The new battle for Bladensburg


A cannon demonstration is shown during the grand opening of the Battle of Bladensburg War of 1812 Visitor Center at Bladensburg Waterfront Park. The opening of the new visitor center marks the beginning of two years of celebrations and events centered on Maryland’s involvement in the War of 1812. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)
September 3, 2012

For years, John Giannetti, a former Marine captain, has lamented the lack of a memorial to the Americans who fell at the Battle of Bladensburg in 1814.

“I think they are pretty noble,” said Giannetti, whose family ties to Prince George’s County stretch back decades.

By next fall, a bronze relief statue that is being designed by local artist Joanna Blake at Giannetti’s Brentwood studio is expected to be unveiled at Bladensburg Balloon Park.

The $375,00 memorial, which shows a fallen Commodore Joshua Barney and two others, is one of many efforts by local residents to try to highlight the area’s links to the War of 1812, a conflict with the British that secured American independence in the post-Revolutionary War era. As celebrations are underway in the region marking the war’s bicentennial, Bladensburg and its neighboring Port Towns — communities that once profited from a thriving Anacostia River trade — are trying to capi­tal­ize on their ties to the war and attract history buffs and tourists.

“We have some history right here that we can touch,” said Prince George’s County Council Chairman Andrea C. Harrison (D-Springdale), whose district includes the four communities that make up the Port Towns: Bladensburg, Colmar Manor, Cottage City and Edmonston.


Location of the proposed memorial for the Battle of Bladensburg. (Laris Karklis/The Washington Post)

But the task of creating a modern-day tourist attraction is somewhat daunting for the area, which is south of Hyattsville and a mile from the District line. With its strip malls, manufacturing companies and mid-rises, it is more Anytown, U.S.A., than Colonial Williamsburg.

“You have very historic sites lost in the commercial clutter of 21st-century America,” said David Iannucci, a top economic development aide to County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D). “There are sacred battlefields where people died and changed the course of history next to used-car lots and liquor stores.”

Route 450, Bladensburg’s main street, is an often-clogged commuter route that is traveled by more than 50,000 vehicles a day and at the same time is the major entryway to the historic areas. The traffic and the wide boulevard make the road a risky place for anyone who wants to walk or ride a bike from site to site.

Because of limited funds, plans to make the state road more welcoming to pedestrians and cyclists have been put on hold by the state until at least 2016.

Still, local officials are trying to call attention to the many sites in the area by erecting signs, flags and other markers and creating a walking trail. The Port Towns Community Development Corp. is eager to show people around and has a 22-passenger bus that can be used for tours, said Sadara Barrow, the executive director.

Many historians say that the disaster that was the Battle of Bladensburg — a rout of the Americans that opened the way for the British to take Washington and burn the Capitol and the White House — was an important wake-up call that forced the fledgling nation to regroup and reorganize its military. For the Port Towns, the coming bicentennial of the battle — Aug. 24, 2014 — has been their own spur to try to make the historic sites more accessible.

For now, visitors can seek out substantial remnants of the Bladensburg battlefield; visit the Dueling Grounds, where more than 50 duels were held between 1808 and 1868; and go to Fort Lincoln Cemetery, where Barney’s detachment made a stand as the American lines disintegrated. There are at least four historic houses that had a role in or were standing during the War of 1812. They can be viewed from the outside; by 2014, officials hope that the interiors also may be shown to the public.

The National Park Service’s Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail, a 560-mile, land- and-water route that traverses War of 1812 sites in Virginia, the District and Maryland, runs through the Port Towns. And the walking trail devised by the Anacostia Trails Heritage Association links sites in the Port Towns.

In late August, county and local officials opened a $75,000 War of 1812 visitors center in Bladensburg Waterfront Park, a large swath of green on the Anacostia River that offers kayak and canoe rentals and a bike trail that meanders north to Greenbelt.

The attractions are only five miles from the Capitol and an easy ride to Hyattsville, an area that is part of a designated arts corridor in Prince George’s County that has spawned several new restaurants and businesses. There are several major north-south routes for cars, as well as a couple of major bus lines.

Members of the Port Towns Youth Council have spent the past two summers cataloguing the area and offering advice to the grown-ups about ways to make the area more appealing.

“Start with the small stuff — repaint the crosswalks. If people get out more, they will want their town to look better,” said Demilade Adebayo, 16, a junior at Bladensburg High School.

Erick Vargas, 16, also a junior at Bladensburg, said the Port Towns should do a better job of accommodating pedestrians.

“If I were a tourist or handicapped, I would have trouble getting around,” he said.

Rony Tobar, another student-analyst from Bladensburg High, suggested more sidewalks, bike lanes and better lighting.

Bladensburg Mayor Walter L. James Jr., said the War of 1812 commemorations are providing a strong impetus to the area to reinvent itself. He told the students that their recommendations would be taken seriously and “would not collect dust.”

The students also noted that the Port Towns have taken other steps to try to make their communities more attractive, such as the street lights with small windmills atop light posts in Bladensburg that are energy self-sufficient; solar panels on public buildings; and pavers that help absorb storm water and limit runoff into the Anacostia. Edmonston was among the first towns on the East Coast to have a “green” street that was redesigned in 2009 to absorb storm water.

Brendan Quinn, chief executive of Ernest Maier, a masonry manufacturing company in Bladensburg that employs about 100 people, said the area’s potential is substantial.

“Someday, some developer will realize Bladensburg is five miles from the Capitol,” said Quinn, who owns 13 acres that include a few that are potentially developable.

“Developers are smart. People will want to live inside the Beltway and have access to rivers and parks. I think the future is a hybrid of a residential community and a strong industrial base,” he said.

Meantime, Giannetti is proud that the memorial for the fallen soldiers is finally coming to fruition.

“These guys put up a heck of a fight,” he said.

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