Anacostia’s first street car. Photo courtesy of the Historical Society of Washington.

When the streetcar eventually returns to the Anacostia neighborhood, it will be more than 150 years since the industrious spirit of Henry A. Griswold and his investors developed the first horse-drawn line connecting communities on the east and west sides of the Eastern Branch of the Potomac River, now known as the Anacostia.

The first streetcar since 1962 will soon start running in DC on a 1.1-mile test track the District Department of Transportation has built along South Capitol Street.

During the last 2½ decades of the 19th century, the streetcar in Anacostia ran up and down present-day Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, SE. It brought residential and commercial development to the city’s first suburb thanks to Henry A. Griswold, President of the Anacostia & Potomac River Railway Company.

A community “lifeline” is born

“Following the original horsecar line in New York in 1832, a number of more progressive American cities — New Orleans, Brooklyn, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Chicago — all had horesecar systems in 1859,” writes LeRoy O. King Jr. in the definitive 100 Years of Capital Traction: The Story of Streetcars in the Nation’s Capital. “Yet in 1860, Washington’s public transit consisted of one line of horsedrawn omnibuses. The omnibuses were nothing more than urban stagecoaches, and, given the condition of early Washington streets, were indeed primitive transit.”

During the Civil War, in 1862, the streetcar was introduced to Washington. Nearly 2 decades later the easternmost terminus of the line was at M Street near the Navy Yard, just before the foot of the Eastern Branch Bridge. Those living east of the river had to walk the rest of the way home or catch a carriage ride.

Thus, before Griswold subdivided his Anacostia property in what would become known as Griswold’s Addition, he knew that he first had to build a streetcar over the river, ensuring a critical lifeline to the neighborhood to spur growth.

In February 1875, a prospectus of the Anacostia and Potomac River Railway Company (A&P), chartered by Congress, was distributed throughout Washington and in Griswold’s native state of Connecticut. The line began running within the neighborhood later that year.

The A&P grows but hits an obstacle

When Frederick Douglass and his family moved to Anacostia in the waning months of 1877, the neighborhood gained an advocate of national consequence. Douglass was an investor in the streetcar line and lobbied Congress on Griswold’s behalf. In 1880, Douglass sent a letter to Senator George F. Edmunds, an advocate of the city’s development, adding his support for the an extension of the Anacostia route.

The A&P ran 2.9 miles of track over the Eastern Branch Bridge, rebuilt in 1874, then horizontally back and forth past the Navy Yard to the Southwest waterfront. There, it connected with the Metropolitan line, which ran vertically up and down 7th Street Northwest. Other lines reached the city limits in all directions with the 3 other extant street railway companies of Washington & Georgetown, Capitol, and Columbia.

Map of 1880 Street Railways. Image from the DC Public Library, Washingtoniana Division.

By 1887 the A&P had run for 8 years from 7th & M Streets SW to the grounds of the US Government Insane Asylum, now the planned headquarters for the Department of Homeland Security at St. Elizabeths. Griswold now sought to expand his route into the heart of the city, but the District Commissioners worried about “the unnecessary multiplication of railroad tracks” downtown.

The commissioners sought increased oversight and influence over streetcar lines. In a letter, they said:

[T]he commissioners should have some lawful jurisdiction and direction of the operation of the roads; that the affirmative petition of property-owners upon the line of the proposed routes should be obtained; that a certain proportion of the proceeds of the business of the roads be paid into the District treasury, and that the details of construction, including the pattern of rail and the method of paving the inner-train and inter-rail spaces, should be subject to approval of the commissioners.

Using facts, figures and a chart, Griswold went before the city commissioners in the summer of 1890 to advocate for an extension of the A&P route. Flush with cash after the company carried more than an estimated 800,000 passengers the previous year and a “rapidly increasing population” along the A&P route, Griswold wanted the line to connect “with other companies in the center of the city, so as to transport their passengers to such parts as the City Hall, the Center Market, and the business houses on F Street and Pennsylvania avenue between Sixth and Tenth streets northwest.”

“Road Side Sketches of Anacostia,” Evening Star, Dec 5, 1891. Looking up present-day MLK Jr. Ave SE. Photo Washingtoniana Division, DC Public Library.

Circulating throughout the city in the spring of 1893 were ten thousand illustrated pamphlets Griswold printed and mailed promoting places of interest in Anacostia and the surrounding neighborhoods. Each pamphlet held a coupon for one free ride over the Anacostia road. At the time the A&P had 52 cars and 230 horses running over 8.5 miles of track which now extended through Capitol Hill.

In the coming years investors would favor electrification over the horse-drawn system. “As the decade wore on, the argument turned from the idea of equipping each car with two horses to the idea of compressed air motors and finally to an underground electric system,” King writes in Capital Traction.

Griswold maintains control

When Frederick Douglass passed away at his Anacostia home on February 20, 1895 Griswold lost both a friend and long-time business partner. Douglass held considerable stock in the A&P at the time of his death. Less than a month later, Griswold denied reports that a syndicate of the Philadelphia Traction Co., Baltimore Traction Co., and local Belt Company and Eckington Soldier’s Home line was making an offer to buy the A&P and its valuable charter which included rights to extend west to 14th & Pennsylvania Avenue and as far east as the Maryland border.

Griswold continued to maintain control of the A&P despite labor unrest, citizen complaints, and a preponderance of fare evasions. In January 1897 he submitted a report of the receipts and expenditures of his company to the US Senate. In the previous year the road carried 1,127,562 passengers amounting to revenue of $164,762.06. Salary and wages totaled more than $23,500 along with $12,205.59 for hay, feed, and straw, $1,796 for track maintenance, $832.54 for shoeing horses, and other costs including interest payments of nearly $1,900.

Griswold’s last years & legacy

Griswold finally ceded control of the A&P in an equity suit in 1899 to the Washington Railway and Electric Company. Under new management the A&P fully began the process of electrifying its route from Florida Avenue to the foot of the Insane Asylum. (A shuttle then continued up the hill to Congress Heights.) On May 26, 1900 the A&P’s electrification was complete.

Griswold had by now disposed of his property and retired to his mansion on Mount View Place in Anacostia. In late March 1909 Griswold reportedly told a neighbor (whose home was demolished last year) that he was feeling ill. After shopping downtown Mrs. Griswold returned home in the late afternoon on March 30. Her husband was nowhere to be found in the house.

The body of the former president of the A&P was discovered in a disused attic. He had been shot through the heart and had been dead for some time, a local physician concluded. Police on the scene found mysterious circumstances, but the coroner eventually ruled the death a suicide.

By the dawn of the 20th century, Griswold was the principal businessman in Anacostia. He served as postmaster, developed entire blocks with new housing, and lobbied Congress for his neighborhood’s interests which included more police, paved streets, and a firehouse. Before his untimely self-inflicted death at the age of 63, Griswold was instrumental to growing the city’s first subdivision, guiding its cross-town streetcar for more than 2 decades in the last quarter of the 19th century.