Paint Branch, a short creek with a long history
By Atul Rawat
Walking down Paint Branch Trail, alongside the Paint Branch creek, one can all but hear the burbling water narrating our area’s history. The creek flows from its headwaters in Spencerville, in Montgomery County, and winds not even 14 miles before flowing into the Anacostia River, but it has witnessed events that stretch way back in time.
Archaeological evidence suggests that humans may have been in our area during the hunter-gatherer era, some 12,000 years ago. A stone implement found in the creek’s bed dates to about 1,000 B.C., confirming that humans have certainly been living here for at least 3,000 years. The tool, a flake of quartz about 2 by 3 inches in size, may have been used for scraping and cutting. It was identified by archaeologist Jim Sorensen, who led the Montgomery Parks Archeology Program for 23 years before retiring in 2009.
While native peoples both passed through and settled in this area, territorial wars and infectious diseases introduced by European settlers largely led to the natives’ demise. The creek’s name may honor them, though; one theory is that the name Paint Branch derives from the stream’s colorful clay, which the earliest people here may have used to adorn themselves.
Another theory behind the name is that it comes from the creek’s waters being colored by dyes discharged from a wool processing factory. Indeed, early settlers here used the creek’s current to run their small mills. Traces of at least four mills have survived to the present; the oldest of the four dates back to about 1723. Some of the mills along the Paint Branch were in operation well into the 1900s.
Further down the creek, in the White Oak area of Silver Spring, is a cave-like structure that carries the curious name of Devil’s Den. One legend has it that a slave blasted the cave from a solid rock to earn his freedom, while another story suggests that the cave was part of the Underground Railroad. The cave is located on property owned by the Navy and is not publicly accessible.
A couple of miles downstream, the Little Paint Branch joins Paint Branch at a confluence point near the Paint Branch Golf Course. Just before this merger, our trail crosses both streams over two bridges, one over each stream, and just a few hundred feet apart.
Another mile and a half downstream, in an area that used to be marshland and forest, we come to the University of Maryland, which represents another historical milestone. The university was founded as Maryland Agricultural College, by Charles B. Calvert, a descendent of Lord Baltimore, who colonized Maryland.
As the creek leaves campus, it turns and crosses Route 1 and enters a mile-long stretch of stately urban forest; walkers and joggers especially favor the trail through these woods. A few hundred feet into the woods, and not far from Route 1, stands a plaque commemorating the first tree nursery in the state; which was established by the Maryland Agricultural College as a resource for local farmers. The trail and creek then emerge from the woods, with Lake Artemesia on the left and the College Park Airport on the right. Paint Branch Trail runs along the southern side of the lake, and a separate trail stretches north around the lake for more than a mile, with lilies and ducks adding seasonal charm to the natural beauty of the area. Edwin Newman, who developed the historically Black community of Lakeland here, in the mid-1800s, named Lake Artemesia for his wife.
The College Park Airport, to the right, is the oldest continuously operating airport in the world; it was established in 1909, when the Army Signal Corps leased the land and contracted with the Wright Brothers to train the first military aviators here. The first mile-high flight by a powered aircraft took off from this airport, as did the first controlled helicopter flight. The College Park Aviation Museum is on the far side of the runway. A few hundred feet shy of the runway’s end, our trail along the creek merges with the Indian Creek Trail, and Paint Branch rushes to meet Indian Creek. The merged creeks become the Northeast Branch of the Anacostia River, which flows into the Chesapeake Bay.
Movement and water have symbolized life throughout history, and this creek has witnessed centuries of history unfolding along its banks. Walkers, bikers and joggers can easily access the Paint Branch Trail from any of the city’s many neighborhoods — your next journey through time is only a stone’s throw away.