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In Bethesda, railroad track remnants show downtown’s former industrial side

By Peggy McEwan | The Gazette,

While downtown Bethesda continues to build up, signs of old-time Bethesda are being unearthed.

Excavation on the site of the Montgomery County-owned parking lot at the corner of Bethesda and Woodmont avenues has revealed several old railroad tracks, remnants of the Georgetown Branch of the B&O Railroad, which included several sidings near that intersection.

“Bethesda was always a very blue-collar, industrial area,” said Ben Sullivan of Brookeville, a member of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Historical Society. “There were oil and fuel dealers, a lumberyard and automotive dealers in that area.”

The railroad would change the configuration of the tracks to meet the needs of its customers, Sullivan said.

The last trains went through Bethesda in 1985, Sullivan said. By that time, the line only was taking coal to a government plant in Georgetown a couple of days per week.

“Finally, it became cheaper to deliver the coal in trucks,” he said.

Montgomery residents who think of Bethesda as a shopping and dining destination, who have to search for parking and wait for lights to cross the street, may be surprised to learn that Bethesda was not the main destination for the railroads. It was Georgetown. The trains that went through Bethesda traveled along the Georgetown Branch, a route built off the main B&O line to take supplies to the District.

“Bethesda had a freight house right at the intersection in front of Barnes & Noble,” Sullivan said.

Steve Embrey of Silver Spring, general manager of Eastham Exxon on Wisconsin Avenue, said he has worked in Bethesda since 1971.

“In the 1970s, when I first came, [Bethesda] was very underdeveloped,” he said. “There were only warehouses along Arlington Road and Bethesda Ave.”

Trains crossed the intersection of Woodmont and Bethesda avenues, pulling into what now is a construction site for a mixed-use project that will include condominiums, retail space and underground parking, according to the Web site of StonebridgeCarras, the property’s developer.

“I think what happened to Bethesda is you had a lot of really, really nice neighborhoods and a lot of industrial, and one had to win,” Sullivan said.

But, he said, you still can find lots of remnants of Bethesda’s history.

The line of stores along Bethesda Avenue curves at the end, same as when the tracks curved toward Maloney Concrete on Arlington Road, Sullivan said.

“It’s an interesting nod to the past,” he said.

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