Capital Crescent Trail History

District of Columbia, Maryland

At a Glance

Name: Capital Crescent Trail
Length: 12.7 Miles
Trail activities: Bike, Inline Skating, Fishing, Wheelchair Accessible, Walking
Counties: Montgomery, Washington
Surfaces: Asphalt
State: District of Columbia, Maryland

A Brief History

The Capital Crescent Trail is located primarily in western Washington, D.C., and uses the right-of-way of the entire former Georgetown Branch of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.  While this line became one of the shortest on the B&O’s vast system, eventually reaching 10,000 miles, the corridor was envisioned as an integral link to southern railroads in Virginia when first conceived during the late 19th century. Ultimately, lack of funding, among other issues, forced the B&O to give up these grand plans. However, the company still found use for the 10+ miles eventually completed during the early 20th century. The line served various freight customers for 75 years until abandoned during the mid-1980s, creating today’s recreational corridor.

Whether you have an interest in railroads, the name Baltimore & Ohio may be a little familiar. On February 28, 1827, the company was the first common-carrier railroad ever chartered in the United States; as a result, the name is found in many school textbooks, historical readings, and various other publications. The B&O was formed by Baltimore business interests primarily as a means to insure the city’s survival as an important Atlantic seaport against such competitors as Philadelphia and New York. At the time, both of these railroads were served by canals, the latter considered the wave of the future in transportation.

The B&O’s planners envisioned a system linking the city with the Ohio River at Wheeling, what was then part of western Virginia. However, doing so would be difficult, considering rails would have to cross the rugged Allegheny Mountains. Additionally, railroad engineering, construction, and operation were an entirely new concept in America, so officials were learning as they went along. Understandably, construction was slow but reached Cumberland, Maryland, by 1842 and then Wheeling, Virginia, in 1852.  

During the rest of the 19th century, the B&O continued pushing westward, reaching St. Louis in 1857 and Chicago by 1874. At its peak, the carrier served all of the Midwest’s major cities east of St. Louis: Cincinnati, Detroit, Indianapolis, Buffalo, Philadelphia, New York, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland. The Georgetown Branch came about after the B&O had completed its Metropolitan Branch in 1873 between Point of Rocks, Maryland, and Washington, D.C., providing an improved route to our nation’s capital. The earlier “Old Main Line” running northwest of Point of Rocks was relegated to secondary status after this time.

During 1888, the B&O eyed expansion across the Potomac River into Virginia as a means of linking with other important railroads in the South. However, the company faced opposition from the Pennsylvania Railroad (a longtime nemesis), which would not permit trackage rights over its Long Bridge to Alexandria, Virginia. The bridge was the only span across the Potomac. To circumvent this problem, the B&O devised a plan to construct its own line from a connection with the Metropolitan Branch near Silver Spring, Maryland, and run southward along the western edge of the District. It would then cross the river at a narrow location, known as Chain Bridge, before continuing south and terminating at Quantico, Virginia.

Starting in 1889, the B&O began creating subsidiary companies to construct the new corridor. From north to south these included the Metropolitan Southern Railroad, to run from the main line near Silver Spring to Potomac Palisades. Next was the Washington & Western Maryland, to push rails into Georgetown near the banks of the Potomac River.  Finally, the Metropolitan Western would complete the project from the river to Quantico. Construction of the line began in 1892 and reached Chevy Chase, a distance of 1.9 miles, the following year. Unfortunately, financial problems and the depression of the 1890s (including the financial panic of 1893) halted further expansion, which would not resume until 1909, a year after the railroad had regained its independence from the PRR. The latter had acquired control in 1900. In 1910, the line was completed to Georgetown, a distance of 11 miles. By then, there was little need for the ambitious plan across the Potomac since the B&O and PRR had come to an agreement on a trackage rights. This gave the B&O access to the new Potomac Yard opened in 1906 in Alexandria, Virginia. The large terminal provided the long-sought interchange with many southern railroads.

The Georgetown Branch has a noteworthy place in American history. In 1914, the line was briefly extended over Rock Creek to move limestone and other materials for the construction of one of Washington, D.C.’s most well-known landmarks: the Lincoln Memorial. Following the completion of the project, these rails were removed. Despite its relatively short length and (usually) single daily train, the branch once moved a wide variety of freight, particularly coal for the Capital Traction Company’s power house. This facility provided electricity for streetcar operations in Georgetown, which grew to become the district’s second-largest interurban. Other industries the branch served ranged from paper, petroleum, and cement to ice, sand, dairy products, and various aggregates.  

In 1933, the power plant closed, and during the following decades, traffic slowly disappeared as customers closed their doors or switched to trucks. During early 1963, the B&O was taken over by the Chesapeake & Ohio. Just 9 years later, the pair, along with B&O-controlled Western Maryland, formed the new Chessie System. This company itself only survived about a decade before merging with Seaboard Coast Line Industries, creating CSX Corporation in 1980. The railroad arm of this company was CSX Transportation, formed in 1987. By then, the Georgetown Branch witnessed almost no remaining freight, and the last train ran in 1985. A year later, the corridor was formally abandoned.

Railroad attractions in Maryland include the popular Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum in Baltimore; Baltimore Streetcar Museum and Bowie Railroad Station Museum in Old Bowie; Brunswick Museum in Brunswick; Chesapeake Beach Railway Museum in Chesapeake Beach; Ellicott City Station in Ellicott City (the oldest standing railroad depot in the country); Gaithersburg Community Museum in Gaithersburg; Hagerstown Roundhouse Museum in Hagerstown; National Capital Trolley Museum in Colesville; Walkersville Southern Railroad in Walkersville; and the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad in Cumberland.

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