Congress Clears the Way for a Streetcar Company to Operate in the Nation’s Capital

February 18, 1907

The U.S. Congress approved a measure allowing the Maryland-based Washington, Spa Spring and Gretta Electric Railroad (WSSGRR) to extend its streetcar operations into Washington, D.C. This act cleared the way for the last new streetcar company of the era to provide transit services in Washington, D.C., and the plan was to build the line to 15th and H Streets, N.E., in the nation’s capital. 

A charter for this streetcar franchise had been granted two years earlier by the Maryland General Assembly in Annapolis. At the time of the congressional authorization, the company was already operating in Prince George’s County in Maryland. The areas in the county where there was access to that streetcar service included the town of Berwyn Heights; Gretta, a large piece of property that was located just east of the town of Riverdale (present-day Riverdale Park) and owned by Prince George’s County Circuit Court clerk Benjamin D. Stephen; and Spa Spring, a portion of real estate that was situated on the eastern back of the northeast branch of the Anacostia River and had been acquired by the town of Bladensburg.

A major force behind the development and expansion of the WSSGRR was Samuel S. Yoder. A Civil War veteran who had fought for the Union Army, Yoder served as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from his native state of Ohio between 1887 and 1891. He then served as sergeant at arms for the House of Representatives from 1891 to 1893. After completing those congressional tours of duty, Yoder continued to live in Washington, D.C. His home, as a matter of fact, was only a block away from the U.S. Capitol.

Along with practicing law, Yoder spent most of the remainder of his life investing in real estate in the region. Yoder saw the WSSGRR as a golden opportunity for such investments and, after the Maryland General Assembly granted a charter for that streetcar service, he and several associates began purchasing land in Prince George’s County for the new line. Yoder also teamed up with county residents who championed extending the WSSGRR into Washington, D.C., as a viable way to bring more economic prosperity to their part of the region.

A couple of months after the enactment of the law allowing that extension, the individuals overseeing the WSSGRR took steps to further formalize it by establishing a board of directors. Stephen was elected president of the board, with Yoder chosen to serve as its vice president. Fillmore Beall became the board’s secretary, and Nelson agreed to serve as treasurer. James Rogers was designated general counsel for the board. The board’s other members were William W. Poultney, William P. Magruder, J. Enos Ray, and J. Harris Rogers.

Those board members, along with other advocates of the WSSGRR, sought to expand its transit services to areas well beyond Prince George’s County and Washington, D.C.  The Washington Post reported, “The ultimate terminals are Baltimore and Gettysburg, by way of Frederick, which will take in the rich farming communities of Howard and Frederick counties, which are now without transportation facilities.” This article further stated, “The act of Congress also grants telegraph and telephone rights, as well as light freight transportation, particularly desired for the truck and farm products.” 

The geographic reach of the WSSGRR, however, never did encompass those other areas and ambitions. Berwyn Heights continued to be WSSGRR’s eastern terminus. Ultimately, these streetcar operations remained in existence until only the early 1920s. 

Despite its short life, the WSSGRR still managed to have a far-reaching impact on the communities that the line served at a time when automobiles were not widely used. Above all else, this streetcar service provided a major means of transportation for Prince George’s County residents between their homes and Washington, D.C. This helped make it a lot more possible than before for those in the middle class to both relocate to the Maryland suburbs in large numbers and continue working and shopping in the nation’s capital.  

Photo Credit: Berwyn Heights Historical Committee

The 1907 legislation allowing the Washington, Spa Spring and Gretta Electric Railroad to extend its services into Washington, D.C., is available at https://www.loc.gov/law/help/statutes-at-large/59th-congress/session-2/c59s2ch935.pdf

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