Correction to This Article
Earlier versions of this article incorrectly said that a stone bridge in Cabin John crosses the Washington Aqueduct. The bridge carries the aqueduct over Cabin John Creek. This version has been corrected.

A small-town vibe, but big on variety

Locator map of Cabin John in Montgomery Co.
M.K. Cannistra/The Washington Post
By Amy Reinink
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, January 14, 2011; 9:47 AM

Ellen Wilner saw the character of Cabin John embodied in a tomato stand one summer afternoon.

The stand, set up outside a resident's home on one of the community's narrow, winding streets, had loads of tomatoes, a scale, a calculator and a cash box, but no one watching over the stand.

"I thought, 'This must be the last bastion of the honor system,' " said Wilner, a real estate agent and Cabin John resident. "Tell me where else in the D.C. area you can find this."

Scenes like that abound in Cabin John, a small Montgomery County community prized by residents for its history, sense of community, and proximity to downtown Washington and the Potomac River.

Resident Joanne Hirsh remembers seeing a young boy leaving the Captain's Market with a bucket of bait over one shoulder and a fishing pole over the other, ready to bike over to the river or the C&O Canal.

"It was like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting," said Hirsh, a 65-year-old retiree who moved to the neighborhood with her husband, Richard, 15 years ago. "I just thought, 'That's Cabin John.' "

Cabin John, which has its own post office and Zip code, is rife with history, including the mystical and uncertain origins of its name.

Judith Welles, who wrote "Cabin John: Legends and Life of an Uncommon Place," said legends range from a man named John who mourned his dead lover in a cabin to a variation of Capt. John Smith's name.

The community grew up around the construction of the C&O Canal in the early 1800s and the Washington Aqueduct in the 1850s and 1860s. By 1870, a grand Victorian hotel served as the center of what had become a tourist destination. The hotel, which burned in 1931, hosted Washington dignitaries including three presidents, Welles said.

Remnants of the community's history abound, from the Cabin John Firehouse, built in 1931 and now home to a tailor and cleaners, to the single-lane stone bridge that carries the Washington Aqueduct, built from 1857 to 1863, over Cabin John Creek. The businesses in the Firehouse are among several local shops and restaurants within walking distance for most residents.

A sense of history permeates the neighborhood's eclectic housing stock, too, with several Sears-catalogue homes still standing.

"This is not Avenel," said Wilner, whose husband, 40-year Cabin John resident Jim Wilner, is one of several architects in the community. "You'll have a little, tiny, modest home right next to a larger, recently renovated home. There's nothing cookie-cutter here."

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