November-December 2009

Cabin John

A one-time summer getaway hides a mystery in its name.

Around the turn of the 19th century, Cabin John was a scenic destination, a place to escape the summer heat of the nation’s capital. Members of high society dined in the restaurant of the ornate, Victorian-style Cabin John Bridge Hotel. And in later years, Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson came, too. A trolley from Georgetown in Washington, D.C., brought patrons and tourists to the Glen Echo side of the Cabin John Bridge. Next to that bridge was a decorative iron pedestrian span they would stroll across to the hotel’s impressively landscaped grounds. An amusement park and a 1,000-seat theater there, all overlooking the Potomac River, provided further entertainment.

The Cabin John Bridge, known as the “Union Arch” when it was built during the Civil War, was completed in 1863. The bridge still includes the aqueduct that gives Washington, D.C., its public water. Joseph Bobinger, an enterprising stonemason who had worked on the bridge, and his wife, Rosa, who had fed hungry workers there, built the hotel at the Cabin John side of the span in 1870. He speculated that the bridge would attract visitors who would need a meal and a place to rest. Indeed, people came from far and wide to see the engineering marvel. Listed today in the National Register of Historic Places, it was the longest singlespan, masonry arch bridge in the world until 1903.

Fine food and drink kept crowds coming to the hotel, which the Bobingers’ sons, George and William, expanded into a lavish resort after their parents died. The brothers imported from Germany a large orchestrion, a mechanical instrument resembling an organ, and housed it in an elaborate extension to the hotel. Along with banquet rooms for high-style social events, they had a rathskeller in the basement for working-class patrons. But Glen Echo’s amusement park began drawing customers away, and Prohibition took its toll, and the hotel closed in 1926. Five years later, the uninsured building burned down. Arson was suspected, but no one was charged. Only a small brick gas house, which once fueled the hotel’s gas lights, remains.

The uncertain origin of the name Cabin John has led to legends about hermits, pirates, lovers and ghosts. One tells of a hermit named John who “sprang from the river.” He fished, hunted raccoons and lived in a cabin next to a creek, the tale says. Another story makes the mysterious John a pirate captain who came up the Potomac River to bury his treasure.

A romance novel published in 1912, The Legend of the “Female Stranger”: A Tale of Cabin John Bridge and Old Alexandria, claims that John was a British commoner who loved a noblewoman. The story goes that he accidentally killed her guardian, and that he and the noblewoman fled to America,where she became gravely ill. As she was dying, the woman told him to bury her with no name so he wouldn’t be caught. A gravesite dated 1816 actually is inscribed to a “female stranger” in Old St. Paul’s Episcopal Cemetery in Alexandria, Va. The novel then has John mourning his wife in a cabin near a creek until he died, with the creek and the bridge that was later built being named for him.

Land records dating back to 1715 suggest yet another origin for the name. They refer to what is now Cabin John Creek as Captain John’s Run. Some suggest that Cabin John is a corruption of “Captain John,” the same Captain John Smith who founded Jamestown, Va., and journeyed along the Potomac River in 1608 near the mouth of the creek that is in Cabin John. In 2008, the Cabin John Citizens Association celebrated the 400th anniversary of that voyage with a large community barbecue.

Lock tenders along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, farmers and aqueduct workers were among early Cabin John residents. Major growth began in 1912, when John S. Tomlinson, owner of the now-defunct American Land Company, bought 600 acres of farmland for a development he called “Cabin John Park,” which is synonymous with Cabin John today. The community formed its citizens’ association in 1919. In property deeds, Tomlinson shrewdly reserved rights to half of any treasure “which may have been hidden by John of the Cabin.”

Judith Welles is a writer in Bethesda.