by Anne Rollins
For decades after the federal government moved to the District of Columbia in 1800, the city grew very slowly, with only sparse settlement outside the area designed by L’Enfant. Beyond Boundary Street, now Florida Avenue, steep hills and the ravine of Rock Creek formed natural barriers to convenient access to what was then called Washington County.
By the 1870s, however, increased interest in the County and its reputedly cooler and healthier heights led to horsecar service along a few roads up the hills, followed by electric streetcars in the late 1880s and 1890s. Developers rushed to build housing along these routes, while others sought charters to construct streetcar lines to their planned developments.
Few had the audacity of Senator Francis Newlands of Nevada, however, who envisioned a new town just over the District line (so its occupants would have full voting rights). He proceeded to build a road, two bridges, and a streetcar line across several miles of northwest Washington to reach it. Newlands announced his plans for Chevy Chase, Maryland, in 1890 and set to work building the extension of Connecticut Avenue, with the streetcar tracks up the middle.
The first streetcars ran along Connecticut Avenue in September 1892. Connecting on 18th Street with streetcar lines from downtown, the cars turned west on Calvert Street and crossed Rock Creek Bridge, one of the new bridges built by the company, then turned north at the intersection of Calvert onto the new part of Connecticut.
With a top speed of 17 miles an hour, the streetcars would hardly qualify today as rapid transit, but promoters invariably noted the convenience of being only 20 to 30 minutes from the heart of downtown “for a single fare, six tickets being sold for twenty-five cents.”
As early as 1898 the Citizens Northwest Suburban Association was asking that the cars be run “not less than seven and a half minutes apart from 7:30 to 9 a.m. and from 4 to 6 p.m.” It’s not clear whether the Capital Traction Company met this demand. During the summer people sometimes rode the open-sided cars simply for a relatively cool, breezy outing.
Development followed fairly quickly. In 1901 the National Bureau of Standards bought land for the first of many laboratory buildings near today’s Van Ness Street and the eventual site for UDC. This was followed two years later by the Carnegie Institution of Washington, which built its geophysical laboratory across the avenue; that handsome building is now the Levine School of Music. These developments in turn attracted employees to build or buy homes in the area. Fernwood Heights, the first residential subdivision in Forest Hills, on the east side of Connecticut between Tilden and Van Ness streets, was registered at the D.C. Surveyor’s Office in 1902.
Riding the streetcars had its own challenges, however. Any Metro commuter would recognize the “car hog” critiqued by Caroline Prescott in a column in the Washington Times, June 9, 1907. Among her commandments to “straphangers”: “Never step upon a fellow passenger’s toes.” “You only pay a nickel for the ride; don’t take up a dime’s worth of space, unless you pay for it accordingly.” “Please don’t get in the habit of reading your neighbor’s paper or magazine.” “Don’t plant yourself at the rear door when there is plenty of room up front.” “Avoid talking scandal or gossip in the hearing of everyone else in the car.” And most important: “Don’t plump your child or your bundle into the seat beside you. Some one else might like to sit down.”
With the development of automobiles and then buses, the streetcars began to give way to the newer technology, touted in ads as “a direct, quiet, comfortable, convenient, curb-loading service.” The Forest Hills Citizens Association opposed the switch to buses, to no avail. The last streetcars ran on Connecticut Avenue in September 1935.
When the tracks were taken up, W.P.A. workers helped break up the concrete and then disposed of it in the neighborhood. The Citizens Association complained, according to an article in the Washington Star, March 29, 1936, that the blocks of concrete were “on ground the [Association] had requested to be made a park, a special committee… to arrange for getting some tennis courts in this area…. The plot of ground is located at Davenport Street and Linnean Avenue just west of Grant Road.”
After complaints “swamped” the Association’s officers, the National Capital Park Service, District committees in Congress, and officials at the District Building, “it was learned that the concrete was to be placed here temporarily and later used in paving Thirtieth Street when it is cut through.”
The park was never built there, but years ago, as I dug in my yard near that intersection, I came across several large, seemingly out-of-place chunks of concrete. Now I know they are pieces of Forest Hills history.
With special thanks to Ann Kessler for her research assistance.
(This piece originally published July 2013.)