History of Mt. Rainier by George Denny

City of Mr. Rainier  by George D. Denny, Jr.

 

(This chapter was reprinted by permission from the author from his book:  Proud Past: Promising Future – Cities and Towns In Prince George’s County, Maryland,  Dilden Company, 1997)

 

            Mt. Rainier, the highest peak in Washington State’s Cascade Mountains, was the name selected in 1891 by a group of developers for a subdivision located along the north east boundary line (Eastern Avenue) of Washington, DC, now called the City of Mount (Mt.) Rainier.

            In 1763, 4483 acres of land which would become Mt. Rainier, Brentwood, Cottage City, Colmar Manor, part of Takoma Park, and the western portion of Blandensburg, were purchased by William Diggs who called his estate Chilham Castle Manor.1  The estate home (manor) reportedly stood north of Bunker Hill Road, between 31st and 32nd Streets.

            The 100 acres on which the manor stood later became known as Clemson Place after owner Thomas G. Clemson, a son-in-law of John C. Calhoun.  Calhoun has been vice-president under to presidents of the US (John Q. Adams and Andrew Jackson) and a United States Senator, and had lived in the home, along with his daughter and son-in-law, prior to his death in 1850.  The Clemson family eventually moved to Clemson, S.C., where in 1889, the founded Clemson (University) College.

            By 1891 the 100 acres of Clemson Place had been subdivided by George A and J. Estcourt Sawyer, reported to be Army officers from Seattle, Washington, and the subdivision had been named Mt. Rainier, after the famous mountain peak in their home state.[1]  The Sawyer brothers had laid out streets and planted trees, but built no houses and sold no lots

            In 1898 John S. Kirby bought Granby Farm, located between Bunker Hill Road and Rhode Island Avenue.  That farm was later subdivided and called Edgemont.

            The following year, the City and Suburban Railroad Company car line was extended from Washington, D.C., into Hyattsville and on to Riverdale.  The line connecting Mt. Rainier to downtown Washington was run by the Maryland and Washington Railway, The stop at Mt. Rainier was known as the District Line Station and was located at the intersection of what would become Rhode Island Avenue extended and 34th Street. 

            The main roads through “town” were Bunker Hill Road, the old road from Bladensburg to Georgetown, and Rhode Island Avenue, a muddy track alongside the streetcar line.1  The opening of the street car line into Mt. Rainier and beyond made the hilly, tree-shrouded land along the line attractive to developers who cold offer easy access to and from the city to prospective buyers.  Over the next few years several land transactions occurred which eventually would play a part in the development of present day Mt. Rainier. 

            In 1902 D.M. Nesbit organized the Mount Rainier Company, a syndicate composed of Charles A. Wells (Hyattsville mayor from 1902-1906 and a developer of East Hyattsville – now known as Edmonston), Dr. Sgimund C. Zarra, Wallace A Bartlett (who, with some of his current partners, had already begun to develop what are now Brentwood and North Brentwood), Willard D. Bigelow and Ira Baker, and bought the 100 acres of the former Clemson Place.

            About the same time, J.C.Rogers purchased a tract of 58 acres on the west of Clemson Place which he subdivided and named “Rogers’ Addition to Mt. Rainier.”  A syndicate consisting of J. Harris Rogers (a noted Hyattsville inventor), Willard D. Bigelow and Edward D. Spalding bought the Yost tract, which they named “Rhode Island Avenue Second Addition to Mt. Rainier.”  The group also acquired the Edgemont tract, which they named “Rogers’ Second Addition to Mt. Rainier.”

            By that time there were 15 houses within a half-mile radius of the District Line Station, and the serious development of what is now Mt. Rainier began.

            The Mount Rainier Company graded streets, planted trees, laid a boardwalk on 34th Street, and built an office and two homes in 1903.  That same year, the Mt. Rainier Christian Church began construction of a sanctuary at 4029 34th Street.  The congregation later moved to a new structure at 33rd Street and Bunker Hill Road.

            Concrete sidewalks were laid on 34th Street, north of Rainier Avenue, on Bunker Hill Road, and on Ash (Sheppard) Street in 1904.  Several houses were built, and the swamp in the north section of the development was drained that same year.

            Early homes were one or two story structures on large lots.  Despite their t. proximity to the streetcar lines and the Nation’s Capital, the home sites were characterized as being in the “country” and affordable, with the price range being between $2000 and $5000.

            The business district was clustered at 34th Street and Rhode Island Avenue, where the street car station was located.  In addition to the station, there were grocery stores, a meeting hall (Pott’s Hall, now the Eastern Star Building), bakery, dry good stores, laundry, cobbler shop, hardware store, and a barber.

            The first post office was established in 1904 called the Village post officer and operated by Rachel Bengel, the first postmistress.  She held that position until 1908.

