Georgetown Time Machine: The Rebirth of the Waterfront

This week for Georgetown Time Machine, GM explores the rebirth of the Georgetown waterfront. No, not the most recent rebirth, where it was transformed from a parking lot to a lovely glade. This was a rebirth 100 years prior: the transition from commerce to industry.

It’s easy to think of the waterfront’s history as one long story of centuries of vaguely industrial uses finally giving way to recreation uses. That’s broadly correct, but there are some nuances to that, which an article from 1912 helps illuminate.

Georgetown was founded as a port town. It was located where it is because this is about as far up the Potomac that 18th century ocean-going vessels could navigate. And for the first 150 years or so, the primary use of the waterfront was for goods sent from afar to be unloaded while raw materials (mostly tabacco) were loaded in return.

But by the beginning of the 20th century, the port commerce of Georgetown declined. This coincided with the decline of the C & O Canal, which was made obsolete by the railroad before it was even completed in 1850.

But it was the railroad that salvaged the Georgetown waterfront. In 1910, the B & O Railroad finished construction on a spur that brought freight trains down from Silver Spring right to Water St. This was a catalyst for a transition of the waterfront from a place to simply load and unload goods to one where those goods fed factories.

The Washington Times described this transition in 1912:

The article goes on to describe the recent construction of the Arlington flour mill, a paper factory, and the Capital Traction Powerhouse. In each case the facilities were powered by raw materials brought in by the new railroad.

The article concludes “these are some of the facts upon which the citizens of Georgetown base their belief that a commercial and industrial renaissance is upon them.”

Was that renaissance to last? Not really. By the middle of the 20th century the industry of Georgetown began to wither. Factories closed. The four and paper mills were eventually supplanted with condos bearing their names. The Capital Traction Powerhouse was demolished in 1968 (although there is some poetry in the fact that the foundation of the power plant remained buried for decades more and had to be removed at a great expense in order for the waterfront park to be completed). And the railroad was abandoned in 1986, eventually transformed into the Capital Crescent Trail.

So you should think of the waterfront as having passed through several phases, each radically different from the others.


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