March-April 2021

Off track

The B&O Railroad’s arrival in Bethesda brought more dirt than glamour

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Photo illustration by Alice Kresse; Maloney concrete photo by Don Wetmore

In 1873, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad opened its new Metropolitan Branch, a modern rail line running straight through the heart of Montgomery County. Towns such as Gaithersburg, Rockville and Silver Spring, all selected as stops on the new line, saw prosperity come in tow, with shops and homes rising around stylish new passenger stations. When the train finally reached Bethesda decades later, all it brought was industrial blight.

Originally, the Metropolitan Branch ran too far east to have any impact on Bethesda’s development. The village of the 1870s remained little more than a general store, a blacksmith shop and a handful of houses gathered around the crossroads of Wisconsin Avenue and Old Georgetown Road.

In 1892, the B&O would creep a little closer to town. Directors of the railroad determined that a branch leading west from Silver Spring, eventually connecting with Georgetown at the southern end, would be a viable addition to the rail network. Tracks had been laid for the Georgetown Branch as far as Chevy Chase, ending at today’s Connecticut Avenue, when the Panic of 1893 hit, triggering a crushing economic depression. The project was halted.

It would be 1910 before the B&O Railroad finally arrived in Bethesda, following creek beds, cutting through hills and tunneling under Wisconsin Avenue on its way to Georgetown.

Developers of the nascent suburbs promised prospective buyers that a passenger train station was coming, an enticement for commuters looking for an easy ride in and out of Washington, D.C. But Bethesda’s stop ended up being for commerce only. No elaborate passenger station was built for the village, just a freight station and platform west of Wisconsin Avenue, near present day Bethesda Row.

Cars carrying fuel, cement, lumber and all manner of construction materials soon began moving in and out of the Bethesda station on a daily basis. Charlie Miller, a local fuel vendor, opened a coal yard by the station. Lumber and gravel yards and oil tanker depots followed, creating a noisy, hodgepodge industrial section of town. By 1930, the Maloney Concrete Co. had established its sprawling complex near the intersection of Arlington Road and Bethesda Avenue.

To suburban Bethesdans, the railroad was an increasingly bothersome presence. Dust, dirt, vibration and smoke were impacting “the peaceful use, enjoyment and value of the surrounding properties,” as one petition to the Montgomery County Council remarked. In 1976, after years of protests, the council upgraded the area from industrial to retail use. Maloney Concrete was one of the last large Bethesda industries to shut down its operations, closing its doors around 1980.

In 1985, as trucks replaced rail service, the train made its last run through Bethesda.

Three years later, Montgomery County purchased the Maryland portion of the Georgetown Branch, inspired by the nationwide “rails to trails” movement that was successfully converting old railbeds into new hiking and biking trails. The following year, the National Park Service took control of the old line in the District of Columbia. The tracks and ties were removed and the right-of-way paved.

In December 1996, the 7-mile section of the new Capital Crescent Trail from Bethesda to Georgetown was formally dedicated, a remembrance of the time when the train came to town.

Author and historian Mark Walston (markwalston@comcast.net) was raised in Bethesda and lives in Olney.