On September 8, the Berwyn Heights Historical Committee visited the National Capital Trolley Museum in Colesville, MD, which preserves the history of DC’s electric streetcars.
Our group took a rambling ride on TTC (Toronto Transit Commission) car 4602 and received a presentation from docent Ken Rocker about the streetcars that served Berwyn Heights 100 years ago.
In August of 1910, the Washington Spa Spring & Gretta Railroad (WSSGRR) sent its first trolley from 15th and H Street, NE to Main and Water Street in Bladensburg. An extension to Berwyn Heights opened in the spring of 1912. This last streetcar company to be launched in the Capital area was troubled from the outset. Lawsuits were soon filed about schedules not kept; there were frequent breakdowns; and management changed within a couple of years of its opening. In October 1912, the name was changed to the Washington Interurban Railway. In May 1915, the Washington Interurban went into foreclosure, and in 1916, it was acquired by its rival, the Washington Railway & Electric Co.
Mr. Rocker explained that WSSGRR was destined to have difficulties because it had to compete with the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and the already well-established streetcar line of the City & Suburban, later bought by the Washington Railway & Electric, running to Laurel via Hyattsville, College Park and Berwyn. There simply were not enough people living in this area at the time, he said, to generate sufficient demand for a 3rd line. This was certainly true for Berwyn Heights, which had no more than a few dozen homes when WSSGRR started to operate. But the line also served East Riverdale, which was going through a growth spurt, and the old trading center, Bladensburg.
Seen from a different angle, the entrepreneurs who invested in this streetcar line, did so to spur development of the communities east of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. They had purchased real estate along the right-of-way and established real estate companies to induce D.C. residents to move to the suburbs. This had worked with some of the other streetcar companies operating in and around Washington. One might ask what comes first: development or transportation?
At the start of the school year of 1936-1937, Harvey L. “Heinie” Miller (1888 – 1967) was hired as head coach of the varsity boxing squad and professor of journalism by the University of Maryland, College Park. Miller was the right man for the job. He knew every aspect of the sport from personal experience and had spent 20 years writing about it. He put his stamp on the boxing program that same year: the team won the Southern Conference championship, and team boxer Ben Alperstein won the lightweight title in the National Inter-Collegiates. Under Miller’s direction, the terrapin tappers would twice more capture the Southern Conference title.
Miller was no stranger to the neighborhood. He had been involved with the Sportland boxing ring that opened in Berwyn Heights in 1922. At the time, boxing was illegal in the District of Columbia, and the action took place in nearby suburbs in Maryland and Virginia. At Sportland, Miller initially was a referee and, in 1923, became the matchmaker. He staged several high-profile shows before Berwyn Heights Town commissioners clamped down on the entertainment. Among the star performers boxing under Miller’s promotion, was young Goldie Ahearn of Washington D.C., who would go on to become a nationally known boxer and promoter himself.
When the Sportland arena ran into difficulties obtaining permits for boxing shows, Miller promoted at Kenilworth Arena that opened in 1924. The boxing arenas stirred up a considerable amount of controversy in the still half-rural communities where they were located. The fights drew a lot of city folk that did not always behave in an exemplary manner. Berwyn Heights residents Jean McConnell and Jerry Anzulovic, who grew up in Berwyn Heights in the 1930s and 40s, remember hearing stories about “more fights taking place outside the arena than inside,” and “marshals regularly being called in to keep the peace.”
Reportedly, Kenilworth arena even was the target of a robbery by the notorious Candy Kid Gang of Baltimore. Miller told the Evening Star, when he was promoting at Kenilworth, he was tipped off by an anonymous caller about the planned robbery. So, he brought in a handful of battle-hardened Marines who, armed with sawed-off shot guns, guarded the box office on the night of the show. Residents, churches and women’s groups fought back by petitioning their Town and County Commissioners to stop the ‘brutal contests’ and withhold licenses.
Miller’s love affair with boxing started early. He began to box in staged fights at age 12 in a barn loft at North Avenue and 25th Street in his native Milwaukee. At age 17, he abandoned his theological studies at Concordia Lutheran College, and in 1905 joined the Navy. His training as a sailor took place on the frigate U.S.S. Constellation, now anchored in Baltimore Harbor as a museum.
Miller then was assigned to the U.S.S. Wilmington, where he had ample opportunity to box and refine his craft. He won the all-service bantam championship in 1906, and the Far East featherweight title in 1907. But his greatest achievement was winning the Far East lightweight title in 1908 against the Australian Jimmy Dwyer. The fight was featured in a Ripley’s “Believe It or Not” cartoon because Miller scored an improbable knockout in the 13th round after being floored 13 times in the first four rounds.
In 1921, Miller retired from the Navy and settled in Washington, D.C. He worked as an editor for Our Navy magazine, sports writer for the Washington Herald and publisher of the Coast Guard Magazine. He also organized the 5th Marine Reserve Battalion of the District of Columbia, and he promoted boxers at Sportland and Kenilworth Arena.
In 1934, boxing was finally legalized in the District, and the now legitimate sport was overseen by the new D.C. Boxing Commission. Heinie Miller was selected as its first chairman. When the D.C. Commission affiliated with the National Boxing Association, he quickly rose through the ranks of that organization and became President in 1939. To these responsibilities he added the coaching/teaching position at UMD in 1936.
In 1940, Colonel Miller took a leave of absence to return to active military duty. During World War II, he served in the Pacific with the 5th Marine Reserve Battalion with which he was still closely affiliated. After the war, he resumed his positions at the University of Maryland and the D.C. and National Boxing Commissions. In 1948, he was called upon to serve a stint as treasurer of the U.S. Olympic Boxing Committee. Miller continued to coach and write about boxing into the late 1950s. He died from pneumonia on December 26, 1967, survived by his daughter Lucilee Bernard, a grand-daughter and 2 great grand-children.
Sportland Boxing Ring flyer, BHHC 2013
University of Maryland Yearbook, 1937, p. 132
The Truth About Boxing, Harvey L. Miller, 1951, Introduction, Lewis F. Achison
Ring Career Began after Attempt at Theology, Lewis F. Atchison,
Evening Star, 1-28-1940
Newspaper articles from The Washington Post (posted at BHHC dropbox)
Newspaper articles from The Washington Times, Evening Star
(available at Chronicling America )
Author: Kerstin Harper