Engraving of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad's Washington Branch train on the Thomas Viaduct about 20 years after its construction in 1835. Image from "The United States Illustrated" dated 1858.

Much of DC beyond the original L'Enfant city and Georgetown consists of "streetcar suburbs," namely late-19th and early-20th Century communities that grew up around streetcar lines. While electric streetcars didn't extend to Maryland until the 1890s, Washington's first steam railroad line, to Baltimore, opened in 1837 and commuters from Maryland rode trains into the city as early as the Civil War.

In this series, I'm going to look at the history of the passenger rail lines leading into Washington from Maryland and the suburban communities that grew up around them, starting with the Washington Branch Railway and the Camden Line.

The origin of the Washington Branch Railway

The first railroad to serve Washington was the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad's Washington Branch Railway, which connected the city to Baltimore along what is now MARC's Camden Line. It roughly followed the route of the Washington and Baltimore Turnpike, now Baltimore Avenue.

When it opened in 1837, the portion of Prince George's County traversed by the Washington Branch Railway was primarily farmland, although Laurel, where the railroad crossed the Patuxent, was already a small cotton mill town, and Bladensburg, about a mile south of the line along the turnpike, was a dying port town. The last major ship to dock in Bladensburg was two years earlier in 1835, as the Anacostia had silted up too much to allow significant shipping.

Along with the Laurel and Bladensburg (now Hyattsville) stations, there were stations built at Paint Branch (now the College Park MARC and Metro station), the cluster of turnpike inns that became Beltsville (where Powder Mill Road crosses Baltimore Avenue), and an iron furnace called Muirkirk (now the Muirkirk MARC station).

The Thomas Viaduct carrying the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad tracks was built in 1835 over the Patapsco River in Elkridge in Howard County, Maryland. It was the largest bridge in the US at the time and still carries the Capital Subdivision tracks today. This photo was taken in 1977.

To determine the amount of service these stations received, I consulted old editions of the Official Guide of the Railways, a long-running handbook of all the country's railroad and steamboat schedules that was published for much of the 19th and 20th centuries. Based on these guides, it appears that only two trains a day ran in each direction along the Washington Branch in 1837. By the eve of the Civil War in 1859, this number had increased only to four.

Although the 1861 Martenet's Map of Prince George's County does show that a small settlement had developed around the Bladensburg station at what is now the juncture of Baltimore Avenue and Rhode Island Avenue in Hyattsville, the settlement is tiny compared to the large town at Bladensburg. Railroad suburbs don't seem to have developed at this point, which isn't really surprising, since most of the District of Columbia still consisted of forest and open farmland. There was plenty of room for rich Washingtonians to live in the outer part of the District.

Advertisement noting the Baltimore and Ohio railroad’s reorganization and repair from damage during the American Civil War, published in an 1864 Baltimore city directory.

The region's first railroad suburbs

The first evidence of railroad commuting along the Washington Branch (now simply listed as part of the B&O) appears in the 1874 Official Guide of the Railways. Laurel and Beltsville are served by eight trains a day, and Hyattsville (no longer called Bladensburg) by nine, while only six locals serve all stops, and some long-distance trains run express from Baltimore to Washington. At this point, schedules that seem timed for commuters heading into Washington in the morning and leaving in the evening appear.

The 1879 Hopkins Atlas of the Washington area shows even more evidence of rail commuting into Washington, with small bits of street grid appearing near the stations in Ivy City and Montello in the District, and a town of Hyattsville, centered on the old Bladensburg rail station that competes with Bladensburg in size.

19th and early 20th Century stations on the B&O Railroad's Washington Branch (now the Camden Line) and Metropolitan Branch (now the Brunswick Line). Original names of stations whose names have changed are in parenthesis. Image by the author.

The Official Guide from 1880 shows an increase to 10 daily trains in each direction stopping in Hyattsville, eight in Beltsville and College Park, and 12 in Laurel, making it clear that these areas were increasingly tied into the Washington area. However, the cost of tickets would have made daily commuting unaffordable to the working class, who depended on walking or horsecars to get to work from their homes within the District.

Commuter service on the Washington Branch seems to have peaked between 1890 and 1900, with 12-14 daily trains in each direction. Service dropped off some in the early 20th Century, probably due to competition from the Washington, Berwyn, & Laurel streetcar, which ran just west of the Washington Branch and reached what is now Greenbelt Road by 1907 and Laurel a few years later, and from the Washington, Spa Spring, & Gretta streetcar, which ran to Bladensburg and Berwyn Heights just east of the railroad.

Still, the B&O was running eight commuter trains per direction per day in 1930, though it had dropped to two locals a day in each direction in 1948, plus several additional trains stopping only in Riverdale and most long-distance trains still stopping in Laurel. Even in 1968, when streetcar service had ended, three daily trains in each direction were serving Riverdale, and one in each direction were serving Hyattsville, College Park, and Berwyn.

After Amtrak's May 1, 1971 takeover of most American intercity passenger service, the B&O (now a part of the Chessie System) continued to provide commuter service on the Camden line without subsidies. However, in 1974, the state government started funding 50% of the cost of the service and, in 1975, the state and the B&O reached an agreement under which the state would supply the locomotives and cars and pay the full cost of providing service.

In 1984, Maryland combined the Camden Line and the other two commuter rail lines it was subsidizing — the Penn and Brunswick Lines — under the MARC brand. Today, MARC runs commuter service in both directions and a small number of mid-day trains between Union Station and Camden Station on weekdays.

Stay tuned for the next installment in this series: The B&O Metropolitan Branch and Brunswick Line.

DW Rowlands is an adjunct chemistry professor and Prince George’s County native, currently living in College Park. More of their writing on transportation-related and other topics can be found on their website.  They also write on DC transportation and demographic issues for the DC Policy Center, where they are a Fellow. In their spare time, they volunteer for Prince George’s Advocates for Community-Based Transit. However, the views expressed here are their own.