The Capital Crescent Trail runs along the route of the old Georgetown Branch, a B&O Railroad line completed in 1910, between Georgetown and Silver Spring, MD.
The line carried freight such as coal and building supplies on a weekly train to Georgetown, until service was discontinued in June 1985. After several years of community efforts, the National Park Service bought the right-of-way from Georgetown to the D.C. line and Montgomery County purchased it from there through Bethesda to Silver Spring.
This video presents the historical significance of the Georgetown Branch Railroad Line, its transformation into the Capital Crescent Trail, and some of the political perils that happened in between. You'll also get a visionary glance at building a nation connected by trails that have the power to transform communities and create joyful, vibrant public spaces that are equitable and inclusive.
Here is a short 1981 video of a very antique train traveling on the rails of the Georgetown Branch of the B&O. The Smithsonian Museum wanted to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the arrival in the US of the John Bull locomotive, which is in their American History Museum. They transported the locomotive by truck from the Museum to Georgetown for a trip up the line and back. At the end of this video, you will see the train crossing what is now the CCT bridge over the C&O canal and Canal Road.
History of the Georgetown Branch Rail Line:
The Capital Crescent Trail is a "rails-to-trails" project built on the Georgetown Branch line originally operated by the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad Company. The line was operated in some manner from 1889 until 1985 when it was proposed for abandonment; it served basically as a minor freight spur carrying coal and building materials to local outlets in Chevy Chase, Bethesda and Georgetown. But had circumstances been slightly different, the B&O's search for improved access to northern Virginia and the southern states might have made the Georgetown Branch into one of B&O's major north-south rail corridors.
The B&O’s Search for a Gateway to the South
The story of the Georgetown Branch is part of the larger story about the rise and fall of the B&O as one of the dominant railroads companies on the Eastern Seaboard. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company was originally created in 1828 to accelerate development of direct transportation access for Baltimore to the Ohio River Basin to compete more effectively with economic rivals Philadelphia and New York. This was accomplished in 1853 when the B&O completed a direct rail line west to the City of Wheeling, and subsequently obtained a connection to Pittsburgh in 1872.
But access to markets on the Ohio River only afforded the B&O temporary prosperity. Intense competition from other railroad companies - especially northern juggernauts such as the Pennsylvania and New York Central Railroads - put pressure on the B&O to expand its rail network to consolidate access to existing markets and to gain entry to new ones. The expansion of rail systems, however, required large capital investments that were very risky in the boom-or-bust economics of the 19th Century railroad industry. On the other hand, declining to develop a certain rail route might limit access to potentially lucrative markets or allow the route to fall into the hands of competing railroads.
The B&O found itself in just such a dilemma during the 1880s and 1890s. It urgently needed a better link to southern railroads in order to compete effectively in that region. The post-Civil War development of agriculture and industry in the South meant that the region was becoming an increasingly important market. Yet the B&O had taken limited advantage due to its inability to link up efficiently with existing rail interchanges in Alexandria because of the barrier of the Potomac River.
The one direct route across the Potomac near Alexandria at that time - the Long Bridge - was owned by the rival Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) which would not interchange with the B&O at Alexandria. The PRR opposed the development of a separate B&O bridge across this part of the Potomac, but the project was also considered unrealistic given the river’s width, the potential costs and disruption to commercial river traffic. Since 1874 the B&O had relied chiefly on its Alexandria Branch line; this line carried trains to the east side of the Potomac opposite Alexandria (Shepherd’s Landing) and then ferried them across on carfloats. In spite of this, the B&O knew that the Alexandria Branch would not serve it as a long term solution because it was slow, expensive, and at the mercy of the weather.
The B&O’s Solution: Cross the Potomac West of Washington
Determined to overcome this problem, the B&O contrived a plan to develop its own rail connection to northern Virginia rail systems by bypassing Alexandria and crossing the Potomac on the western side of Washington. The proposed rail line would leave the B&O’s Metropolitan Branch just west of Silver Spring and turn south along the western boundary of the District of Columbia. It would then cross the Potomac just west of Chain Bridge, where the river was unnavigable and narrow so that a bridge would not interfere with commercial river traffic. Once across the Potomac, the line would proceed to south to Quantico via Fairfax Station.
