History: From Rail to Trail
The Metropolitan Branch, connecting Washington, D.C. with the main line of the B&O Railroad, sixty-five miles west of Baltimore, carried the bulk of western rail traffic out of both Washington and Baltimore soon after it was built in 1873. It also gave the B&O its capitol dome logo and the slogan “All trains via Washington”. Even though it brought prosperity in its wake, the line was not a very popular idea in the beginning and it took twenty years for the line to become a reality.
In 1828 the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company began building the first long distance railroad in the United States. The goal of this railroad was to provide a commercial route between the port of Baltimore and the Ohio River that would be faster and more reliable than using horse and wagon.
The B&O Railroad reached Frederick by 1831, Harper’s Ferry by 1834, Cumberland by 1842 and finally arrived at Wheeling and the Ohio River in 1853. The line between Baltimore and Wheeling was referred to as the “Main Line”. Because of its success, the B&O and other railroad companies began building branch lines connecting to the B&O as well as other railroads all over the country.
The Metropolitan Railroad Company
The B&O Railroad Company did not originally take part in the establishment of a connection into Washington because it was having financial difficulties, was dealing with striking employees, and was battling with other major railroad companies for routes to the west.
Instead, the Metropolitan Railroad Company, an independent company, was granted a charter by the Maryland General Assembly in 1853 to create a connection with the B&O Main Line near Buckeystown to go to Georgetown. Surveys were completed in 1854; some grading was done in Bethesda in 1856-57 in order to hold the charter, but lack of capital and political opposition stopped the progress.
The Civil War
By the time of the Civil War, the importance of railroads and especially a connection to Washington, was realized and endorsed by both President Lincoln and the U.S. Congress. When the franchise of the Metropolitan Railroad Company expired, the B&O Railroad took over the building of the line. The B&O engineers, James L. Randolph and Capt. Philip Dandridge used some of the same surveys, slightly modified, that were made by the original company, but they planned the line to go from the B&O Station in central Washington instead of from Georgetown, to pass through the new community of Silver Spring and to terminate at the connection with the main line at Point of Rocks. Later the B&O did build a branch to Georgetown from the Metropolitan Branch.
Construction of the Metropolitan Branch began in the middle and was allotted to several different contractors by bid. The first contract for the Parrs Ridge section went to James A. Boyd, who set up a camp where the town named for him now stands, and subsequently built six more sections of the line. The section inside Washington D.C did not receive governmental approval until after most of the rest of the line was completed. The last rail was laid in Gaithersburg on February 8, 1873 and service began on the Metropolitan Branch of the B&O Railroad on May 25, 1873. The total cost of the railroad line was $3.5 million.
Schedules and Routes
The 42.5 mile-long line between Washington, D.C. and Point of Rocks originally had 9 stops referred to in the schedule as: “Terra Cotta, Silver Spring, Knowles, Rockville, Gaithersburg, Germantown, Boyd’s, Dickerson’s, and Tuscarora”. Six trains ran each way, three local and three express. This quickly expanded to 28 stops as the B&O very willingly added stops for mills, dairy farm depots, and burgeoning suburban developments. The express trains took 1 hour 20 minutes to go from Washington to Point of Rocks, and the locals a half hour longer. In 1874 the Shenandoah Valley Express to Staunton, Virginia was added. By 1887 there were thirteen passenger trains each way, for express and nine local, three of which ran on Sundays as well. By 1893 the railroad hit its high point with eighteen passenger trains a day, a figure that would continue through the 1920’s. The fare for a passenger traveling from Dickerson to Washington was $1.10.
A depression in the 1870’s kept the B&O from building the elaborate brick train stations or smaller frame stations planned for the line; most stops had to make do with temporary wood buildings or waiting shelters for a few years. When they were built, nearly all of the station houses on the Metropolitan Branch of the B&O Railroad were designed by Baltimore architect, Ephraim Francis Baldwin (1837-1916), who is most recognized for the large Victorian Gothic Station at Point-of-Rocks, built in 1875. Station houses at Rockville, Kensington, Gaithersburg, and Dickerson still stand and are historic sites.
Linking City and Country
The coming of the railroad marked a big change in the way of life for local people. For the first time the upper country became accessible to the city-dwellers of Washington, D.C. for weekends in the country; and the markets of Washington, DC became accessible to the up-country farmers to sell perishable goods such as garden produce, fruit, and milk. The farming towns in the up-country experienced an unprecedented boom.
