“The Berwyn Heights subdivision consists of [approximately] 400 acres, divided into 1,600 lots, improved by 13 miles of 60 to 70 feet wide streets, graded, graveled and guttered sidewalks, with 80 residences on the Heights and nearby vicinity, occupied by a sprinkling of Congressmen and army officers, but principally by U.S. Government employees.”
This description comes from a letter written by Congressman Samuel S. Yoder to the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC) in November 1920. It was one of a series of letters in a campaign organized by the Berwyn Heights Association (BHA) to stop the closing of the Washington Interurban Railroad (formerly Washington, Spa Spring & Gretta Railroad) between Riverdale and Berwyn Heights.
The Berwyn Heights Association will be the subject of the next BHHC street marker. This citizen association functioned as the quasi-government of Berwyn Heights between 1915 – 1924. Its core business was to maintain the walks and streets in the subdivision, but frequently the Association worked with County and State agencies to improve living conditions in the community.
One concern repeatedly addressed at Association meetings was the sub-par streetcar service of the Washington Interurban Railway. The streetcar was the reason many residents had bought property in Berwyn Heights, believing that it would spur renewed development. However, the streetcar had gone bankrupt in 1914 and was sold to a subsidiary of the Washington Railway & Electric Company (WRECO). There were problems with the line almost from the start, including unreliable service, under-powered and outdated cars and later neglected tracks. Not surprisingly, this resulted in low ridership and a truncated schedule.
In September 1920, the streetcar owners asked the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC) for permission to close the segment between Riverdale and Berwyn Heights. The request was approved in March 1921, but not before the BHA had put up a valiant fight. It organized a letter-writing campaign, conducted a survey of riders, enlisted the good offices of its Congressman, Sidney Mudd, and demanded the PSC hold a public hearing on the closure. When the PSC nonetheless approved the closure, the Association appealed the decision and delayed the end for a couple more months.
The PSC case file on the streetcar closure contains a wealth of information on Berwyn Heights, including a number of images of the streetcar line and newly built homes, many of which were kit houses ordered by mail.
Minutes of the Berwyn Heights Association, 1915-24.
Public Service Commission Case File 1900, Maryland State Archives
The BHHC is very pleased to host John DeFerrari for a presentation and signing of his new book “Capital Streetcars: A Joyride through DC’s Transit History” at our fall event on November 8, at 2 pm. DeFerrari is a DC native and the author of several books on DC history. He also is author of the popular “Streets of Washington” blog. The book was recently reviewed on WAMU’s Metro Connection.
I meet many older students of history when doing research for the Berwyn Heights Historical Committee. But here I want to give a shoutout to a young man who is writing for WETA’s local history blog Boundary Stones.
Ben Shaw hails from College Park Estates (just south of our border) and grew up among us. He graduated from Eleanor Roosevelt High School and is about to finish his studies at the University of Maryland, College Park with a double major in English and History. His blog posts are about personalities, institutions and events that left an imprint on Washington and its outlying areas, with a focus on Prince George’s County. They range from the Wright brothers training of military pilots at College Park airport to the rise of UMD alumnus Jim Henson and his Muppets. Last year, Ben spent the summer as an intern at Archives II on Metzerott Road, which led to an article on how storage of government records evolved from “sticking them in a basement” to the high tech conservation of the Declaration of Independence and other founding documents at the National Archives today. He writes:
“…Initially, there was no real plan for preserving the Constitution. After its approval by the Continental Congress in 1787, it was kept for a few years by the secretary of the Constitutional Convention, Roger Alden. It passed briefly into the hands of Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, after which it was shuttled from unremarkable storage building to unremarkable storage building for years. In 1814, when government officials and documents were being evacuated from Washington ahead of the advancing British army, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were unceremoniously stuffed in a sack along with assorted other documents and tossed on a cart. The Constitution spent the next century being shoved into storage space. It returned to the North Wing of the Treasury for forty years, and then spent an eleven-year stint at the Washington Orphan Asylum; from 1875 until 1921, the Constitution sat in the State Department’s basement, until it was finally moved to a place of honor in the Library of Congress…”
Ben’s articles are thoroughly researched and fun to read. You should check them out.