A secondary benefit of the new line would be the development of another spur east from the Potomac Palisades and running parallel to the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal into Georgetown. Located at the nexus of the navigable part of the Potomac River and the terminus of the C&O Canal, Georgetown was a bustling commercial center in the 1880s and attractive to the B&O because of the coal brought down from the interior by the canal. Moreover, the B&O had acquired the struggling canal company and was operating the canal at a loss to keep the route from falling into the hands of other railroads.
By 1891, the B&O created a group of three subsidiary companies - one each for Maryland, DC and Virginia - to build various pieces of the proposed line. The Metropolitan Southern Railroad would develop the line from the Metropolitan Branch (the B&O main line at Silver Spring) to the Potomac Palisades. The Metropolitan Western would build the Virginia section of the line from the Potomac River to Quantico. Finally, the Washington & Western Maryland would complete the spur line from Potomac Palisades to Georgetown.
A distinct company unrelated to the B&O’s efforts - the Georgetown Barge, Dock, Elevator & Railway Co. - had already built approximately one mile of track in 1889 to shuttle cargoes along the Georgetown waterfront on Water Street (present-day K Street) from Rock Creek to the Alexandria Aqueduct Bridge. B&O acquired this company in 1891 and took over its operation of line, but this section would have no outside rail connection until the Georgetown Branch was finally completed in 1910.
From Silver Spring to Chevy Chase ... and No Farther
Construction of the Georgetown Branch line started in 1892 and within the year the Metropolitan Southern had laid two miles of track from its junction with the Metropolitan Branch to Chevy Chase, Maryland at present-day Connecticut Avenue. Development of this section included the construction of a large wooden trestle over Rock Creek.
The Rock Creek trestle was initially 1400 feet long, 67 feet high and reputed to be the largest of its type in the B&O system at that time. In 1904, much of the span was replaced by fill, reducing its length to 281 feet, and a single steel deck plate girder span inserted over Rock Creek. The trestle was rebuilt in 1928, and again in 1972 following extensive damage done by Tropical Storm Agnes.
Work on the rest of the line abruptly stopped in 1892 and was not to start again for 17 years. The B&O had entered a period when its financial situation was very precarious; in fact, the B&O passed into receivership for a time during the late 1890s. The B&O’s proposed route to northern Virginia, with its potentially costly Potomac River bridge, had to be shelved for the time being.
But the line to Chevy Chase was not a total waste of time and effort for the B&O. In 1892, the Rock Creek Railway had developed a suburban streetcar line from Chevy Chase Circle out Connecticut Avenue to its intersection with the B&O line. The streetcar terminal was nearby and coal was needed to run the powerhouse that provided electricity to run the line. Building materials were also in demand as houses and businesses sprung up along the trolley line. A separate single-track trolley line - called the Kensington Railway - also ran from this point to Kensington along present-day Kensington Parkway.
Completing the Georgetown Branch: From Main Line to Short Line
It was 1909 before the B&O could direct its attention again to completing work on the Georgetown Branch. By this time, however, the conditions forcing the B&O to consider an independent Potomac River crossing west of Washington had changed considerably. By 1902, the rapid expansion of north-south rail commerce offered an abundance of business for the many competing railroads, and the Pennsylvania Railroad’s monopoly over use of its bridge across the Potomac was no longer tenable. In 1906, the development of the "neutral" Potomac Yard project in Alexandria gave the B&O the southern access it wanted and eliminated the need for a separate southern rail link.
While the concept of the Georgetown Branch as a major B&O southern rail link was no longer viable, the B&O believed that a short line to Georgetown still made sense. Work on the line recommenced in 1909 and the Georgetown Branch was completed from Chevy Chase into Georgetown in 1910. The line passed through the community of Bethesda via a cut under present-day Wisconsin Avenue, and a small freight station was developed west of Wisconsin Avenue for the off-loading of coal and building materials. The line also passed under a singletrack trolley line from Bethesda to Rockville operated by the Washington Railway and Electric Company until 1935.(Note: this old trolley corridor is to be developed into the future Bethesda Trolley Trail.)
