The Early History of Bethesda MD – The Colonial Period

The early history of Bethesda Maryland did not suggest it would become the vibrant, upscale city that it now is.  In colonial times, Bethesda was little more than “a wide spot in the road,” as one long forgotten colonial resident put it.  What is now Wisconsin Avenue began as part of the Indian trails for hunting deer and turkeys along the Potomac, Monocacy and Patuxent rivers.

Landscape North of Bethesda
Sugar Loaf Mountain

By the end of the 17th century the Indians had been pushed west. The English were building plantations out of the virgin forests. By the 18th century, farms joined the plantations and  farmers were carrying wheat and tobacco several miles down Wisconsin Avenue to the port of Georgetown. Livestock, British regiments and travelers all passed along the dirt road on foot or in wagons.

The Early History of Bethesda MD – The Old Stone Tavern

In the middle of the 18th century a small stone tavern had appeared near a bend in the road. The tavern offered lodging and food to passers bys. Located near the northwest intersection of present-day Old Georgetown Road and Wisconsin Avenue, the “old stone tavern”  was the first commercial establishment in the area. From this early start, modern Bethesda grew and grew.

By the beginning of the 19th century, the old road was a muddy and rutted mess. In 1805, the Maryland legislature chartered a new company dedicated to improving the road between the District line and Rockville. Around 1817, the new turnpike opened, the first hard- surfaced road in Montgomery County, a 20-foot-wide strip up to Rockville. The goal was to extend the road to Frederick and beyond.  With progress comes fees and a small, wooden tollbooth was built south of the intersection of what is now Wisconsin Avenue and Old Georgetown Road to collect fees from travelers.

The Early History of Bethesda – the Turnpike

The new turnpike brought more farmers who built homes looking out on prosperous fields of  cattle and wheat and corn. By 1862, the federal government opened a post office, established in William Darcy’s

Early History of Bethesda
Bethesda Meeting House

general store opposite the toll house. The post office cleverly was named “Darcy’s Store.”

When Darcy was relieved of his postmaster duties, the new postmaster, Robert Franck, asked the government with the community’s consent to rename the village “Bethesda.” This name referred to the local Presbyterian meeting house that still stands high on a hill above the pike.

The official date of the name change was Jan. 23, 1871—the birthday of Bethesda. (Today, the community is one of five so named in the United States.)

An Early History of Bethesda
Bethesda Today

Still, in the years following the Civil War, Bethesda was barely a village. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, which began steaming through the county in 1873, ran far to the east. Farmers chose to use the railroad to transport their goods to the Washington markets. Travelers took the rail into DC too. The old road slid into disrepair just as its predecessor had, and the village limped along. By 1878,  its population numbered only 20. There was the lawyer, and a doctor,  two blacksmiths, William Kirby and William Lochte, whose shop stood at the northwest corner of the pike and the Georgetown road. Bethesda had a carpenter, a carriage maker. and a storekeeper who doubled as the postmaster.

The Early History of Bethesda-The Chevy Chase Land Co.

At the beginning of the last decade of the 19th century,  the newly formed Chevy Chase Land Company had begun to buy up property to the east of Bethesda, with the intent of creating a new sylvan enclave for Washington’s social and political elite. And the following year, 1891, the trolley arrived, the electric railroad headed up the pike, then veering left, following the path of the older Georgetown road. Bethesda area farmers now had their own means of carrying produce into the city. Urban dwellers found a way to escape to fresh, clean country air. And developers found a way to create more suburban subdivisions out of rail-adjacent real estate.

The trolley originally ended at Alta Vista, north of Cedar Lane, where the railway company built an amusement park as an incentive for evening and weekend riders. Opened in 1891, Bethesda Park quickly became one of D.C.’s most popular entertainment spots, complete with roller coasters, Ferris wheel, bowling alleys, shooting galleries, a concert and dance hall and a hotel. Patrons were treated to performances by Wichita Jack’s Wild West show, Professor Hampton’s dog circus, “Prince Leo, King of the Tight Rope Walkers” and other astonishing acts of the day.

The Early History of Bethesda – Ends and Beginnings

A hurricane destroyed the park in 1896 and it never reopen. By 1900, the trolley line had been extended to Rockville.  The old turnpike descended into a dismal state, and the company which owned it declared bankruptcy. An 1899 report called it “one of the worst pieces of main highway in the state.” In 1908, with the creation of the State Highway Administration, the old pike was absorbed into the state system and modernized with a new hard-packed surface. “It is now considered to be the only good road between the district and the upper part of Montgomery County,” The Washington Post reported.

The trolley helped Bethesda evolve from small village as did the covenants of neighboring Chevy Chase, which prohibited commercial establishments within the residential area. The new residents in Bethesda and Chevy Chase needed a place to shop, and so they came to the new downtown Bethesda.  From theses humble beginnings Bethesda has turned into a large small city. Bethesda is the headquarters to Marriott and the National Institutes of Health among others/ Bethesda offers restaurants headed by nationally famous chefs, and provides all the stores and shops you could want.  It’s not bad for a little town that numbered just 20 people right after the Civil War!


Early History of Bethesda
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