Star, 22 July 1931, page 1.
3 Accident bulletin, Interstate Commerce Commission, Bureau of Statistics. Washington: U.S. G.P.O., 1942 , Page 12.
4 “Elimination of 3 Major Crossings in D.C. Area Planned,” The Sunday Star, 24 September 1939, page B-6.
5 “Fourteen Deaths in School Bus Probed,” The Evening Star, 12 April 1935, pages A-1, A-4, A-5, A-6, A-7, A-10; and “Acclaim President’s Project to End Crossing Death Traps,” The Evening Star, 26 April 1935, page A-10.
7 “Elimination of Three Major Crossings in D.C. Area Planned,” The Sunday Star, 24 September 1939, page B-6.
8 Charles Mayo & Lillian Attick – Barbershop; Charles, Jr. & Bessie Attick – Barbershop; John & Josephine Burch – Realty Agency.
10 “County Heads to Ask Order to Open Berwyn Rail Crossing,” The Evening Star, 2 August, 1951, page A-18.
11 “County Attorney Offers to Resign Following Verbal Tilt,” The Evening Star, 5 December 1951, page C-1
12 “A Year After its Collapse, Contractors will Replace Pedestrian Bridge,” The Diamondback, 14 April 2016
Many people commented on a set of photos of Berwyn Heights from the 1960s we published here, and reposted on the BHHC facebook page. They helped us identify the first photo on the left as the untamed Indian Creek prior to 1972. Mike Hayden and Angelo Ohwell, who grew up in Berwyn Heights during this period, said this is what Indian Creek looked like from Berwyn Road bridge when facing Greenbelt Road.
Ohwell said “Indian Creek would change [its course] as it flooded so much, leaving it to meander around a lot.” The photo does appear to show signs of a recent flood, with sand and flattened grass on the banks.
Mike Hayden said the buildings on the right belonged to the Peacock and/ or the Smith families who lived there until 1972. They sold their properties to the Maryland National Park & Planning Commission (M-NCPPC)i which then built a paddle tennis court in that location, and further north a T-ball field and playground.
But first the Army Corps of Engineers set to work widening and straightening Indian Creek to control flooding starting in April 1973. The channelization project was made a priority after Hurricane Agnes struck the Mid-Atlantic region in June 1972 and caused severe flooding throughout Maryland and in Berwyn Heights. In the aftermath of Agnes, the Town assisted flood victims by providing pumps, jacks, clean-up trucks and maintenance personnel. The fire department, women’s auxiliary, and police pitched in, while the Corps of Enineers dredged and cleaned the creek.ii
Other readers, including Fred Flaherty and Debbie Pitts, shared memories about fishing in the creek, which apparently continued after the widening. Note the boy with his rod in the lower right of the second photo. Mary Lou Milstead and Bettie Prosise in a BHHC oral history recording confirm that anglers often caught catfish and that the river valley served as a great playground.
In the second photo, Greenbelt Road can be seen in the distance and behind it a gravel mountain of the Alfred H. Smith gravel mine. Many old time residents were none too happy with Al Smith because his gravel washing operation ruined Indian Creek, filling it with waste water and silt. Ruth (Sauer) Ellsworth, who grew up in Berwyn Heights during the 1940s, recalls that the creek once was so deep it looked dark green and bottomless from the bridge above.iii
Former Town Commissioner Charles Worden, in one of a series of Bulletin articles about Berwyn Heights in the 1920s and 1930s, said that the pool at the bridge was perhaps 10′ deep and quite suitable for swimming. People then caught bass and pickerel in the creek and trapped muskrat, too.iv
i PGC Land Records: Deed 1972May12 Clay & Exie Peacock, lots 18-19 block 3, Book 4072-521; and Deed 1972Aug 2, Willard & Rita Smith to M-NCPPC, lots 20-21 block 3, Book 4116-873
ii Berwyn Heights Bulletins, 1972-1973.
iii Sauer Ellsworth, Ruth. Ruatan Street. Crimson Atlelier, Inc, New Hope, PA, 2005.
iv Worden, Charles. Berwyn Heights Bulletin, September 1972, p.7.
The Historical Committee recently received a set of photos of Berwyn Heights dating back to the early 1960s. The photos were taken by Meyer Keilsohn, a former resident of Pontiac Street. Neighbor Kathy Richardson rescued them from the roadside after a cleanout of the house. Some of Keilsohn’s photos have captions reading “Berwyn Heights” and the year the photo was taken, with years ranging between 1959 and 1965.
During this period major changes occurred in and around Berwyn Heights. In town, new subdivisions were platted and many new homes built. Nearby, Beltway Plaza opened in October 1963 and construction of the adjoining Springhill Lake Apartments was about to start. The Baltimore Washington Parkway, planned as an alternative to US Route 1 in the 1920s, had been completed in 1954. Route 201/ Kenilworth Avenue between Riverdale and Greenbelt had opened in 1958; and the first sections of the Capital Beltway were finished in 1961. Keilsohn’s photos capture that moment in time when the remaining empty land in and around Berwyn Heights was being filled in.
Nearly forty guests attended our 100th Anniversary of the founding of the Berwyn Heights Company. Lively discussion about the Company and Berwyn Heights history started even before the event with the hoisting of two large old maps and placing of exhibits during morning setup, and continued on a larger scale at the reception.
Once everyone had sampled our choice buffet and drinks, BHHC chair Richard Ahrens welcomed those present and unveiled the historic marker. Former chair Dave Williams made time to create the layout and fabricate the mockup. Thanks Dave.
For the presentation, we were happy to have Bruce Tobin with us, who supplied interesting details about the Company’s CEOs, his grandparents Clarence and Helen Benson, his uncle William Benson and his parents Mildred and Robert Tobin. Bruce also brought the original BH Company Minute Book, which got this whole celebration started.