            St. James Catholic Church was erected in 1908.  Prior to that the members met in Fireman’s Hall in Brentwood (37th and Tilden Streets).  Other church buildings followed, including St. John’s Episcopal Church (which had met in Pott’s Hall) in 1911; Mt. Rainier United Methodist Church (1924); First Baptist Church of Mt. Rainier (organized in 1921, located in a building on Bunker Hill Road in 1925 and later moved to its present location); Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church (which had met in the Old Fellows Hall as early as 1931) in 1937; Whosever Will Church of God, next to the former Cameo Theater building, in 1982; and Harvest Church Ministries, in the old Kaywood Theater building, in 1984.  Since then, many other churches have opened in store fronts and former homes all over the city. 

            Attempts to incorporate the growing community were begun by the Mt. Rainier Citizens Association prior to 1910 when proposals wee presented to include part of what is now Brentwood into a corporate body to be called Mt. Rainier.  The idea of including part of Brentwood into the proposed new town was too controversial, however and the plan was scrapped.

            Association meetings, which were held in the original Christian Church edifice on 34th Street, eventually resulted in an agreement on municipal boundaries that in April of 1910 the Maryland General Assembly approved a charter for the Town of Mt. Rainier, located in an angle formed by Eastern Avenue (the District of Columbia Line) and the Baltimore and Ohio( CSX) Railroad tracks with a mayor and council form of government.  Town voters elected Robert E. Joyce, a Washington, D.C. engraver as their first mayor.

At the time of its incorporation, Mt. Rainier was, in fact if not in law, a racially segregated town.  While there were no legal restrictions barring black residents, a clause in the town’s charter kept blacks from voting in municipal elections.1

            Council meetings were held in the old Pott’s Hall, later called the Star Hall on Rhode Island Avenue.  Later, they were in held in the Rogers Real Estate office on Perry Street, then in the barbershop building on 34th Street.  Finally, in 1920 city hall was relocated to a building owned by Perry Boswell, who had operated a food market there for many years.  Boswell had been mayor of Mt. Rainier (1916—1918), president of the Board of County Commissioners, an officer of the Prince George’s Bank and Trust Company which he helped to establish in 1915, a member of the county’s Board of Education, and a commissioner for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission.

            In January of 1912, the Mt. Rainier Volunteer Fire Department was organized formally. W. H. Vanneman was elected chief.  The fire department first was housed in a frame building, then in a brick structure erected on the present site on 34th Street at Shepherd (Sheppard) Street in 1925.  And addition to the station was completed in 1970. 

            The Women’s Civic League of Mt. Rainier was formed in 1913 and preceded to involve itself in many beneficial community projects including the sponsoring of a playground for neighborhood children and the planting of 100 American Elm trees along town streets.

            Wooden water and ser lines were installed in town in 1917.  By 1920 the system was being operated by the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, wither water lines being fed by a well located on land which later became Magruder Park (Hyattsville).  Replacement of the wooden mains with cast iron ones began in 1948 and took more than 10 years to complete.

            The town’s first public school – Mt. Rainier Elementary School – was constructed in 1923.  Prior to that time, the town’s students shared the Brentwood Elementary School located a number of blocks away.  Another elementary school – Thomas S. Stone- was completed in the town in 1950.

            A growing population brought with it the need for additional services, and in 1923 the town hired its first paid police officer.  Before then, the residents were served by constables.

            The improvement of Rhode Island Avenue, then a “muddy track across the streetcar lane,” 1  from Hyattsville to Mt. Rainier began in 1929, part of an overall plan to eliminate a hazardous railroad crossing at the Baltimore and Washington Turnpike in nearby Hyattsville.  The construction was completed in 1932,

            Also in 1929, the town acquired 100 acres of land adjoining the northern boundary, and the following year the Mt. Rainier High School was opened there.  The high school continued as such until 1951, when Northwestern High School opened in Hyattsville.  The former Mt. Rainier High became a junior high at that time.  In 1973 a Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission operated a drop-in center was opened in the school.  In 1981, the school was closed for all users, remained vacant for a number of years, changed ownership several times, and was finally razed to make room for a senior citizens center retirement complex, which occupies the former school site at this time.             

By 1939, faster and larger streetcars were in service, and a new terminal was built at 34th and Rhode Island Avenue.

During the early 1940’s the town’s population received a big boost with the construction of the Kaywood Gardens apartment complex along Eastern Avenue.  The Kaywood Theater opened on Arundel Road, near the Kaywood Gardens Apartments, in 1945.

Meanwhile, 34th  Street, which ran from Rhode Island Avenue to Arundel Road, was cut all the way through from Arundel Road on into Chillum Road, making it a thorough street from Rhode Island Avenue to the north side of the town for the first time.

By 1948, the Queenstown Apartments were completed along 34gh Street, between Arundel Road and Queens Chapel Road, mostly in Mt. Rainier, but partly in Brentwood.  The population of both municipalities increased dramatically as a result.

