The carpet stores and auto shops lining Bladensburg Road as it crosses from the District of Columbia into Maryland may seem far removed from a landmark moment in U.S. history.
But not far from the intersection with Eastern Avenue — near the Popeyes Chicken attached to the Shell gas station — is the spot where Commodore Joshua Barney placed his guns in a last-ditch effort to save the capital during the Battle of Bladensburg on Aug. 24, 1814.
One mile down the hill, the road crosses the Anacostia River, forever altered by two centuries of silting and an enormous Army Corps of Engineers flood-control project. But along the revitalized Bladensburg waterfront, a colorful new orientation kiosk describes the bold British attack across the river — then known as the Eastern Branch — that led to the capture of Washington.
Bladensburg is one of the featured stops along the new Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail, a 560-mile land-and-water route through Virginia, Maryland and the District that traces the paths of the British invasion.
The trail, a major National Park Service project marking the bicentennial of the War of 1812, is being inaugurated Monday at Fells Point in Baltimore by Park Service officials and members of Congress.
By land or water, by bike or on foot, in a car or on a boat, visitors can follow the routes taken by the British during the 1813 and 1814 invasions of the Chesapeake, which resulted in the burning of the White House and Capitol, the capture of Alexandria and the battle for Baltimore, culminated in the writing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
The trail, authorized by Congress in May 2008, is one of 19 national historic trails, among them the Lewis and Clark expedition, the Pony Express and the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches. The most recent, the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route, was designated in 2009.
The Star-Spangled Banner trail links some 20 national historic landmarks, including the White House and the Capitol, and more than 100 other historic properties, museums and sites. Some spots, such as Bladensburg, have long since been developed, but others, including some of the southern Maryland landscape, are unchanged over two centuries.
The trail crosses a mix of local, state and federal lands, ambling past fields and through towns, and sometimes following little more than ripples in the water.
“It’s not as simple as having a national park,” said trail superintendent John Maounis. “It’s a national historic trail. These are things that have to live beyond the moment.”
There is also a trail Web site, www.starspangledtrail.net, and a trail app for mobile phones is set for release later this summer.
A multi-state “geotrail,” which organizers describe as first of its kind, allows participants to use hand-held GPS devises and coordinates to locate 40 geocache sites along the trail.
An illustrated companion book published in June, “In Full Glory Reflected: Discovering the War of 1812 in the Chesapeake,” by historians Ralph Eshelman and Burt Kummerow, examines the war’s history in the region and includes a guide for visiting the trail.
Three-sided orientation kiosks have been installed at 25 locations, with more to follow next year.
The new national trail is the country’s second that partly follows water routes, similar to the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, established in 2007. Boaters can get information from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration navigational and weather buoys in the bay, which have been loaded with brief historical narratives. A boaters’ guide for the trail is being prepared, and signs marking water routes are to be placed next year.
The water routes originate at Tangier Island, a British base during the war. One branch follows the main British invasion route up the Patuxent River, where an army was landed at Benedict.
A second branch takes the route of a British squadron’s foray up the Potomac that resulted in the demolition of Fort Washington and the capture of Alexandria. A third branch follows the British attack on Baltimore, including the troop landing at North Point and the bombardment of Fort McHenry.
A fourth branch highlights the scenes of British raids in 1813 and 1814 in the Chesapeake, including the destruction of Havre de Grace.
The land routes run from Solomons Island in southern Maryland to North Point east of Baltimore, via Washington, Alexandria and Georgetown. Portions follow the British army’s route from Benedict to Nottingham, Upper Marlboro and Bladensburg.
“We really want the Star-Spangled Banner trail to be the connection for hundreds of sites all over Maryland, D.C. and Virginia,” said Bill Pencek, executive director of the Maryland Bicentennial Commission.
The trail is managed through a partnership of federal, state and local agencies, private organizations and bicentennial commissions in Maryland, Virginia and the District. Funding is also a mix of public and private sources, including the National Park Service, the Federal Highway Administration, the National Scenic Byways Program and the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network. Some revenue from War of 1812 commemorative coins sold by the U.S. Mint is dedicated to the trail.
Fort McHenry, where the Park Service opened a new visitor center in March 2011, is the trail’s primary visitor hub, and other sites are planned, including in Washington, Alexandria, Bladensburg and around Baltimore.
The trail remains a work in progress, according to park officials, who say much more will be in place by the 200th anniversary of the bombardment of Fort McHenry in September 1814.