The slideshow would not have happened if BHHC vice chair Sharmila Bhatia had not proposed it. Great idea, but a lot of work. The slideshow itself was based on many photos and documents collected by James Benson on his ancestry.com account, which he graciously opened to us. Unfortunately, Jim was not able to join us from his home on the west coast, but he may like to see the product. And others might, too. Please click image to view.
Please join us for our celebration of the 100th Anniversary of the Berwyn Heights Company. Find out how this community-based real estate company shaped the development of Berwyn Heights between 1919 and 1975. We will be joined by descendants of the Benson family who ran the Company for most of its existence.
Meet and greet with Benson family descendants
Welcome by BHHC Chair
Unveiling of Historic Marker
Slide show on Berwyn Heights Company.
Optional 10-minute walk to former Benson House.
Wine and hors-d’œuvres are served for the duration.
After 89 years, the gates of The Behnke’s Nursery are shuttered. Many people in Berwyn Heights and this corner of Prince George’s County have Behnke plants in their gardens and will miss having this horticultural oasis nearby. The nursery not only had a seemingly endless variety of flowers, trees and shrubs, but also offered gardening workshops, put on an Oktoberfest and each December opened a lavish Christmas shop.
In May, Stephanie Fleming, Vice President of The Behnke’s and grand-daughter of the business founders Albert and Rose Behnke, told the story of the nursery and the family who ran it. The presentation was hosted by the Greenbelt Museum.
Come Out and Play – Friday, April 5, 6:30 pm
The Historical Committee and Recreation Council will bring back the popular Team Trivia Night. The focus will be expanded from Berwyn Heights to include Prince George’s County trivia. Topics will vary – from geography to sports to science – but the spotlight is on History.
It’s free to play. Teams of up to six people compete for a first place cash prize of $50 and a second place prize of $20 in Domino’s Gift Cards. Drinks and snacks will be available.
Contact Jodie Kulpa-Eddy at (301) 345-1516 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to register your team name and number of team players. Singles are welcome. Let us know if you’d like us to find you a team. Everyone is invited to come and watch, though it’s more fun to play!
‘The Cedars bungalow, marvelously priced and remarkably designed, is available in 5 floor plans, one of which is sure to meet your idea of a convenient, sturdy home’.
This Aladdin mail order house was built in 1920 on lots 37 and 38 in block 43 by John W. Hall (1876-1959), a carpenter and building contractor. The house we find at the corresponding address, 8801 63rd Avenue, today differs slightly from the catalog image (see dormer window in south elevation). It may have been an upgrade, a different model year, or Hall made alterations to suit his own taste.
John Hall and his wife Blanche (nee Fink) purchased the lots from Elwood and Sallie Taylor in 1917 and 1920, respectively,1 as an investment. They intended to sell the improved property but failing that they probably ended up renting it.2 The house was eventually sold to E. Clare Turner in 1946.3
John Hall’s family on his mother’s side used to own a store in Aquasco near Upper Marlboro, which his mother Laura inherited in 1879.4 Laura A. Hall (1843-1905) was a widow with four young children5 when she married William W. Hall (1840-1909), a miner, in 1874. Residing in the Branchville area of the Vansville District,6 they bought a house in Berwyn Heights in 1899.7 This house was built by the Charlton Heights Improvement Company ca. 1894 and was located on lot 5 and part of lot 6 in block 7, Duncanson Avenue, which today is at 5707 Seminole Street. John lived there with his parents and in 1905 purchased the remaining part of lot 6.8
John (1876-1959) married Blanche F. Fink (1875-1950), daughter of Jacob Fink, a bricklayer and longtime neighbor of the Halls, around 1904. They had one daughter, Mildred Alice (1904-1999). John and Blanche joined the Berwyn Heights Association in March 1915.9 In 1918, John reported himself working on the construction of the Lincoln Memorial as an employee of the George A. Fuller Company.10 Thereafter, he likely contracted for construction projects around Berwyn Heights, for example entering an unsuccessful bid in 1921 to build the mail-order Harris kit house for the Berwyn Heights Company.11
John and Blanche’s daughter Mildred served as a personal secretary for Mrs. Lou H. Hoover during President Herbert Hoover’s term in office, and lived with them in the White House.12 In 1934, she married Thomas Allen Campbell, the son of a former Governor of Arizona in Palo Alto, California.13 The wedding was hosted by the Hoovers at their home on the grounds of Stanford University.
Blanche Hall died on March 3, 1950 and John on September 3, 1959. Both are interred at Fort Lincoln cemetery.
1 Deed 24 Aug. 1917 Elwood & Sallie Taylor to John W Hall, lot 37, block 43, PGC Land Records 148-176; and Deed 14 May1920 Elwood & Sallie Taylor to John & Blanche Hall, lot 38, block 43, PGC Land Records 164-316.
2 BH Company Minute Book, July 15, 1926, p. 89.
3 Deed 13 Aug.1946 John W & Blanche Hall to E. Clare Turner, lots 37 & 38 in block 4, PGC Land Records 865-135.
5 1870 U.S. Census, Vansville District
6 1880 U.S. Census, Vansville District
7 Deed 27 Nov. 1899, Maria Freeland to Laura Hall, lots 5, part of 6 in block 7, PGC Land Records JB 9-371
8 Deed 1905 Aug. 3, Marion Duckett, Trustee to John W. Hall, part of lot 6, block 7, PGC Land Records 26-212
9 Berwyn Heights Association Minute Book, 11 February 2015.
11 Berwyn Heights Company Minute Book, 29 March 1921.