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 There were problems with the line almost from the start, including unreliable service, under-powered and outdated cars and later neglected tracks.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