The train came through several times a day, adding a tinge of excitement but at the same time a regular schedule to everyday life. In the morning the farmers would load up their milk and produce on the train and the mills would pack their bags of flour and cornmeal for the city market. Drummers, or traveling salesmen, would get off the train and hire a buggy at the local liver stable to peddle their wares.
The train would bring in goods from the city to be sold at the local stores, and sometimes transport people from the city visiting relatives or just up for a vacation in the country. In the up-country the older children traveled by train to the high school in Rockville.
In the southern part of Montgomery County the railroad not only changed the lives of the nearby residents, but also brought many new residents and created a whole new way of living. Takoma Park, Linden, Woodside, Forest Glen, Capitol View, Kensington, and Garret Park were all part of a brand new concept in the 1880’s – railroad suburbs.
Before the Industrial Age the suburbs, or outskirts of the city, were where the poorer people lived. The rich and middle class all lived in the middle of the cities, which were small and compact with everything within walking distance. It wasn’t until industrialization moved the workplace out of the home and into factories and office buildings that the cities became very noisy, congested and polluted, and the value of living downtown came to be questioned. People with means wanted to move away from the center of the city, but their work was still in the city. They couldn’t move very far until a faster means of transportation was invented.
Since the idea of actually living in the country and working in the city was so new, some of the first railroad suburbs were built not as bedroom communities for those working in the city, but as resort communities with summer homes. As people discovered how fast and easy rail travel was, and the wives and children of city businessmen stayed longer and longer in the comfort of the country, permanent homes were built and stable communities were established in these new railroad towns. The B&O Railroad encouraged the establishment of these new rail-side towns by offering half the usual freight rate for delivery of household goods or building materials.
Speculators were planning these new communities even before the Metropolitan Branch of the B&O Railroad was completed. They bought up land around the new railroad line and laid out plots for residences, making sure to allow plenty of property for gardens for each home, and designing winding roads to retain the rural atmosphere. When it became obvious that these towns were becoming popular as residential areas for commuters, speculators began planning railroad towns for the middle class as well – although anything further than Woodside was too far to travel while working in the city. The financial panic of 1893 and the coming of the streetcar lines in the 1890s put an end to the further development of the railroad suburbs.
As the farms prospered and the population along the railroad increased, improvements continued to be made to the railroad line. Ungated grade crossings were extremely dangerous for both pedestrians and horse-drawn wagons, and after several accidents the Maryland General Assembly passed an act to require flagmen at the crossings of major roads in 1886.
An extensive rebuilding program was instigated by the new B&O president, Leonor F. Loree in 1901. Although Loree left the position in 1904, his 20-year improvement program continued throughout the entire B&O holdings. On the Metropolitan Branch the line was double-tracked, some curves straightened, and all of the old wooden bridges were replaced with steel or stone. The section between Washington and Gaithersburg had already been double-tracked by 1886-1893 with a wye (turning track shaped like a “Y”) at Gaithersburg, but in 1906-08 the sections between Gaithersburg and Germantown, and between Barnesville and Dickerson, were double-tracked. The section of the line between Germantown and Boyds remained a single track until 1929 because of the difficulty of replacing the long bridge over Little Seneca Creek.
In 1891 the single-track block signal system was tested for the first time on the track west of Gaithersburg. Automatic interlocking block signals were placed over the entire line from 1908 to 1912.
The interlocking machines were composed of sets of levers with electrical contacts controlling the signals. If one lever was pulled it interlocked with others to create the correct signals to allow a train to pass safely. The systems were placed in block tower located at New York Avenue (NY), the junction of the Washington Branch (QN), University (UX), Takoma Park (KA), Silver Spring (SG), Forest Glen (FN), Germantown (GM), Boyds (DS), Barnesville (BA), Dickerson (DN), a Point of Rock (KG). The one at Point of Rocks still exists. The agents operating the systems communicated with each other at first by telegraph, then in later years by telephone, and finally by radio. If the electricity went off they reverted to the old system: a baton would be carried by the engineer of one train to the next station where it would be transferred to the engineer of a train traveling in the opposite direction. The train couldn’t run on the tracks unless the engineer had the baton. Today the entire system is operated by computer from Florida.
The Capital dome logo was designed for the line in the 1800s with the slogan, “All Trains via Washington”, encircling it. The banner across the center saying “Baltimore and Ohio R.R.” came in the 1890s and the slogan around the circle became “All Trains via Washington …With stopover privilege”. In the 1930s the slogan and banner were dropped and the logo became the symbol for the B&O Railroad, still in dark royal blue on gray colors.
During World War I portions of the track of the Metropolitan Branch were guarded by federal troops because of its vulnerability and strategic importance.
