GETTING TO SYCAMORE
by Bill Banta
Everyone who tries to write a little history sees something different from everyone else -- different parts get magnified, I suppose. One point of view makes Sycamore Island a story about amusement parks and trolley cars. You could say the Island is the success it is because it's a beautiful place people can get to easily.
The first trolley line to Sycamore Island was the Washington and Glen Echo Railroad. Operations began June 10, 1901. It originated at Friendship Heights, at what is now the intersection of Willard and Wisconsin Avenues, where it connected with downtown by way of the Georgetown and Tennallytown Railway. The W & GE ran westward across River Road to where Massachusetts Avenue is now. It followed the present route of Massachusetts Avenue, Walhonding Road and MacArthur Boulevard (then Conduit Road) to Walhonding and Conduit Roads, where the Sycamore Store is now. There was a car barn just east of the intersection. The Sycamore Store, by the way, was there before 1919, and probably before 1891, and has been one of the area's landmarks.
From the car barn, the line went on to Glen Echo. Later it was extended to 'Cabin John Bridge' -- also called the 'Union Arch'. Union Arch is better because it eliminates confusion with the much younger 'Cabin John Bridge' which carries the Beltway across the Potomac. (This younger Cabin John Bridge is actually the 'American Legion Bridge'.) When it was completed in 1863 the Union Arch was the largest single-span stone bridge in the world (220 feet). It still carries the Washington Aqueduct across Cabin John Creek. Its entrance bears the name of Jefferson Davis, who was Secretary of War when work on the bridge began.
Around 1900 the Washington and Glen Echo RR was extended eastward from Tennallytown to Chevy Chase Circle. There it connected with the Rock Creek Railway, which operated along what is now Connecticut Avenue, between downtown Washington and Chevy Chase Lake.
The Glen Echo Railroad was apparently established primarily to provide transportation to Glen Echo's short-lived Chautauqua. Chautauquas were a dignified family cultural camp where people gathered for what amounted to short courses in music, painting, canoeing, history, politics and other such activities of respectable upper-middle class culture. Classes lasted for a weekend, a week, or longer. It was a form of adult education in the days before movies, radio and television.
This Chautauqua at Glen Echo was to have been the 'National Chautauqua.' It had a stone amphitheater for 6,000, electric lights, and a huge pipe organ powered by Minihaha Creek. Clara Barton, founder of the 'American Red Cross, was a sponsor. Nonetheless, it did not last long. It opened June 16, 1891 and was sold in May, 1903 for $13,000.
The Glen Echo Railroad followed Chautauqua to the fiduciary graveyard after only a few years of operation. The old tracks were not used afterward, but Phil Stone, for one, remembers steel beams of a bridge over Little Falls Branch near River Road and crushed stone ballast along what is now Massachusetts Avenue, where he went on Scout hikes as a boy.
When the Chautauqua went bust the properties were bought by a new rail company, the Washington and Great Falls Electric Railroad. That company built a new line along Potomac Palisades to Glen Echo and Cabin John. Despite the name, it never made it to Great Falls. By 1902 the company went downtown as far as Dupont Circle and still later to Lincoln Park in Northeast. Operations began September 28, 1895. The car barn was just west of 37th and Prospect Streets in Washington.
The early days of the W & GE must have been invigorating. When the line first opened, it went right through a dairy barn. The barn was not only existing, it was operating. Cows on two sides of the building were separated by the track. A pity there are no more details.
The first of the street cars downtown were horse-drawn over steel rails, but they were soon followed by cable cars and electric cars. All the cars that went to Glen Echo were electric. There was an electric generating plant at what is now Wisconsin and Calvert; it ran on coal brought from Cumberland by barges on the C & O Canal. When electrification came, the companies best in position to supply power were the trolley companies. PEPCO started life as the Washington Railway and Electric Company (WREC) (sic).
The summer the club started (1885) Washington was abuzz from the escape of a loaded coal car on the trolley tracks. The loose car fortunately killed no one, because someone had the presence of mind to telephone ahead. The car struck a trolley laden with cargo at Wisconsin and N Street. The crash must have been heard for miles. No one was hurt, but we are told that a grocery clerk phoned to find what had happened to a crate of eggs he had just loaded into the car. We don't hear what he was told.
You could ride from Georgetown to the District line for a nickel, six tickets for a quarter. Going into Maryland was extra. The ride was a beauty, with high open views of the Potomac and farmland. Lots of people took the ride just for the view.
