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.
I recently wrote about commuter rail service on the B&O Railroad's Washington Branch (now the Camden Line), the Metropolitan Branch (now the Brunswick Line), and on the B&O Railroad's main competitor in Maryland: the Pennsylvania Railroad, which operated what became the Penn Line.
All three of these lines still operate commuter rail trains today, but two relatively long-distance lines that no longer exist also had an impact on the region. They radiated out from Seat Pleasant at the District's eastern corner in the early 20th Century: the Chesapeake Beach Railway and the Washington, Baltimore, & Annapolis Electric Railway (WB&A).
The Chesapeake Beach Railway
The Chesapeake Beach Railway is a minor coda to the story of commuter rail in Washington. Nonetheless, it's important to mention since it's the only steam line in the Maryland suburbs not owned by the B&O or the Pennsylvania Railroad.
The Chesapeake Beach originated from the Southern Maryland Railroad (SMR), which was incorporated in 1868. It was built to connect the B&O Railroad freight tracks near Deanwood to Point Lookout at the mouth of the Potomac River in St. Mary's County.
However, the line went through a series of bankruptcies and reorganizations in the late 19th Century. Two separate segments were built without being connected: one connecting to the Pennsylvania Railroad's Pope's Creek Branch in Brandywine and heading south, the other connecting to the B&O in Washington.
The line from Brandywine south started service in 1881 and continued operating until the 1960s. More interesting from the point of view of Washington and its Maryland suburbs, though, was the East Washington line.
In 1898, the newly-incorporated Cheaspeake Beach Railway, which was supposed to connect Washington to a newly-constructed resort town on the Chesapeake, was given control of the railbed of the then-bankrupt SMR's incomplete East Washington line.
To construct the line more cheaply, the Chesapeake Beach line was built narrow-gauge, meaning its tracks were narrower than the standard used by most American railroads. By 1899, tracks were completed from Chesapeake Junction near Deanwood to the new town of Chesapeake Beach in Calvert County.
The Chesapeake Beach line operated both express and local service, and at least one train a day each ran on a schedule that would have been useful for commuters. However, commuter suburbs don't seem to have developed along the line, perhaps because it opened relatively late; had little service compared to the B&O, Pennsylvania Railroad, and WB&A lines; and was run by a company that was never financially stable.
Service continued on the Chesapeake Beach line until 1935, when it was replaced with bus service. Two miles of the track in Washington remained in service as the East Washington Railway until 1976 as a freight shuttle carrying coal to PEPCO's Benning Road power plant. Part of the Chesapeake Beach right-of-way in Prince George's County is currently used as a mixed-use trail and as the right-of-way of a portion of the Blue Line west of the Addison Road station.
The Washington, Baltimore, & Annapolis Electric Railway
The rise of electric streetcars and their ability to transport passengers much more cheaply than steam railroads led to the development of a new type of commuter railroad: interurban streetcars. Unlike streetcar networks within a city, interurbans ran on fixed schedules and stopped at a limited number of stations, rather than stopping at every streetcorner. Outside of urban areas, they also tended to follow their own rights-of-way rather than running in roads with mixed traffic.
Washington's streetcar network extended several lines into Maryland, some running as far as Laurel, Rockville, and Great Falls. However, while several interurbans served Washington's Virginia suburbs, only one connected the District to Maryland: the Washington, Baltimore, and Annapolis Electric Railway.
The WB&A ran along the District's streetcar tracks from downtown to a station called District Line in Seat Pleasant, where it connected with the Chesapeake Beach Railroad. From District Line, it ran along ran along its own right-of way, some of which is now Martin Luther King, Jr. Highway and the WB&A Trail, to Baltimore, with connecting trains to Annapolis.
The WB&A operated from 1908 to 1935, a much later start than Washington's other commuter railways. Its lack of a private right-of-way between Seat Pleasant and downtown DC — trains operated on local streetcar tracks within the District — meant that it took roughly 80 minutes to get from downtown DC to Baltimore, compared to 50 minutes on a B&O express train. On the other hand, WB&A trains ran hourly (and more frequently at rush hour) and were cheaper than B&O and Pennsylvania Railroad trains.
Some suburban development did occur along the WB&A. However, perhaps unsurprisingly given the railroad's relatively long trip downtown, developments seem to have been limited to inside the Beltway. Developments such as White House Heights and Glenarden only had a few decades between their construction and the closing of the railroad in 1935. Bus service was only established along Martin Luther King, Jr. Highway a decade later, in 1945, and more auto-dependent infill developments such as Palmer Park were built along the length of the highway.
Besides surburban developments, the WB&A was responsible for establishing the Bowie Race Track, which was built on land purchased from the railway and served by WB&A trains, and Fort Meade, which was built during World War I as a temporary army camp served by a spur of the railway.
Author's note: A detailed history of the WB&A can be found in John E. Merriken's book Every Hour, On the Hour: A Chronicle of the Washington, Baltimore, and Annapolis Electric Railroad.