WHAT’S IN A NAME ?

Washington Spa Spring and Gretta Railroad

Washington Spa Spring & Gretta Railroad
Battery-powered car 11, ca 1910
(LeRoy O’King, Jr. Collection)

The Washington Spa Spring & Gretta Railroad (WSSGRR), the streetcar that came to Berwyn Heights in the 1910s, had one of the more memorable names of the many streetcar lines in the Washington area at the turn of the 20th century. But what does it signify? The key to the name, as might be expected, are the places connected by the streetcar.

Washington at 15th and H Street, NE near the old District boundary was one end point of the line. In addition to 15th and H Street, Maryland Avenue, Florida Avenue, Benning Road and Bladensburg Road converged here to form a big “starburst” intersection where passengers could transfer to other lines that went into the city center. At the time, the residents of East Washington felt they were under-served by the city’s street car system, and through their citizen associations strongly lobbied for better service and for a “cross-town line.”  In February 1907, they got Congress to pass a law permitting WSSGRR to enter the District. Congressman Samuel S. Yoder, also a resident of East Washington and future President of WSSGRR, thanked the East Washington Citizen Association for supporting the bill and offered for WSSGRR to build the cross-town line.

Spa Spring refers to the Bladensburg Spa Spring located on the eastern bank of the Northeast Branch of the Anacostia River. In the 19th century, it was a popular tourist destination, and was visited by many for its alleged curative powers. An old Hopkins Atlas shows the location of the spring as well the concentration of businesses near it, including a Spa Spring Hotel.

Gretta refers to the homestead of Benjamin D. Stephen located east of Riverdale on the old Edmonston Road. Stephen was the Clerk of the Prince George’s Circuit Court at the time the streetcar was organized, and was elected as the first President of WSSGRR. Later, he conveyed Gretta to his oldest son Frank M. Stephen and two associates, who would plat the Gretta Addition to Riverdale, bounded on the west by the Eastern Branch, on the east by Edmonston Road, and in the south by Riverdale Road.

Berwyn Heights is notable for not being mentioned. A possible reason is that, in February 1905, when WSSGRR was incorporated in Maryland, it was not yet part of the plans. The certificate of incorporation describes the proposed streetcar route as “beginning at the District line, on the Baltimore and Washington Turnpike, where said line crosses the Pike at Colonel Reeve’s; then with the Pike through the Town of Bladensburg to the Edmonston Road; thence with said road or near thereto northerly to Gretta, a point on said road about one mile north of where the Riverdale Road leaves the Edmonston Road.” Berwyn Heights may have become a destination only after Yoder bought up properties in Berwyn Heights starting in late 1905 and became Vice President of WSSGRR, when the executive board was elected on April 2, 1907.

Sources:
Library of Congress historic newspapers online “Chronicling America”
Library of Congress “Atlas of fifteen miles around Washington…” Hopkins, 1879, p.28
City of Bladensburg website/history
Maryland State Archives “J.B.B. No. 1, Incorporations, 1901-1923”
LeRoy O’King, Jr. “100 Years of Capital Traction”

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