BROOKLAND ROADS: The Metropolitan Branch

Concluding my look at the four boundary roads of the original Brookland neighborhood.

Up to this point, I’ve talked about Brookland's northern boundary, Bunker Hill Road; the eastern boundary, Queen’s Chapel Road; and the southern boundary, Brentwood Road

That leaves the western boundary, the rail-Road. The Metropolitan Branch of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad is indeed a road, even if we don't usually think of it that way. They did in the 19th century, when John Garrett built the Metropolitan Branch. (John Garret. University of Nebraska-Lincoln)


Garrett, president of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, was not keen to build a western branch out of Washington, and neither were his Baltimore business partners. According to John F. Stover in his History of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, “Any such railroad would have only helped the commercial rivals of Baltimore, the port cities of Georgetown and Alexandria on the Potomac. The businessmen of Baltimore were happy to let their rivals to the south continue to rely upon the Chesapeake & Ohio canal, which finally reached Cumberland in 1850.” 


But by the time of the Civil War, Garrett realized that if he didn’t build a western extension, someone else would. Planning for it began in 1865. Since the C&O canal had the river route, the rail line took a more inland path for 43 miles, from Washington to Point of Rocks, Maryland, where it joined the Baltimore and Ohio main stem. Construction started in 1866 and went very slowly at first until Garrett gave it a push. The final rails were laid in February 1873 and the line was officially opened on May 25 of that year. The total cost was $3,583,000, including a beautiful Victorian station at Point of Rocks, which still stands.

PORTRAITS: The Birdman of Brookland

Robert Ridgway was a man of contradictions. He loved the rural countryside, yet lived most of his life in the city. He never went to college, yet became one of the country’s foremost scientists. He was painfully shy, yet regularly spoke in public and to the press. And he built one of the most distinctive homes Brookland has ever seen.

Rose Terrace

Robert Ridgway’s Brookland home, Rose Terrace.

In 1890, when he moved to the new suburb of Brookland and built his home on 13th Street between Monroe and Lawrence, Robert Ridgway was already a distinguished ornithologist, but he didn’t follow a traditional route to get there. 


Growing up in Illinois, Ridgway was fascinated by the natural world. He also liked sketching, and combined the two interests in detailed drawings of birds. In 1864, when he was fourteen years old, he was having trouble indentifying one of the birds he’d drawn. A friend’s mother suggested he send the picture to the Commissioner of Patents in Washington, an acquaintance of hers. He did, and in a few weeks, received a letter back from Spencer Fullerton Baird, the Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. It was the start of a lifelong relationship. Baird, impressed with the young Ridgway’s skill and enthusiasm, encouraged him, and when Ridgway was only seventeen Baird arranged for him to join the prestigious United States Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel from California to Wyoming. By 1874, Ridgway was appointed to the Smithsonian as an ornithologist, where he soon became the Smithsonian’s Curator of Birds, a position he held for the rest of his life.

HISTORIC PLACES: The Colonel’s House

It struck me the other day just how lucky we Brooklanders are that Brooks Mansion still stands after all this time. Hardly any of the area’s other estate houses survive. I’ve also often wondered what it really looked like when Colonel Brooks and his family were still living there. There are no period images of the mansion that I have ever seen, surprisingly enough.

Jehiel Brooks and his wife, Ann Queen, built their home between 1837 and 1840 and named it Bellair. It cost $25,000 to build, as shown in this expense list the Colonel prepared in 1840: 


(Click for full list. Courtesy of The Catholic University of America Archives.) 

Fortunately for us, when the Brooks mansion was nominated for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places in 1975, a comprehensive architectural and archeological report was provided, accompanied by an 1863 map that shows remarkable detail: 

Brooksmansion-Hodasevich 1863

(Click link for full-size map from Library of  Congress.)

The map was drawn by a private in the Federal Army, Robert Adolph Hodasevich, and although he mistakes Colonel Brooks’s rank as Captain, his map is otherwise quite accurate. The report and the map together allow us to paint a picture of the Brooks estate in the middle of the Civil War.

Imagine you were coming to visit the Brooks family during that era. You might take a carriage from downtown, ride up Lincoln Avenue (now Lincoln Road) to the intersection with Bunker Hill Road (now 4th and Michigan). Ahead of you is a tree-lined path that leads to the Middleton estate (now the site of Catholic University). 

BROOKLAND ROADS: Meet Me on the Corner of Lansing and Argyle

The Post Office must have hated this in the early days of Brookland. Changing street names.

The neighborhood's streets have had a number of different names since the first subdivision was founded in 1887. Many of the names were never really used, but survive on subdivision maps from the early years. Before the District adopted a formalized naming system in 1901, developers named the streets, so they could vary from subdivision to subdivision. In addition, the same street could change names a number of times as it crossed subdivision boundaries. Confusion reigned.

The original 1887 plat map of the first subdivision, called simply "Brookland" contained street names based on trees - Elm St., Pine St., Walnut St., etc. 

Click for larger image. District of Columbia Office of the Surveyor

Those names were soon changed. The street names were altered at least twice before the city began officially changing them in 1901. That was when the District Commissioners adopted the basic system for the city north of Florida Avenue: north and south streets would be numbered, east and west streets would be named after distinguished Americans, alphabetically. One syllable names first, then two and finally three syllable names as you progress further north. A minor street became a "place," and irregular streets (mostly the old ones) were termed "roads." Broad diagonal roadways would be called "avenues," and named after states and territories.

© Robert Malesky 2017