The Georgetown Branch passed near two Civil War forts west of Massachusetts Avenue: Battery Bailey built in present-day Westmoreland Hills, and Fort Sumner located in the present-day Sumner neighborhood. These forts were built during the Civil War as part of a larger network of 150 batteries and forts called the "Circle Forts" for the defense of Washington, DC against attack from Confederate forces.
The completion of the Georgetown Branch was hampered by the presence of Conduit Road - called MacArthur Boulevard today - which contained the pipelines carrying Washington’s water supply. The B&O’s solution was to construct a 341-foot, brick-lined tunnel that took the rail line under a ridge at Dalecarlia and then passed through the Dalecarlia Water Treatment Plant. The B&O also had to construct a small, steel girder bridge to carry the line over a streetcar line running from Washington to Cabin John. The old steel girder can be seen today under the wood-decked approach ramp of the trail bridge over the Dalecarlia plant.
To get across the C&O Canal and Canal Road, the B&O disassembled two old steel truss bridges from other sites, transporting and re-erecting them to form a 321-foot, two-span curved bridge near the Canal’s intersection with Arizona Avenue. The spans of the Arizona Avenue trestle are of a Whipple trapezoidal design, and are held together by two to three-inch pins rather than rivets. The trestle has been cited by the National Park Service’s Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) as an outstanding example of late 19th Century transportation engineering.
Once over the Canal, the Georgetown Branch ran parallel to it all the way into Georgetown. As it approached Water Street the line passed under a massive masonry arch, the last remnant of an 1,100-foot bridge built across Potomac called the Alexandria Aqueduct. The Aqueduct Bridge, built in 1843 as a wood truss structure and then rebuilt in 1888 as an iron highway bridge, was originally used to connect a branch of the C&O Canal across the Potomac to a canal going to Alexandria and to carry canal boats over the river. The aqueduct served as a major crossing between Washington and Virginia until the construction of Key Bridge in 1923. The massive twin-arch stone abutment is all that remains of the aqueduct today. The arch had to be enlarged during construction of the Georgetown Branch to accommodate the passage of the railroad.
Once in Georgetown, the branch line finally connected to the long-isolated, one-mile rail section on the Georgetown waterfront originally built in 1889. The B&O expanded this section by adding a number of industrial sidings on both sides and an adjacent team track yard at the southwest corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Water Street (it’s now a now a municipal parking lot near present-day Washington Harbor). The largest single Georgetown customer, and probably a major factor in B&O’s decision to complete the Georgetown Branch, was a power house built by the Capital Traction Company in 1912 to operate streetcars in Georgetown. Capital Traction was one of the two largest streetcar companies serving Washington and the plant in Georgetown generated electric power for the system.
The Decline and Fall of the Georgetown Branch
Even in its heyday the Georgetown Branch line was a modest one-train-a-day operation - not much more than an extended switching run. No locomotive turning facilities existed in Georgetown, so engines and cars traveling there returned to Silver Spring pointing the same way they had come.
The Georgetown Branch can claim an important role in the development of one of Washington’s - and the nation’s - most important landmarks. For most of its life, the Branch terminated at the west bank of Rock Creek in Georgetown. However, the line was temporarily extended east over Rock Creek in 1914 to carry limestone and other building materials for the construction of the Lincoln Memorial.
By the 1930s, Washington’s evolving development - and the resulting economic consequences - meant trouble for the Georgetown Branch. The Capital Traction generating plant in Georgetown closed in 1933 as the company was merged into the Capital Transit Company and switched to conventionally-supplied electric power. The Connecticut Avenue streetcar line in Chevy Chase was also abandoned in 1935, eliminating another coal customer. A heating plant in Georgetown operated by the General Services Administration (GSA) now became the only significant coal customer.
The period after World War II brought rapid changes to Washington that were to transform the Georgetown waterfront and spell doom for the Georgetown Branch. In the 1950s, despite the fact that it was never envisioned as a passenger line, the Georgetown Branch did brief service in helping the Korean War effort by assisting the Army in moving troops from Fort Belvoir and Fort Myer out of the Washington area.
