Monthly Archives: November, 2013


Washington Spa Spring and Gretta Railroad

Washington Spa Spring & Gretta Railroad
Battery-powered car 11, ca 1910
(LeRoy O’King, Jr. Collection)

The Washington Spa Spring & Gretta Railroad (WSSGRR), the streetcar that came to Berwyn Heights in the 1910s, had one of the more memorable names of the many streetcar lines in the Washington area at the turn of the 20th century. But what does it signify? The key to the name, as might be expected, are the places connected by the streetcar.

Washington at 15th and H Street, NE near the old District boundary was one end point of the line. In addition to 15th and H Street, Maryland Avenue, Florida Avenue, Benning Road and Bladensburg Road converged here to form a big “starburst” intersection where passengers could transfer to other lines that went into the city center. At the time, the residents of East Washington felt they were under-served by the city’s street car system, and through their citizen associations strongly lobbied for better service and for a “cross-town line.”  In February 1907, they got Congress to pass a law permitting WSSGRR to enter the District. Congressman Samuel S. Yoder, also a resident of East Washington and future President of WSSGRR, thanked the East Washington Citizen Association for supporting the bill and offered for WSSGRR to build the cross-town line.

Spa Spring refers to the Bladensburg Spa Spring located on the eastern bank of the Northeast Branch of the Anacostia River. In the 19th century, it was a popular tourist destination, and was visited by many for its alleged curative powers. An old Hopkins Atlas shows the location of the spring as well the concentration of businesses near it, including a Spa Spring Hotel.

Gretta refers to the homestead of Benjamin D. Stephen located east of Riverdale on the old Edmonston Road. Stephen was the Clerk of the Prince George’s Circuit Court at the time the streetcar was organized, and was elected as the first President of WSSGRR. Later, he conveyed Gretta to his oldest son Frank M. Stephen and two associates, who would plat the Gretta Addition to Riverdale, bounded on the west by the Eastern Branch, on the east by Edmonston Road, and in the south by Riverdale Road.

Berwyn Heights is notable for not being mentioned. A possible reason is that, in February 1905, when WSSGRR was incorporated in Maryland, it was not yet part of the plans. The certificate of incorporation describes the proposed streetcar route as “beginning at the District line, on the Baltimore and Washington Turnpike, where said line crosses the Pike at Colonel Reeve’s; then with the Pike through the Town of Bladensburg to the Edmonston Road; thence with said road or near thereto northerly to Gretta, a point on said road about one mile north of where the Riverdale Road leaves the Edmonston Road.” Berwyn Heights may have become a destination only after Yoder bought up properties in Berwyn Heights starting in late 1905 and became Vice President of WSSGRR, when the executive board was elected on April 2, 1907.

Library of Congress historic newspapers online “Chronicling America”
Library of Congress “Atlas of fifteen miles around Washington…” Hopkins, 1879, p.28
City of Bladensburg website/history
Maryland State Archives “J.B.B. No. 1, Incorporations, 1901-1923”
LeRoy O’King, Jr. “100 Years of Capital Traction”


Mutchler proclamation

Marines Thomas Mutchler and Mayor Pro Tem Wilkinson

At its November 10 Veterans Day reception, the BHHC was pleased to honor Thomas Mutchler of 58th Avenue, a US Marine and World War II veteran. He fought in one of the the bloodiest battles of the Pacific campaign, the assault on the Japanese-held Island of Betio in the Tarawa Atoll, which took place November 20-23, 1943. PFC Mutchler was in the first wave of the amphibious assault, which required the Marines to wade ashore under heavy enemy fire because the water in the lagoon was not high enough for their amtracs to reach the beach. Former Councilmember Darald Lofgren arranged the ceremony, and Mayor Pro Tem James Wilkinson read a Proclamation on this 70th anniversary of the battle thanking Mr. Mutchler for his service.

O'Neill lecture

Patrick O’Neill talks about Battle of the White House, November 10, 2013

Guests were also treated to an entertaining talk by freelance historian and archaeologist Patrick O’Neill from Virginia. O’Neill presented original research on the “Battle of the White House,” located at today’s Fort Belvoir, which took place September 13-15, 1814 during the War of 1812.

A squadron of 7 British war ships under the command of Captain James Gordon had sailed up the Potomac River to divert attention from the 5,000 British troops that were sailing up the Patuxent River at same time to attack Washington from the east. After defeating a band of Maryland and District militia at Bladensburg on August 24, the British reached the capital that same night, and, after being fired upon, burned all the public buildings.


The White House Battery, September 1814
Sketch by William Bainbrigde Hoff, Naval Historical Center

Meanwhile, the Potomac squadron seized a large number of naval stores at Alexandria, which had surrendered to save their city. They set out on their return voyage with 21 prizes on September 2. Upon passing Fort Washington, they came under fire from Virginia militias, which turned into a pitched battle at White House landing. US Navy Captain David Porter had amassed 2,500 men on the bluff, and for 3 days fired mostly with muskets on the British ships that were held up by adverse winds. When the winds turned, the British nonetheless sailed away with all their ships, and met up with the Patuxent squadron in the Chesapeake Bay. It was at that point, according to O’Neill, the decision was made to attack Baltimore, where the decisive battle would be fought.

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