Surbexing DC: Abandoned Washington and Great Falls Electric Railroad

Streetcar lines were a common sight in America’s towns from the late 1900s, and by the early twentieth century the golden age of rail travel was upon us.  But many routes have now been dismantled, lost in the long grass that has replaced their tracks.  Today, the discerning explorer may still find a surprising amount of evidence of their existence.

Wandering through woodland near Washington, DC’s popular Georgetown area, an old railroad trestle emerges from its leafy hiding place.  In a poor state of repair and clearly not preserved, a little online research identified this as one of several surviving trestles of the former Washington and Great Falls Electric Railroad, a streetcar line running from the junction of 36th and Prospect Street to Cabin John, Maryland.

The Washington and Great Falls Electric Railroad opened in 1895 along a private right-of-way.  Several miles down the line at Glenn Echo, streetcars utilized the former Glen Echo Railroad tracks skirting the Potomac River en route to Cabin John.  Despite its name, the route was never extended out to Great Falls, earning it the less glamourous nickname “Cabin John Trolley”, where it ultimately terminated.  (Above picture shows the overgrown trackbed toward Prospect Street.)

The streetcar line was aquired in 1902 by the Washington Railway and Electric Company, operating until the 1960s when the track was dismantled.  More of the streetcar line can be found near the Georgetown trestle in woodland next to Foxhall Road.  An exploration of the area just off Foxhall uncovered the structure above, relatively intact since the last streetcar passed over it more than four decades ago.

The line once crossed Foxhall Road, and the old trackbed can still be seen running through the pleasant Pallisades neighbourhood.  Not a heritage site like the Capital Crescent Trail, the trackbed still remains in good condition.  Skirting Pallisades, the route comes to an abrupt halt due to the removal of the next trestle, but more remnants can be found closer to Cabin John.  From its vantage point clinging to the edge of an embankment overlooking the Potomac River, a ride on the Washington and Great Falls Railroad must have been spectacular – and a great place to  “surbex”.

Image via Library of Congress

The streetcar above, passing through a very active looking Glen Echo Park back in its golden days, may well have belonged to the Washington and Great Falls Electric Railroad.  This one is probably heading for Cabin John, where the service terminated.  If local history is your thing and you’re in the neighborhood, this is a great place to explore – no signs, no historical preservation, just a historic route waiting to be rediscovered.  (Historic photos here.)




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