The Charlton Heights Improvement Company, the instrument for developing and marketing the subdivision of Charlton Heights between 1888 and 1892, had its main office at 933 F Street, near its intended clientele. At the time, F Street was a center of commerce in downtown Washington, not far from the Patent Office, the Census Office and the Pension Building, whose employees would have shopped and dined in the stores that lined the street. Also on this block was the old Masonic temple (still standing), a popular venue for meetings and celebrations of the numerous fraternal organizations then in existence. Several of the directors of the Charlton Heights Improvement Company, James Waugh, George Gibson, Chas Duncanson and John Miller, were prominent masons and likely frequented the temple to participate in masonic functions.
As it happens, native Washingtonian and local history enthusiast John De Ferrari features an F Street Stroll in his Streets of Washington blog It gives a detailed description of this section of the city at the turn of the 19th century and is well worth a look.
The day began with a glitch that had BHHC members scrounging for a canopy under which to set up the exhibits. A slightly damaged one was located in the Town office, which served just fine for the remainder of this bright, sunshiny day. Many visitors stopped by to chat, peruse the exhibits and pick up brochures.
This year the BHHC re-issued the Waugh Avenue (Berwyn Road) historic marker. The original one was dedicated in 2004 as the Committee’s first historic marker. Since then, we have learned much more about Waugh and the Charlton Heights venture, which makes up the first chapter in our Town’s history. The new marker corrects previous errors and puts Waugh’s role into context.
Waugh Avenue was named for James E. Waugh, one of seven Washington investors who in 1888 established the railroad suburb of Charlton Heights.¹ Waugh was the most committed to the project in the group. As the Secretary and General Manager of the Charlton Heights Improvement Company, he promoted the place tirelessly in the face of a deflating real estate market. He and a few associates pushed hard to sell properties to District residents, targeting particularly employees in the Treasury Department, where several of the Company’s directors had worked. Prospective buyers were shown around the development and promised a long list of planned improvements – from a first class opera house to a pleasure lake for boating and fishing – which never materialized. More troubling, buyers were asked to sign contracts binding them to monthly payments on lots purchased for which a deed of title was not always given. When the Charlton Heights Improvement Company went out of business in April 1892, law suits promptly piled into the D.C. Supreme Court, alleging fraud and demanding restitution.²
Waugh largely escaped the legal consequences through stalling maneuvers and withholding of documents. But he had gone deeply into debt to buy back a large number of lots from the Charlton Heights Improvement Company upon its dissolution.³ Many of these lots became the property of Jacob Tome, a wealthy Maryland Banker who had financed Waugh’s real estate dealings. Waugh died suddenly of a heart attack in May 1895. Much of his estate was distributed to creditors. In 1896, residents made a fresh start and had the subdivision incorporated as the Town of Berwyn Heights.
¹ “Charlton Heights Improvement Company Articles of Incorporation“, Library of Virginia.
² “Equity Case Files re: lawsuits against Charlton Heights Improvement Company, Charlton Heights Investment & Building Association,” Record Group 21, Entry 69, U.S. National Archives & Records Administration.
³ “Prince George’s County Land Records: JWB Book 22, Pages 44, 53,” Maryland State Archives.
On March 15, the BHHC had the pleasure of hosting Maya Davis for a rescheduled presentation on Slavery during the War of 1812.
Ms. Davis is a Research Archivist in the Legacy of Slavery at the Maryland State Archives. She also serves on an exhibition team for the soon to open Harriet Tubman State Park Visitor Center near Cambridge, MD. The visitor center will commemorate Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad helping fugitive slaves escape to freedom before emancipation.
Maya Davis said that her research into the War of 1812 yielded an unexpected wealth of information on the state of slavery in ante-bellum Maryland. A “Definitive List of Slaves and Property,” proved especially useful. It compiled claims of indemnity submitted by slave owners to the Department of State for the loss of slaves to the British. No less than 700 Maryland slaves, including women and children, escaped during the war, or were taken aboard British ships that had sailed into the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River for a blockade of Baltimore and the Capital City. Once freed, they became British soldiers, worked on the ships, or resettled in British colonies in Canada and the Caribbean.
Thanks to the work of Ms. Davis and her colleagues, the fate of many runaway slaves can now be traced in over 250 case studies posted at the Maryland State Archives website. The War of 1812 is but one aspect of a broader investigation into the history and legacy of slavery in Maryland. A group of scholars, archivists and volunteers has been engaged in an organized study of census and court records, laws, newspapers, and maps since 2001, and collected a body of information on slaves and the flight to freedom that can now be accessed at their website. A updated guide to Researching African American Families was published in 2018.