During the 1960s, a growing awareness of Georgetown’s rich history and scenic views of the Potomac resulted in a movement to beautify the Georgetown waterfront. By the late 1960s, the redevelopment and gentrification of Georgetown was well underway with the removal of industrial plants, the construction of new office and apartment buildings and the renovation of numerous Georgetown historic structures. The disappearance of much of the remaining industry along the waterfront area removed much of the need for rail service.
In 1981, the B&O became another victim of the nationwide decline and consolidation of the railroad industry when the CSX Corporation was created from the merger of the B&O, C&O and Seaboard Coast Lines. The Georgetown Branch had a final, brief moment of glory that same year when the Smithsonian Institution ran a restored John Bull steam locomotive on a section of the line from Georgetown to the Arizona Avenue trestle. Though the intention of the excursion was to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the invention of the John Bull, the event served notice that the Georgetown Branch had become largely obsolete as a working freight line. The last train to Georgetown ran in 1985, as trucks replaced rail service for hauling coal to power the GSA heating plant.
Recycled Railroad - New Life as the Capital Crescent Trail:
When the Georgetown Branch went out of service, CSX wasted little time and sought permission to abandon the line in 1986. The Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail was created that same year with the help and support of area environmental, recreation and neighborhood organizations. Its goal was to convert the idle Georgetown Branch line into a high quality, multi-use trail to be known as the Capital Crescent Trail. But other groups and interests also had their eyes on the corridor and there were various proposal to reestablish the freight line under different ownership, to develop a mass transit project, or to create a scenic rail excursion line.
Local concern over the proposed abandonment coincided with increased anxiety nationally about the abandonment of over 3,000 miles of rail line per year. The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC), a private non-profit advocacy organization, was created to raise awareness about the loss of these valuable assets and their potential for conversion to "rail-trails". In 1983, RTC and its supporters convinced Congress to enact a "railbanking" provision incorporated into the National Trails System Act. Under that provision, an unused rail corridor could be "railbanked" if a state or local government or a private organization agreed to take it over and develop it as an interim rail-trail. The right-of-way could, in the event of a national emergency, revert to rail use.
In 1988, the Coalition and its supporters convinced the Montgomery County Council to purchase and railbank the Maryland portion of the corridor. The following year, Congress and the National Park Service worked out an arrangement with philanthropist Kingdon Gould, Jr. to secure title to the portion of the corridor in the District of Columbia. The seven-mile section of the Capital Crescent Trail from Georgetown to Bethesda was built and formally dedicated in December, 1996.
Development of the trail on the remainder of the corridor east of Bethesda has been hampered by a proposal to build a transitway/trail project on the right-of-way. Despite this, development of an interim trail on the Bethesda-Silver Spring section of the corridor was approved by the Montgomery County in August, 1995 and dedicated in January, 1997. In August, 1998 the segment of trail passing through the tunnel underneath the Air Rights building, Wisconsin Avenue, and the Apex building entered into service to connect the two trail sections. In May, 2003 repairs were completed to the historic Rock Creek Trestle and it was dedicated for trail use, closing the last major gap in the interim trail along the Georgetown Branch Rail Line Corridor. The Coalition made significant contributions of both time and money in getting these two links completed.
The Georgetown Branch Corridor ends at its junction with the former B&O Metropolitan Branch rail line, in Lyttonsville about one mile west of downtown Silver Spring. Plans call for completing the Capital Crescent Trail along the Metropolitan Branch Corridor, now owned and operated by CSX Railroad, into the new Sarbanes Transit Center in downtown Silver Spring. It will connect there with the Metropolitan Branch Trail, an 8 mile long trail under development to Union Station in D.C.
The Coalition is working to complete the Capital Crescent Trail into downtown Silver Spring, but the trail alignment is intertwined with the future Purple Line light rail transit alignment and the CSX right-of-way. The Trail will most likely be rebuilt alongside transit between Bethesda and Silver Spring as part of a joint Purple Line/Trail project. Preliminary Design began on this project in 2009, and the Maryland Transit Administration received approval from the FTA to enter the Preliminary Engineering Phase in 2011. After difficulties due to a legal challenge, state and federal construction funding was finally obtained in August 2017, and Purple Line construction preparation is scheduled to begin on September 5, 2017. This will unfortunately require closing the trail east of Bethesda for 4 to 5 years. For further information on the closure and the interim alternate route, see our home page.