Crews Begin to Remove Streetcar Tracks Today

Right now, the city is undergoing a long, long project to rehab the streetcar tracks on O and P Streets. They will pull up all the cobblestones (well, technically they’re Belgian blocks, but everyone just calls them cobblestones) and pull up the tracks and the yolks that support them. They will then reposition the yolks lower to be better aligned with the street grade, which has eroded a lot over the years. Then they will reposition the cobblestones and, hopefully, the streets will look beautiful and be a lot more safe to ride on.

But what won’t be riding on the tracks is streetcars themselves. The whole point of this exercise is to preserve in place the last remaining examples of Washington’s rare conduit power system. That’s a fancy way of saying the streetcars got their power from a buried power line. The streetcars accessed the powered line through a slot running down the center of the tracks. It looked a lot like a cable car slot, and for good reason because a lot of the streetcars in Washington were originally cable cars that were transitioned over to electric power.

Route 20 of DC Transit ran on Georgetown’s O and P Streets until 1960. It wound its way through Georgetown on its way either out to Cabin John (by way of the Glen Echo Amusement Park) or towards downtown, ultimately terminating at Union Station. In Georgetown it came in on M St., went up Wisconsin to P and headed west to 36th st., hung a left all the way down to Prospect, where it would turn right and head out on the Cabin John right-of-way (which still exists!). On the way back in, it would come in on Prospect, head over to 35th and up to O St. where it would turn right and head over to Wisconsin Ave.

Here’s a map of the streetcar lines that once went through Georgetown:

(Red=Tracks removed long ago, Blue=Tracks are there and uncovered, Green=Tracks are there but covered)

Nowadays you can only see the tracks on O and P Streets east of 35th St. But the rest of the loop around to 36th and down to Prospect is still there under the ashpalt (or at least large sections of it is; GM’s not sure if the whole thing is still there). As part of the project, DDOT is actually removing the tracks that have been covered for decades.

And today they are starting that bittersweet removal on 36th St. just south of P. As you can see in the photo above, they’ve already carved out the tracks from the road. You can see the whole system quite clearly. If you’re interested, you ought to stop by this morning as they remove the tracks. GM was informed that the National Park Service will be there today to document the tracks as part of its Historic American Engineer Record.




Filed under History

8 responses to “Crews Begin to Remove Streetcar Tracks Today

  1. Brad Altman

    I’m pretty sure that the tracks on M St between Key Bridge and Wisconsin Ave are still there, under the pavement. They were still there in the early 80’s and if they were pulled up it would have been a much larger project.

  2. Anonymous, please: "Nemo"

    Actually, I believe those are YOKES that supported the tracks. I also recall that the tracks and the handsome “spread fan” patterned Belgian block pavers on M Street west of Wisconsin Avenue were covered, not removed. The tracks used to curve into the doors of what is now Georgetown Park, from the time when it was a car barn. The tracks were murder on pedestrians — when they were wet, they were perilously slick. The track of my tiny 1969 Austin sedan, however, was the perfect width for O and P Streets. I would get on the rails and have a smooth, smooth ride all the way to end.

  3. Anonymous, please: "Nemo"

    More reflections on Georgetown streetcars: Back in 1976, when Metro first opened, The Post interviewed one of the new motormen/train drivers. He was a veteran Metro/DC Transit/Capital Transit employee whose first job with the system was as a “pit boy” at Wisconsin and Q Streets. That was where the conduits ended, and the streetcars picked up the overhead cable. The motorman would stop the car over this guy’s pit, under the intersection, and his job was to unhitch the clamp that held the car to the cable for northbound cars, or to hitch it up for ones coming downhill into Georgetown. Meanwhile, the motorman would release the catenary by a spring mechanism, and fit it around the overhead wire, or haul it down and secure it to the car roof. After this maneuver was completed, the car would continue up (or down) Wisconsin Avenue. Here endeth the lesson.

  4. Goolie

    I’ve had two cars that perfectly fit the tracks on O and P Streets, and used to love “riding the rails”, especially in recent years when the cobblestones on either side were a crazy, uneven mess!

  5. Tedder

    Thank you, Jack Evans! Our CM worked hard to get this done through all sorts of obstacles!

  6. Belgian blocks are “setts”, no?

  7. Pingback: Neighborhood News Roundup: Innocent Soil Edition - City Desk - Washington City Paper

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