Despite freezing temperatures and icy roads, the BHHC’s annual Presidents’ Day reception was a round success. Guests came from California, Virginia, D.C. and Maryland to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Berwyn Heights Association. Many were descendants of the first President of the Association, Fred Hodges Benson, and enjoyed meeting up with distant relatives for the occasion and viewing the artifacts on display.
James Benson, who compiled a genealogy of his family, showed a video about his great grandparents Fred and Maude and their lives in Berwyn Heights. Another great-grandchild, Maureen Tobin, brought a most unexpected treasure: the minute book of the Berwyn Heights Company, passed down to her from her grandfather Clarence Benson. The Berwyn Heights Company was incorporated in November 1919 by Fred Benson, his son Clarence, and Association members Elwood Taylor, William Willard, and John McNitt, to buy, sell, lease and improve land in Berwyn Heights. It had purchased the remaining properties of the United Realty Company from a previous group of developers led by Congressman Samuel Yoder. Ms. Tobin graciously offered to loan the book to the BHHC to make a copy, which is sure to add valuable information to our historic record.
The event was capped by a presentation from former Councilman Darald Lofgren. Darald and his wife Sarah live in the house of Elwood J. Taylor, who was one of the most influential members of the Berwyn Heights Association. He variously served as its Treasurer and President and was in charge of the annual carnivals the Association held to raise funds for essential community projects. Darald and Sarah brought an old set of tools they found in their basement, and once were used by the Association to erect poles and string electric wires in Berwyn Heights. Darald summed it all up when he said it is amazing how one find – in this case the minute book of the Berwyn Heights Association – leads to another and helps piece together the past.
On January 28, 1915, residents of Berwyn Heights gathered at the home of Fred H. Benson and established the Berwyn Heights Association. Fred Benson was elected President and would lead the Association for most of its existence.
“The object of this association,” according to Article II of the Bylaws, was “to promote the interests of the residents of that sub-division of Prince George’s County, Maryland, known as Berwyn Heights and to form a body of representative citizens in this sub-division whose collective and combined influence and action will promote better conditions in the community.” To accomplish this, the Association sponsored a lineup of community events each year to raise the funds needed to maintain the roads, fix the school and clean up the Town. It also negotiated with State and County agencies to improve streetcar service, build a new school and, finally, to recharter the Town, which led to the establishment of the first functioning government in 1924.
The meetings of the Berwyn Heights Association were recorded in a minute book, believed lost and then found, which will be on display during the BHHC’s February 15, 2015 Presidents’ Day reception. James Benson, a great grand son of Fred and Margaret “Maude” Benson, plans to be present and share his memories about visiting Berwyn Heights as a child. Join the BHHC to celebrate this 100th birthday of the Association and rediscover this chapter of our Town’s past.
Here is an interesting video produced by UMBC’s Imaging Research Center (IRC) in 2010 visualizing early Washington DC. The IRC has worked with architectural historians, cartographers, engineers, and ecologists to assess the often-unreliable eyewitness accounts and sparse historical evidence to recreate a “best guess” glimpse of the early city. It ends with a surprising view of the U.S. Capitol and surroundings as it would have looked shortly before being burned down by the British.
On Saturday, September 20, the BHHC hosted the Cornell Club of Washington for lunch at the Town Center. The Club was touring the sites where Ezra Cornell lived and worked when he helped build the first telegraph line in 1843-44. The tour helped kick off the 150th anniversary celebrations of Cornell University, founded by Ezra Cornell in 1865.
Samuel Morse hired Cornell in 1843 to lay the cables for his experimental telegraph line along the tracks of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (now owned by CSX). Cornell built a plow to lay cables encased in a lead pipe in a trench between the B&O north and south-going tracks But during construction he encountered problems with the insulation of the wires. After further study, Cornell became convinced that it was better to string the wires on overhead poles. With Morse’s approval, he ended up building the telegraph line above ground in the spring of 1844, the wires strung atop glass insulators on the cross arms of chestnut poles.
While working in the Washington area, Cornell had interactions with Charles Benedict Calvert, who supported the inventors and gave permission for the telegraph line to cross his Riversdale estate. The first test message was sent from Riversdale to Washington on April 9, 1844, 45 days prior to the official initiation of Morse’s telegraph on May 24, 1844 with the sending of the message “What hath God wrought.”
Cornell went on to build more telegraph lines along the east cost and the mid west. He invested heavily in the business and pushed for consolidation and standardization. After merging with the New York & Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company in 1855, Cornell’s Western Union Telegraph Company became the dominant telegraph company in the country, and rapidly expanded its operations throughout most parts of the United States and Canada.