All of the railroad lines began to feel the competition from automobiles in the 1920s. The B&O eliminated some of its smaller stations along the “Met,” as well as reducing the number of passenger trains. The rail-side towns suffered along with the railroad, entering a long period of slow decline that did not begin to reverse until the late 1970s when the overcrowding of the highway forced some of the freight transportation, and many commuters, back onto rails. By 1956 there were only three passenger trains to, and two trains from, Washington, but by 1977 this rate had risen to five trains each way daily. In 1963 the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad took over the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, although both continued to operate as separate entities. In 1972 the combined systems, including the Western Maryland Railroads, became the Chessie Systems Railroads. The B&O retained its distinctive logo, but with yellow replacing the gray. All were merged into the CSX Transportation Corporation in 1987. Amtrak took over all long-distance passenger rail service after it was formed in 1971, and, after subsidizing the commuter rail service for several years, the State of Maryland took over the full control of this service 1984 and adopted the acronym MARC (Maryland Area Rail Commuter).
The Metropolitan Branch is now know as the CSX Transportation Corporation Metropolitan Line and carries the Brunswick Line of the MARC run by the Maryland Mass Transit Administration. The freight traffic average 24 trains a day (37.8 million gross tons a year). There are 17 commuter trains a day, 7 eastbound in the morning and 10 westbound in the afternoon and evening. Approximately 2,400 people were riding these trains each way in February, 1998. The AMTRAK “Capital Limited” passenger train to Chicago also uses the tracks twice a day.
Washington D.C. (mile 0.0)
When the Metropolitan Branch was built in 1873, the B&O railroad station was located at New Jersey Avenue. The “Met” joined the main branch in a single-track wye (turning track shaped like a “Y”) at G Street. This wye was also used by the trains from Baltimore to turn around, since the Washington terminal was the end of the line.
The New Jersey Avenue Station had been built in 1850 to replace the second B&O Depot at 6th and Constitution Avenue (the first station house had been at the northwest corner of 2nd and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW). It was designed by the Baltimore architect Niernsee and Nielson. The stuccoed brick station was 119 feet long with a 100-foot tall Italianate tower at one end and arched center entranceways. Inside, the wall were wood paneled, the window curtained, the benches cushioned.
New Jersey Avenue Station
By the 1890s this little station was terribly overwhelmed by the increased traffic, intensified by the addition of the Metropolitan Branch. four tracks and single wye made it almost impossible for the many trains to coordinate their movements. In addition, all the crossings were at grade and trains often occupied city streets tying up traffic. Several serious accidents had occurred at the crossings, some involving the new trolley lines. All of the switches were manually operated and communication was by telegraph. A new station was definitely needed, but it was difficult to work out a solution amid Washington’s government buildings and increasing traffic and also accommodate the Pennsylvania Railroad’s lines’ coming in from the east and south.
In 1901 a solution to the problem was born with the Macmillan Commission. This Commission was created by congress to plan the redevelopment of the city of Washington in order to make it into a beautiful capital city, the proper symbol of a prosperous nation. The first plan for solving the railroad problem was to create two separate stations: one for the B&O and one for the Pennsylvania. But it was finally decided that a more monumental solution was required and the single Union Station at Massachusetts and Delaware Avenues –four blocks from the capitol building and highly visible-was approved. This involved not only the building of the station, but also the realignment of the Pennsylvania Railroad‘s approach, and creation of tunnel under the capitol building in order to route the southern track out the city without disturbing the traffic patterns, the aesthetic vista, or the plan for the government buildings.
The station itself was planned as a monumental structure in keeping with the government buildings surrounding it. It was designed by Macmillan Commission member and internationally renowned architect Daniel H. Burnham. The union station that he created was both monumental and unique among railroad station designs. The huge beaux arts style building is 663 feet long at the front, and 211 feet wide. The temple-like pillared façade of marble and granite was designed to resemble the great Arch of Constantine and embody the idea of a colossal city portal. Inside are two long rooms: the waiting room is 220 feet long and 130 feet wide with a 97.5-foot barrel-vaulted ceiling; and the concourse is 760 feet long and 130 feet wide—the largest room in the world at the time. The station included a suite for the President and other dignitaries, Greco Roman statuary, gilt trim, marble floors, and an indoor fountain. The whole is an unsurpassed beaux Arts extravaganza- the crown jewel of railroad stations.
The building had gone into serious decline when a renovation project was adopted in 1968 by the federal government to make Union Station into a national visitor’s center. The visitor center opened in 1976, but the building had not been adequately renovated and it was closed again in 1981. A combination of public and private funding re-developed and completely renovated the building, and Union Station in all its previous glory re-opened on September 29, 1988.
