Monday, August 25, 2008

Touching the Past

The rails embedded in the streets of Georgetown have long been dormant, yet they are one of the last tangible reminders of a transportation network long gone from Washington. For six and a half decades, from 1895 until 1960, trolleys plied tracks alongside the Potomac on their way to the loop at Cabin John, Maryland. Today, this line leaves much more evidence of its existence than other lines, but still only a few traces remain.

The history of the Cabin John Trolley goes back to 1892, when the Washington and Great Falls Electric Company was chartered. In August of 1895, streetcars were running from the Aqueduct Bridge in Georgetown to a loop just east of the MacArthur Boulevard bridge over Cabin John Creek.

Sunlight filters through the boards
of the decaying Foundry Branch
Bridge near Georgetown

From Georgetown to Cabin John the line operated in a private, semi-exclusive right-of-way. Within the City of Washington, the line traversed city streets from Union Station to Georgetown University. In later years, the route was number 20.

Route 20 had the honor of serving Washington's trolley park. Like Pittsburgh's Kennywood and New York's Coney Island, these early amusement parks were built to garner transit ridership. In this region, Washingtonians took the trolley out to Maryland to spend the weekend at Glen Echo Park.

A Philly PCC in front of the
Glen Echo Park entrance

Today, the notes of carousel music still drift through the trees, but the clang of trolley bells can no longer be heard. The glory days of the trolley park went the same way of the golden era of the trolley. Glen Echo Park only survived 8 years after the demise of the Cabin John trolley. Recently, a PCC streetcar was brought back to the restored park. This vehicle was a part of a fleet of streetcars running on Philadelphia's streets, and it's good to see this relic at the park. It's in bad shape, though.

Streetcars have been absent from Glen Echo for 48 years, but traces remain.

Yesterday, I when into the Potomac Valley to trace this artifact before it is forever washed away. The photographs here are the record of my adventure. The former right-of-way is easily accessible by bicycle. From Georgetown it's a short bike ride up the Capital Crescent Trail to the tunnel under the C&O Canal at Foundry Branch. Once on the north side of the canal, a few steps up Foxhall Road leads to a vista of a rusting trestle. I continued up the C&O to Cabin John and returned along MacArthur Boulevard, which shadows the old streetcar line.

A volleyball net stretches across
the ROW in Sherier Place, NW DC

In a few places, the ROW is visible as an extra wide median in neighborhood streets. I wonder if the residents of Brookmont realize that streetcars used to ply the center of Broad Street or if those living along Sherier Place in Northwest can remember streetcars gliding by?

Streetcars no longer glide through
Brookmont in Montgomery County
but their legacy remains in this green space

In Georgetown, on O & P Streets between Wisconsin and 35th, rails are still embedded in the cobblestones. Here, one can see the unique third rail conduit exclusive to DC. Congress forbade the use of overhead wires, so streetcars had to use an underground power source. The resulting trench was hard to maintain, but Washington made do.

Rails in P Street NW in Georgetown

After Georgetown, Route 20 streetcars stopped at a plow pit and changed to overhead catenary for the remainder of the trip to Cabin John.

Except for a segment through the Dalecarlia Water Treatment Plant, the right-of-way is moslty still intact. I'm not sure about the ownership, but the grading for the streetcar is clearly visible all the way to Cabin John Creek. The line is quite overgrown in places, and a few decaying bridges remain as the last vestiges of this piece of history.

The streetcar bridge over Foundry
Branch near Georgetown University

The cut for the streetcar loop at Cabin John is also quite noticeable. The outbound half of the loop is quite clear of underbrush, and seems to be in use as a walking path. The inbound part of the loop is very overgrown and is not really accessible. The loop falls entirely within the Cabin John Regional Park of Maryland's M-NCPPC.

Here, the grading of the loop is still
clearly visible after 48 years of dormancy.

I think it has a lot of potential as a heritage streetcar line, but it would also be expensive--perhaps prohibitively so.

Historic pictures:


IMGoph said...

i believe wmata owns the right-of-way. if you look at one of the old bridges in the area between brookmont and glen echo, you can see it has a wmata "m" logo on it.

Anonymous said...

I'm exploring the reuse of the bridge at Glen Echo for a bike way. Do you have any info as how the bridge was maintained, like how often painted. Whether it may be so rusted that reuse is not practical?

Matt' said...

All of the bridges along the line appear to be in pretty bad shape. I do not, however, have any expertise in structural engineering or any other information on the bridge's maintenance.