Washington’s old streetcars may be gone, but like a gunshot victim who carries around a bit of lead, the District may always have a very physical reminder of their presence.
Last autumn, reader Robert Linden was walking in his Friendship Heights neighborhood when he stopped to watch construction workers toiling on an electrical substation at Wisconsin Avenue and Harrison Street NW. Power cables will run under the street. The workers were grousing that the task was complicated by something they kept running into: streetcar tracks.
The streetcars have been gone for 54 years. The tracks they ran on? Not so much.
“Crews working along Wisconsin Avenue to improve electric service reliability are finding sections of out-of-service heavy steel tracks beneath the roadway,” a Pepco spokesman emailed me. “The concrete-encased tracks are slowing progress, but we continue to work as quickly and safely as possible to complete excavation work for new underground lines.”
When the streetcar network was shut down in 1962, what to do with the tracks was a rather large sticking point. It was estimated that 107 linear miles of streetcar track remained. This presented a danger, because cars could slide on the slick metal surface.
But who was going to foot the bill — more than $8 million — to have them removed? O. Roy Chalk, owner of D.C. Transit, didn’t want to. Neither did the District. It was decided that they would split the cost: D.C. Transit paying to pull the rails out, the city paying to resurface the streets.
Some of the track was removed, but most of it was just paved over. At various places around the city, you can sometimes see the old rail peeking out, like the original wallpaper in a repainted room.
When it comes to removing the streetcar infrastructure, the real problem isn’t the rails, but what the rails sit on. Large iron yokes — imagine big, beefy sawhorses — are positioned every six feet, anchored in blocks of concrete. “The blocks must be smashed and sometimes dynamited to make removal possible,” The Post reported in 1972.
That year — 10 years after the last streetcar ran — 86 miles of track and conduit (the center channel that held the electrified wire) remained in the District. Eight miles of it was still exposed to view. Most was eventually paved over, only to bedevil today’s jackhammer-wielding construction workers.
Not all of it was covered. In Georgetown, on O and P streets west of 34th Street NW, there is original track — improved original track. In 2011, the cobbles were removed while the yokes and tracks were reset to make the streets safer to drive on.
My column last week on polar explorers who came through Washington prompted several readers to share other arctic artifacts.
The District’s Marjory Olsen Olson reminded me of Peary High School, built on Arctic Avenue in Rockville, Md., and named after Rear Adm. Robert E. Peary, who either was or was not the first person to reach the North Pole.
The school’s sports team were the Huskies. In honor of Donald B. MacMillan, a member of Peary’s 1908 polar expedition, the school’s bagpipe band wore kilts of the MacMillan tartan. (They received special permission from the clan chief in Scotland to do so.) The school closed in 1984, but the pipers live on at my alma mater, Rockville High.
John Wm. Thomas of Alexandria, Va., actually met MacMillan, who made frequent trips north, including to Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. It was the 1950s, and John’s family was living in Maine. MacMillan lectured at Bowdoin College, both his and Peary’s alma mater. (The school is home to the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum.)
“Many have heard of Peary but few have heard of McMillan,” John wrote. “He was a dauntless and courageous little man whose humanity and love of the people of Baffin Island — and everywhere else — shown through his face and heart.”
Dennis J. Hubscher of Hollywood, Md., shared the obituary of his aunt’s father-in-law, Joseph Krause. In 1881, Krause was a Navy sailor serving aboard the USS Alliance when it traveled to the Arctic Circle looking for traces of an expedition that had been lost.
After the Navy, Krause became a special delivery carrier for the Post Office. He made all his deliveries by bicycle. Krause lived to 102 and was buried at Walker Chapel Cemetery in Arlington, Va. Dennis wrote: “Upon celebrating his 100th birthday, Joseph attributed his longevity to moderation and mildness of temper . . . something we should all probably ascribe to.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.