By the late 1940’s the Town of Mt. Rainier was becoming the City of Mt. Rainier.  Municipal histories by the town reflect that the “town” became a “city” in 1945, although there are also references to it beginning to call itself a city in 1947 and 1962.1

A 14-year old Mt. Rainier boy became the focus of national attention in 1949 when a Catholic priest reportedly “expelled a ‘diabolical possession from (him).[2]   According to news accounts of the day, the boy’s condition was initially attributed to the presence of a poltergeist or “noisy ghost”,” in his house.  Such occurrences as a blanket on which the boy was lying, sliding “completely under a set of twin beds” were accompanied by “scratching noises in the walls of the home.”  After much study by psychiatrists, it was determined that his affliction was spiritual in nature.  A Jesuit priest, following the boy’s conversion to Catholicism, s said to have performed a “black fast” ritual over the boy more than 20 times over a two month period to rid him of his “reported possession by the devil.”  The boy became completely normal following the rituals, according to newspaper accounts at the time, but the event would later be the subject of a motion picture film, “The Exorcist,” which found a national audience at the time it was released.  The movie version of the house, however, depicted the “victim” as being a girl.

The house where the exorcism took place, located at the corner of 33rd Street and Bunker Hill Road, was destroyed sometime after the event, and the lot on which it stood remained vacant for many years thereafter, almost as if everyone was reluctant, or afraid to build another house there.  A gazebo, in more recent times, has been erected on the site, near the playground of the Mt. Rainier Elementary School.

A library was construed in 1952, on land adjacent to the city hall on Rhode Island Avenue.  The library, which abuts the city hall building, was dedicated that same year in honor of Karl A. “Chick” Young, who for 25 years had been chief of the Mt. Rainier Volunteer Fire Department. 

A privately operated community pool opened on Buchanan Street in 1956, between the Queenstown Apartments and Arundel Road.  The Prince George’s Swimming Pool has been in operation every since.

            Streetcar service ended in Mt. Rainier in 1958, and bus service became the primary mode of public transportation in the area.  The streetcar terminal at 34th Street and Rhode Island Avenue became bus terminal, with buses from the Federal city turning around there for their trip back to the city.

The 1960’s saw acquisition of two parks for use by the city residents under the “Parks-In-Cities” program.  The first was Frederick Richardson Memorial Park, located at 31st Street and Arundel Road, dedicated in 1970 for a former mayor of the city (1954-1968).  The second was at 37th Street and Wells Avenue.

A plan by the county school board to close Mt. Rainier and North Brentwood Elementary schools and to consolidate service at Brentwood and Thomas Stone Elementary schools in 1967 met with fierce opposition from Mt. Rainier residents and officials, who ultimately succeed in having the Mt. Rainier school kept open.  Construction of a new Mt. Rainier Elementary School on the same site began in 1974 and was completed the following year.

The first woman to hold a position on the city council in Mt. Rainier was Linda Nalls, who was appointed to fill a vacancy in 1971, and went on to become the city’s first and only woman mayor in 1977.

In the 1970’s the population of the city dropped and housing began to show signs of neglect.  The changes of the decade were attributed to smaller family size and an older population living on fixed incomes.[3] This trend continued until the 1980’s when younger families began to move into the city.  Some of them fostered an historic preservation movement which resulted in many of the homes that had been constructed at the turn of the century being recognized for their historical and architectural value.  By 1990, two thirds of the city’s housing stock were listed on the National Register of Historic Places.3 

In 1994 the city completed a new city hall, located adjacent to the former streetcar (now bus) terminal.  The street on which the municipal building was constructed has been renamed Municipal Place.

A new The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission Recreation and Nature center was opened on part of the ground of the former Mt. Rainier Junior High School in 1996.  The new facility, which is adjacent to Queenstown and Queens Manor Apartments, provides a full range of recreational activities and includes lighted football and softball fields on its grounds.  Its programs are augmented the Nature Center, which used to be located on 30th Street.  Hiker-biker trails near the center can take you to many locations around the county, including the University of Maryland and Adelphi Mill.

            Today the city government is in the process of revamping its charter to designate the city manager as the chief executive and administrative appointee of the Mayor and Council.

It is also waging a war against drug dealers along the D.C.  line who dart back and forth across the line to avoid arrest.  The city’s full-time police department is working with other police agencies to regain control of the city’s streets, aided in part by a group of citizens who have maintained street vigils in the area for the past several years.

Many of the things which made Mt. Rainier attractive to prospective home buyers in the early 1900’s still exist today.  While the streetcars no longer ply along Rhode Island Avenue the bus line and nearby Metro stations at Rhode Island Avenue and West Hyattsville make the city convenient to anywhere one wants to go in the Metropolitan Washington area.  Affordable houses along tree0lined streets are still plentiful.

These attractions, along with the determination exhibited by citizens in the fight to keep their neighborhood school open and drug dealers off of their streets, are why the City of Mt. Rainier will continue to be a successful community. 



 

[1]  George, William (ed). City of Mt. Rainier: 75th Anniversary Book, Published by the City of Mt. Rainier, 1985

[2] The Washington Star.  “ Priest Freed Boy of Possession by Devil, Church Sources Say,” August 19, 1949. Also, “New Details of Boy’s Exorcism In Catholic Ritual Disclosed,” August 20, 1949.

[3] The Prince George’s Sentinel. “Mount Rainier: Incorporated in 1910,” published in “Our Towns: A Weekly Spotlight on Towns and Communities in Prince George’s County” section, October 3, 1966.

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