The track of the Metropolitan Branch was not changed much by the move of the station, only moving to the east a couple of blocks at Eckington and straightening the approach into Washington. Between Union Station and Takoma Park the metro shares the right-of-way with the railroad, mostly running between the tracks. The railroad tracks were placed further apart in the 1970s to accommodate Metro. The steep grades climbing out of the Potomac River valley between here and the Silver Spring station reach 1.42% in some places, and average 1%.
Eckington (New York Avenue) (mile 0.9)
This short-lived stop at what is now Florida and New York avenues had a small frame station from 1890 to 1906. Mainly a freight station, it was often referred to as just the “New York Avenue” stop. The track was re-routed about a block to the east in 1906 when Union Station was built, and the little station house, no longer needed, was torn down. A large freight house was constructed nearby, as well as a large railroad yard with many sidings for temporary storage of trains. This would have been near the spot where the track for the Washington of the B&O, heading to Baltimore and points north, split off to the east from the Metropolitan Branch track when the track was re-aligned in 1906.
Between Union Station and Eckington were several manufacturing and coals depot stops. The names for these stops were changed as the companies changed. Just north of the station was the QN block tower. It was initialed for Queenstown, a small town that was located there.
University (mile 3.2)
This stop at the Michigan Avenue crossing was established in 1890 to serve the nearby Catholic University. Francis Baldwin, a Catholic himself, took special care with the design of the station house here. The small building on the south side of the tracks was unique in its masonry construction, Romanesque design, and arched porte-cochere on the front. It was damaged by fired and later torn down the 1970s. It was similar in design to the station at Hagerstown that inspired writer George Alfred Townsend to build a monument to honor war correspondents. A subdivision called University Heights was built nearby in the 1870s. The UX block tower was here.
Terra Cotta (mile 4.4)
This was a shipping stop for the National Terra Cotta works of the Thomas Somerville Company. There was no station house here, just a waiting shelter and a loading platform on the east side of the tracks. This was quite a rural area of Washington when the pottery factory was built. The landscape was bare and industrial with a only few other factories and coal operations nearby.
Lamond (mile 5.8)
The Lamond siding appeared about 1905. It began as a stop for the farm of Angus Lamond and later turned into a coal depot and continued past the 1950s. The less tenacious stops at Chillum and Stotts on either side of this one were similar in nature.
Takoma Park (mile 6.3)
Takoma Park, being only one-half hour by train from Washington, was developed as a commuter suburb with inexpensive housing for government workers in 1884 at the site of the station formerly called Brightwood. Benjamin Franklin Gilbert had come to work as clerk in Washington during the civil war and after the war he opened the Temperance Lunchroom on F Street. He began purchasing land for Takoma Park in 1883 and by 1888 had 1,000 acres. The first houses in the new community were occupied by 1885. Gilbert was not an absentee owner or transient corporation as were many of the other developers around the railroad: he actually lived in Takoma Park and became its first mayor when it was incorporated in 1890. Wanting to advertise the natural setting of his development, Gilbert chose a Native American name, “Takoma,” which means “exalted” or “near heaven.” “Park” was appended to the name later to emphasize the park-like setting. Before this development, the stop was called Brightwood and there were few house built near the stop before 1883.
One of the more successful rail-side developments, Takoma Park had an elementary school (Bliss Elementary) and Bliss Electrical School (later Montgomery College) in 1894, a college (Columbia Union) in 1902, a hospital (Washington Adventist) in 1907, and a library in 1935. Montgomery County’s first multifamily residence was built in Takoma Park in 1885. By 1893 the population had reached more than 400.
The coming of the trolley lines-the Baltimore and Washington Transit Company of 1897, and the Washington and Maryland line in 1910-27 – greatly increased the population as well as the construction of small bungalow-style houses and Sears kit houses. By 1922 the population had soared to more than 4,000. This population increase was partly due to the Seventh Day Adventists, who made it the site of their national headquarters in 1904. About one third of these residents were Adventists.
An attractive Baldwin-designed station was built at Takoma Park in 1886. The frame station burned down December 1, 1967. It was a handsome Bavarian style station with cedar shingle siding, cross hatching on the gables, and a short tower in the center to house the ticket agent. Part of the roof extended over an outside freight and waiting area.
The Met: A History of the Metropolitan Branch of the B&O Railroad, Its Stations and Towns by Susan Cooke Soderberg, May 1998, The Germantown Historical Society, Germantown, MD.