“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 There were problems with the line almost from the start, including unreliable service, under-powered and outdated cars and later neglected tracks.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
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?