A Brief History of Wisconsin Avenue


The heights overlooking the Potomac River emerged from the last Ice Age more than ten thousand years ago; and for almost all of those ten thousand years they would have been witness to the seasonal migrations of the eastern bison. Twice a year herds passed this place on their way to or from fording the Potomac, at a point near the fall line, on their way between summer and winter pastures. They generally followed ridges and drainage divides to minimize stream crossings and swampy bottomlands. Over time, countless hooves trampled this preference for the optimum route into the landscape. Because migrating herds naturally favored the route of least resistance, it is not surprising that they might settle on a path with the gentlest slopes, and the fewest ravines, near the crest between two watersheds. These same migratory traces were used by native Americans, who easily covered great distances on foot, for hunting, trade and war. When Europeans arrived, they simply adapted this existing system of natural highways to their own purposes. In applying for land grants, the settlers preferred sites located along major trails, which typically intersected rivers at the farthest point above the mouth of a river that could be navigated by ships (i.e. “the head of navigation”) and made an ideal site for the port of Georgetown. The Indian trail became a tobacco road.

(William Patterson Cumming, Louis De Vorsey, “The Southeast in Early Maps,” University of North Carolina Press, 1998; Jonathan V. Levin, “Old Georgetown Road: A Historical Perspective”, The Montgomery County Story, Montgomery County Historical Society, Vol.45, No.2, May 2002 )


Perhaps the earliest appearance of what can be recognized as part of this north-south artery is a dotted line on a map drawn in 1712, showing the route from the future site of Georgetown, via what is now River Road, to Canavest, the Indian village near Point of Rocks, Maryland. (Christophe De Graffenried, Relation du Voyage d’Amerique, 1716)




The dotted line represents the Indian trail from Col. George Beall’s house, near the confluence of Rock Creek and the Potomac River, past Sugarloaf Mountain, to the Indian town of Canavest, on Heater’s Island, near Point of Rocks, Maryland. The route corresponds, more or less, to Wisconsin Avenue, River Road and Darnestown Road.  (Map of the Potomac River, 1712, Christophe De Graffenried, Relation du Voyage d’Amérique, 1716, Library of Congress)



Further down Wisconsin Avenue, near the Georgetown Safeway, some time before 1720, one of the last violent encounters between a native and a European may have taken place. “A bounded Red Oak standing at the end of the NNW line of a tract of land called The Rock of Dumbarton on the side of a hill near the place where Christian Gunnell was killed by the Indians”. (Priscilla W. McNeil notes, Peabody Room, Georgetown Branch Library, quoting Patents Liber IL#A, f.55 [Addition to the Rock of Dumbarton], Hall of Records, Annapolis; “Neare one of our Garrisons by the falls of Potomock, one of the Souldiers was killed by Indians.” Proceedings of the Council of Maryland, 1696/7-98, Archives of Maryland, Vol.23, p.305)



Scotch Ordinary was surveyed August 10, 1715 for Alexander Arthur. In 1810, part of that land tract ––west of Wisconsin Avenue, and north of the Russian embassy––traded hands, and because the new deed recited language from the original patent, we get a glimpse of Wisconsin Avenue, Foundry Branch, and the Three Sisters, circa 1715: ”beginning at a bounded black oak, standing upon a stony knowle by an Indian path near the head of a Deep Run which falls into the Potomack River about two miles below the first falls right against an island of rocks.” (Prince Georges County Libers FF7, ff.56-7, PL4, f.70); DC Libers Y (1810) f.538; William B. Marye, “The Old Indian Road,” Maryland Historical Magazine, Vol.XV, June, 1920, pp.107)

Originally, tobacco cultivation predominated in this part of the world. At the end of every season hogsheads of the cured leaf, pulled by draft animals, were rolled from the hinterland to Georgetown over the old Indian trail, which had by then been improved, where necessary, to accommodate this traffic. By no accident, Georgetown was planted at the head of navigation, the furthest point that the ships of the annual tobacco fleet could come up the Potomac; precisely where the migratory routes of animals had found a ford in the river.

Georgetown was in Frederick County when it was founded (1751), and the new town naturally attracted settlers from the older parts of that county. Frederick itself had been settled by Germans who came down from Pennsylvania, and some of them continued down the pike to settle here.

In 1755, Colonel Dunbar’s Regiment, on the way to join General Braddock’s attack on what is now Pittsburgh, set out from Georgetown on what was now called the High Street, which was understood to be––as it still is in England––the main street of business. