By D.W. Rowlands
Beginnings of streetcars in and around the District
Although the first streetcar lines in the District were in service during the Civil War, they were horse-drawn cars that traveled only slightly faster than one could walk, and their range was limited. These cars operated primarily in what was then known as the L’Enfant City (a substantial portion of the District, generally south of Florida Avenue) and in Georgetown. While steam locomotives were too cumbersome and noisy to run on city streets, steam did power elements of the District’s largest streetcar company, the Washington & Georgetown. This company, one of a half-dozen in the city, replaced horse power in 1890 with underground cables that were kept in constant motion by steam engines housed in two big power stations. San Francisco’s famous cable cars used this same technology.
Underground cables could handle the challenges of steeper hills and eliminated the costs of caring for horses, but they were too expensive to install and maintain to be practical for longer lines, and smaller companies could not shoulder the expense. With the introduction of the first successful electric streetcar, in 1888, in Richmond, the economics of streetcar operation changed. A national boom in construction of new lines soon followed, with many of these new lines running far beyond the more developed portions of cities. The resulting ease of access ushered in the country’s first era of suburban sprawl.
“A Great Country City”
The Columbia and Maryland Railway, chartered in 1892, was one of many highly speculative suburban lines proposed during the first decade of electric streetcars. The railway’s founders wanted to build an electric streetcar line between Washington and Baltimore, which they imagined would form the core of what they saw as a “great country city,” an expansive development linking the two municipalities.
In the late 1800s, a streetcar line ran from near the White House along New York Avenue and then north through Eckington. In 1897, this line was extended to a turn-around loop in Mount Rainier; Rhode Island Avenue now parallels this route, and the old terminal loop is currently used by buses. The main portion of the line, which was renamed the City and Suburban in 1898, was extended to Branchville Road in 1900, with a turn-around loop roughly where Greenbelt Road crosses Rhode Island Avenue today. Then, in 1902, a single-track extension opened and offered hourly shuttle service from Branchville Road to a station in Laurel.
Also in 1902, a number of the speculative lines that had opened in the previous decade, including the City and Suburban, were consolidated into the Washington Railway and Electric Company (WR&E), which also owned Potomac Electric Power Company — PEPCO. In 1930, WR&E merged with the District’s other streetcar company, Capital Traction. The resulting company, named Capital Transit, introduced route numbers to the system in 1933, and the route from downtown D.C. to Branchville Road became the 82 streetcar.
Although it was built along a planned extension of Rhode Island Avenue in the District, the City and Suburban streetcar line initially had a private right of way through Prince George’s County. Rhode Island Avenue was extended from the District along the streetcar tracks as far as downtown Hyattsville, where it joined Baltimore Avenue. Further north, access roads were built to serve suburban houses near the tracks. The present-day discontinuous portions of Rhode Island Avenue in College Park were part of this initiative.
Abandonment and Monorail Proposal
Streetcar ridership in the U.S. peaked and began to decline in the early 1920s, as automobiles became increasingly common. In 1925, the shuttle from Branchville Road to Laurel was truncated to a terminal point in Beltsville. Then, during World War II, Route 1 south of downtown Hyattsville was rerouted from Baltimore Avenue and Bladensburg Road — the route of the 19th century Baltimore-Washington post road — to Rhode Island Avenue, which was widened at that time. In 1949, the shuttle to Beltsville was eliminated, and the streetcar’s former private right of way became the central portion of Rhode Island Avenue north of Branchville Road.
The 82 streetcar continued to operate from the District to Branchville Road until it was replaced with bus service in 1958, due to a congressional mandate to eliminate streetcar service in the District; this led to the entire Capital Transit network being converted to buses by 1962. (The old 82 line on Rhode Island Avenue was taken over by Metro, along with the rest of the Capital Transit network, in 1973 and is the ancestor of today’s 83, 86 and 89 Metrobus routes.)
At the same time as streetcar service was ending in the D.C. area, the federal government was in the initial stages of planning what eventually became the Metrorail system, despite heavy opposition from the owner of the Capital Transit network, O. Roy Chalk, who didn’t want a government-operated subway competing with his buses. In 1959, Chalk proposed to have Capital Transit build a 116-mile monorail system as an alternative to the Metrorail. Although his proposal was light on details and largely ignored, Chalk continued to push for monorails in the region into the 1960s. The switch from streetcar to bus service meant that the private streetcar right of way alongside Rhode Island Avenue in Prince George’s County was no longer needed. In 1963, Chalk proposed to use it to build a monorail from Mount Rainier to the then-under-construction Beltway Plaza Mall in Greenbelt.
The Rhode Island Avenue Trolley Trail
Nothing came of Chalk’s monorail proposal, however, and the portion of the right of way south of downtown Hyattsville became part of a widened Route 1, while the portion to the north of Hyattsville was abandoned until the first section of the trail that runs from Campus Drive to Greenbelt Road opened, in 2002. The trail was then extended to Albion Road in 2007, and work began, in 2012, on extending the trail along the southern portion of the remaining right of way in Hyattsville and Riverdale Park; this extension was finally completed in 2021.
The trail will be expanded further south, giving walkers, runners and cyclists increased access to local trail systems. The Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration, the City of Hyattsville and the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission are working together to connect the southern end of the Rhode Island Avenue Trolley Trail with the nearby Northwest Branch Trail; the highway administration expects to choose a contractor for the project in 2023.
The editors of the Here & Now would like to thank Stuart Eisenberg, with Hyattsville Community Development Corporation, for helping us obtain a historic photo of the streetcar line.