Seeing a Future Along Old Tracks

By Scott Sowers
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, July 8, 2006

Housing development has always followed the train. Historically, sweetheart deals for railroad executives, combined with an affordable way to move materials, spurred the building of neighborhoods along the rail lines in and around Washington. Even today, a nearby Metro station practically guarantees successful development.

Some old-school railroad-centric communities in the area have survived and prospered, and major developers are now taking fresh looks at towns built alongside sets of steel rails. In places such as Riverdale Park, Garrett Park and Belmont Bay, the air horns still sound, warning bells ring and the earth rumbles when a freight train or a line of commuter cars rolls by. Having trains in the neighborhood means convenience, danger, history, romance and maybe opportunity.

MARC's Camden Line runs along the old Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, which began as a way to move freight and people across the Allegheny Mountains faster than they could float through the Erie Canal. Using tracks now owned by CSX Corp., it moves commuters from Penn Station in Baltimore to Union Station in Washington, with stops including Jessup, Laurel and the little town of Riverdale Park in Prince George's County.

Riverdale Park's history predates railroads, but its past and, perhaps, its future are linked to the tracks.

In 1799, Rosalie Stier married George Calvert, a delegate in the Maryland General Assembly and a scion of Maryland's first family. The newlyweds accepted a gift of property from the Stier family and began construction of what would become Riversdale Mansion.

In the early 1800s, Bladensburg was an important tobacco port, and the path from Baltimore ran right through the Calvert estate. The B&O railway and the Calverts reached an understanding that any modern tycoon would love.

"They had a stop for the mansion," said Douglas McElrath, curator of the Marylandia and rare books department at the University of Maryland library. "He was a planter owning thousands of acres, so he was using it to transport crops and materials." The station was put in service in 1835, and the train has been stopping in Riverdale Park ever since.

Riverdale Park is separated from Hyattsville by U.S. Route 1, but the town has always been more taken with the train than with the car. "It's not focused on Route 1 but on the railroad," McElrath said.

The importance of the railroad in Riverdale Park was eventually eclipsed by another form of transportation. The street car arrived in 1899. According to ads of the time, the B&O's 17-minute trip to Union Station was faster, but trolleys were more convenient.

Today, MARC pegs its daily ridership from Riverdale Park at 35, a number it considers "stagnant." Most riders are going to Baltimore, while people who want to go to the District use Metro's Green Line nearby.

Even if the train's role has diminished in Riverdale Park, if you live there, you can't deny the presence. "I kind of like the sound of the train," said McElrath, who lives in the town, "and they're talking about getting a new kind of crossing gate so CSX doesn't have to blast their horn at night."

Better railroad crossings are developmental baby steps. Riverdale Park today looks like a community stuck in time. The buildings lining the town square, most of them vacant, appear to have been waiting a long time for the new owners to move in. City leaders believe the railroad may hold the ticket to prosperity by allowing what urban planners now call transit-oriented development.

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