Like those in a lot of other US cities, DC and surrounding areas’ best-known streetcar lines tend to be ones where service survived into the 1950’s and 1960’s. However, routes like the Washington, Gretta, & Spa Spring, which perished during the 1920’s heyday of streetcar service, often had a lasting effect on the urban landscape.
A map of the WSS&G streetcar line. Click for a larger version. Map by the author using OpenStreetMap.
Land speculation helped birth the streetcar
The town of Berwyn Heights, Maryland began in the 1890’s as a subdivision on the east side of the B&O Railroad tracks (now the MARC Camden Line) just south of Branchville Road (now Greenbelt Road). However, development was slowed by competition from subdivisions on the west side of the B&O tracks, which were served by the Washington, Berwyn, & Laurel Streetcar starting in 1900.
In 1905 a group of land speculators, including Ohio Congressman Samuel Yoder and Benjamin Stephen, the owner of Gretta, the estate that would later become Riverdale Heights, bought up most of the available land in Berwyn Heights. They then obtained a charter for a streetcar line to be called the Washington, Spa Spring & Gretta, which would serve Bladensburg (then home to a well known spring with supposedly curative waters), the Gretta estate, and Berwyn Heights.
Construction on the WSS&G progressed slowly, in part due to funding difficulties: Congressman Yoder funded nearly the entire project with his personal assets. In August 1910, a single-tracked line along Bladensburg Road from 15th and H Streets NE to the Bladensburg School (now the Prince George’s County library system’s Bladensburg Branch) finally opened.
An extension to Berwyn Heights
After the opening of the line to Bladensburg, work began to construct an extension along Edmonston Road. To save money, this portion of the line wasn’t electrified, and passengers were instead required to transfer to “Edison-Beach” battery-powered cars.
The Berwyn Heights extension was opened in 1912, but the Edison-Beach cars had difficulty climbing the final hill from Good Luck Road into Berwyn Heights—some passengers reported being asked to get out and push—and service was soon truncated to Brownings Road in Riverdale.
58th and Berwyn, the northern terminus of the streetcar in Berwyn Heights. It’s now a quite suburban intersection. Photo by the author.
In October 1913, the Washington Railway & Electric Company (then one of Washington’s two main streetcar systems, and the operator of the competing Washington, Berwyn, and Laurel line) agreed to operate the line as an extension of its H Street Line. Although the new operators electrified the entire line to Berwyn Heights, they decided that patronage was insufficient to justify through service, and the practice of requiring a transfer at Bladensburg School continued.
The Washington, Gretta, & Spa Spring Streetcar stops running
In 1916, the WSS&G corporation went bankrupt and the line was sold to the Washington Railway. The line continued to be unprofitable, and in 1921, Washington Railway terminated service north of Riverdale Heights.
Two years later, the District of Columbia decided to pave Bladensburg Road and required a payment of $150,000 to maintain the streetcar tracks. Given the unprofitability of the line, the company instead replaced streetcars with buses on the Bladensburg Road section of the line in April 1923. However, the Public Service Commission did not immediately allow buses on the Bladensburg School-East Riverdale section of the line, and it remained in operation as a streetcar shuttle until April 1925.
Finally, in 1949, Capital Transit—by then the operator of DC’s unified streetcar network—replaced the 10/12 H Street-Benning Road line, which the WSS&G had served as a branch of, with the X2 bus. The H Street-Benning Road line had been one of the first streetcar lines in the city, and was the first of the city’s major trunk lines to be completely replaced by buses.