the only remaining blocks of 200 miles of history
D.C. once had 200 miles of streetcar tracks all over the city. The streetcar system began in 1862, pulled by horses. In 1889, Congress passed a law requiring D.C. to switch from horses to a cleaner system that did not deface the city with overhead wires.
The city chose an unusual and expensive conduit system that had originally been developed in Budapest, with the power source buried underground.
The streetcars ran until 1962, and ended because of competition from cars and buses.
After the streetcars stopped, the tracks were left in parts of Georgetown. Over time and because 0f the underground infrastructure, the streets sunk in places and the tracks were higher than the street level, causing motorists to drive gingerly down the streets or risk tearing their tires. The city was sued by a bicyclist who got injured by the tracks, and the court ordered the tracks to either be removed or restored.
After much review, the city decided to restore six blocks of the tracks as an historic landmark, since only D.C. and London had remaining examples of an underground conduit streetcar system.
It was a complex $12 million dollar restoration project completed in 2012, taking out and replacing 2,422 feet of rails and 300,000 granite pavers on six blocks of P and O St.
The streets are now smooth and capable of supporting heavy traffic.
In making the trip down these streets smoother, we also made the trip down memory lane easier.DDOT director Terry Bellamy in 2012
The tracks are frequently used as a photo-op.
The old streetcar barn remains on M St. It was built in 1897 by famed D.C. architect Waddy Wood, and served until 1950 both as a passenger waiting room and a place for streetcars to be stored and turn around. The building fits into the hill, with the first floor entrance on M St. and the upper floor entrance on Prospect Street. The famed “Exorcist” stairs on the side of the building were constructed at the same time as the building, to connect Prospect St. with M St.
After 1950, the building was used for office space, and in the 1960’s and 70’s, housed an international police branch of the CIA. Douglas Development Company purchased the building in 1997 and the main tenant is Georgetown University.
For more information about the streetcars in Georgetown, see the DDOT brochure on the rehabilitation project.
Note: these tracks in Georgetown are the only visible tracks remaining in the city. But when the system was terminated in 1962, many miles of track were paved over rather than being removed, due to the cost. It wouldn’t have been hard to remove the tracks, but the problem was the heavy iron yokes incased in concrete blocks underneath the tracks. This underground track infrastructure periodically causes problems for road and utility repairs, occasionally requiring dynamite to remove.