Summer cars were open, with transverse benches and a canopy over the top. The conductor ran along the running boards collecting fares. That's where auto running boards got their name, I presume.
Several types of cold-weather closed cars were used over the years. For a time there were "middle door" cars, with ends rounded. During the last 15 or 20 years of operation "P.C.C." cars were used -- the ultimate in American street rolling stock. They were streamlined, with doors at front for entrance and in the middle for exit, like modern busses. Painted blue, they were beautiful to behold and smooth to ride. Some of the very cars that once carried passengers around Washington are still in use in South America and Eastern Europe.
The Glen Echo-Cabin John trolley line carried US mail pouches from Georgetown to the Glen Echo Post Office until the 1950s. (The post office still is just a little beyond the old amusement park.) Trolleys also brought bundles of newspapers from Washington to points west of Georgetown. Paper boys met the trolley each day to get their papers.
Phil Stone remembers riding the Cabin John line to Stop 30 -- Sycamore Island -- from 1927, when he first visited, to 1959, when he and his wife bought their first car. Trolleys ran every half hour during the cooler months and every twenty minutes from April to October while the Glen Echo Amusement Park was open. Here are some of Phil's comments:
"After a pleasant afternoon spent paddling near the Island we'd cross the iron bridge and start up the interminable flight of steps to the trolley stop, listening for the approaching car. If a car was coming and we were near the top, we'd risk heart failure to dash up the rest of the stairs to catch the car. Sometimes we were too tired to try."
"I also rode the Cabin John line go get to work in 1935, when I was Librarian at the Conduit Road Branch of the DC Public Library, near Conduit and Chain Bridge Roads. Catherine and I rode the line from Georgetown to Cabin John on its last day of operation in January, 1961."
The amusement park at Glen Echo was a much greater success than the Chautauqua. The Glen Echo park had a huge and wonderful swimming pool, roller coaster, ballroom, mystery rides, a ferris wheel, fun houses and all the other sorts of things one expects in an amusement park. The rides are broken derelicts now, but worth a trip to behold.
Glen Echo Amusement Park was a financial success and persisted until the 1960s. Its demise was due in part to desegregation. Until the late 1950s amusement parks were segregated -- as were playgrounds, schools and other public institutions. (There was a black amusement park, called Suburban Gardens, in Deanwood, east of Anacostia.) When the Supreme Court ruled, in effect, that such segregation was unconstitutional, blacks soon came to outnumber whites in Glen Echo Park. One hot summer evening in 1964 a "minor riot" developed when the owner closed the park, claiming that the lines waiting for admission were getting too rowdy. By that time the trolleys had been discontinued (the last one rolled in January, 1961). Most of the customers had arrived by bus. When the angry crowds tried to board the waiting busses the frightened drivers drove away without passengers. The crowds, already unhappy, started the long walk home down Massachusetts Avenue. There were broken windows and frightened homeowners all along the way until the police ordered the bus service restored. Even so, many youngsters walked all the way home.
The park was closed soon after this sad event. Glen Echo Park is now operated by the National Park Service as a (get this) sort of Chautauqua. It's a combination arts and crafts family park, with artists and craftsmen in residence. They teach, demonstrate and exhibit their work in return for modest tuition fees. There are regular theatrical functions and shows there as well as classes. The old rides rust and crumble and the huge, dry "Crystal Pool" sprouts weeds.
Trolley buffs believe that the death of the Glen Echo trolley was hastened, if not actually planned by past owners of DC Transit, the company which eventually took over all the area's trolley lines. Influential owners profited substantially when trolleys were discarded from the DC Transit Corporation. It seems they invested in companies that manufacture busses that were to replace the trolleys. The owners' supporters contend that death of the trolley was only a matter of time and that their activities were a form of euthanasia.
How did early members get to Sycamore Island? After the line was established, many surely came by trolley. Others probably took their time and came up the C & O Canal from Georgetown by foot or canoe, spending the night at the Island. Bicycles and eventually autos could be used along Conduit Road, even as we do today. Early on, since Conduit Road contains the conduit for Washington's water supply, it had to be protected from Confederate raids -- and later German or Japanese sabotage -- and so was placed under federal jurisdiction. In the early period this meant that District license plates were valid on the road, whereas on other nearby roads one needed Maryland plates.