Darcy’s Store: The Capital Crescent Trail (Baltimore and Ohio Railroad)

(Images: Environmental Protection Agency, public domain; APK licensed under cc-sa-3.0)

Long-term Bethesda residents may remember the Capital Crescent Trail in its previous incarnation as the Georgetown Branch of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O).  It’s hard today to imagine heavy freight trains passing through the buzzing yet relaxed Bethesda downtown, emerging around Barnes & Noble before crossing Woodmont and trundling past Bethesda Row Cinema in the direction of Silver Spring.  But as recently as 1985, trains regularly rumbled along our favourite local trail.

Building began on the Georgetown Branch in 1892 and reached Chevy Chase the same year.  The railroad was originally intended to cross the Potomac River just north of the DC line and connect with the B&O-controlled Virginia Midland Railroad at Fairfax.

But financial problems forced a halt to proceedings and the B&O lost control of the Virginia Midland Railroad.  Revised plans on a less grand scale finally saw the line completed as far as Georgetown by 1910.  Trains ran along the route for the next 75 years, serving the Potomac Electric Power Company (PEPCO), the Washington Mill and Federal government buildings.  But with the changing nature of Georgetown’s historic waterfront and a shift away from industry, the line became obsolete and finally closed in 1985.

In 1988, the Georgetown Branch of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad between Silver Spring and the DC line was purchased by the Montgomery County Government under the Trails System Act of 1968.  Two years later, the National Park Service purchased the remaining 4.3 miles of the right-of-way between Georgetown and the DC/Maryland boundary and the Capital Crescent Trail as we know it was born.  On the DC side it was developed as a component of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park.

The abandoned Arizona Avenue Railroad Bridge was utilized and volunteers built a wooden deck over the structure for walkers and cyclists.  This was replaced with concrete decking two years later and the seven mile paved section of the Capital Crescent Trail from Georgetown to Bethesda was formally dedicated in December 1996.

A further trail bridge was added in 1996 over River Road.  Known as the Dalecarlia Bridge, the structure reused components of an original bridge that carried the Georgetown Branch over the Washington and Great Falls Electric Railroad, a now-abandoned streetcar line that, despite its name, never made it as far as Great Falls and came to be known as the Cabin John Trolley.

In June 2000, Montgomery County committed $1.3 million to repair the Rock Creek Trestle, which had been damaged by arson.  The trestle was dedicated on May 31, 2003 and today, if you’re feeling energetic enough, you can begin at Georgetown, lunch in Bethesda and take tea in Silver Spring.  If the improved weather that we’re currently having holds, this could be the perfect weekend stroll.

Darcy’s Store is a weekly feature article about the history of Bethesda

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