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The history of Branchville

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Posted on: January 12, 2022

By D.W. Rowlands

While much of College Park owes its current form to early suburban development along the Rhode Island Avenue streetcar line and the B&O Railroad Washington Branch (now MARC Camden Line), starting in the 1890s, two of the city’s neighborhoods originated considerably earlier.

In the first half of the 19th century, the southern portion of College Park consisted of several tracts of agricultural land belonging to the Calvert family, who lived in the Riversdale manor house, in what is now Riverdale Park. The earliest detailed map of the area, from 1861, shows a grist mill called Mowatt’s Mill, where Calvert Road crosses the Northeast Branch, and the College Lawn B&O railroad station, where Calvert Road crosses the tracks.

However, the 1861 map does not show any roads north of Calvert Road, except for the Baltimore-Washington Turnpike (now Baltimore Avenue), until one gets to Beltsville, which was already a substantial community centered around the turnpike’s crossing of the B&O railroad tracks, just north of Powder Mill Road. (Old Baltimore Pike follows the original route of the turnpike today.) Only a handful of farmhouses, along with the Maryland Agricultural College (now the University of Maryland), which was founded in 1856, are shown in College Park.

In the decade that followed, a small rural community formed in the vicinity of what is now the section of Greenbelt Road between Baltimore Avenue and the Metro Green Line. A road appeared stretching east from the Baltimore-Washington Turnpike, roughly along the route of today’s Greenbelt Road, and a small village developed where the road crossed the B&O Railroad. A train station and a general store were located here and, in 1867, a post office called Branchville opened at the general store. Although the name Branchville — the official name of the post office — has persisted until the present, for its first several decades of existence, it was often called Scagg’s Crossing, after the owner of the store and long-serving postmaster.

(this is a close up of the same map below)
Credit: Courtesy of the United States Library of Congress
The Branchville post office opened in 1867.
Credit: Courtesy of the United States Library of Congress

The next map of the area, drawn in 1878, shows two small communities in what is now College Park. There are half a dozen houses clustered around the College Lawn station, where Calvert Road crosses the B&O tracks, as well as a post office and the Mowatt grist mill.  The collection of houses in the vicinity of the Branchville post office, general store and rail station is larger, though. By 1878, Branchville included a “poudrette” (fertilizer made from human waste) factory, served by its own rail spur, located south of Branchville Road and between the B&O tracks and Indian Creek.

Branchville was also home to the first church in College Park, the Haddaway Chapel Methodist Episcopal Church, built in 1874 on Branchville Road, just east of the railroad tracks.  This building burned down in 1907, but the congregation still exists as the College Park United Methodist Church, now located on the corner of Rhode Island Avenue and Hollywood Road.

Although Branchville seems to have had its origins as a rural, agricultural community, within a generation the area around the Branchville post office and train station had become more suburban. The land that became the neighborhood of Berwyn was subdivided in 1889 as a railroad suburb called Central Heights. Then, in 1900, the Rhode Island Avenue streetcar was extended into College Park, terminating in a loop in Branchville. The streetcar ran every half hour, and was substantially cheaper than the B&O Railroad, making the commute from Branchville into downtown Washington affordable to more of the city’s workers.

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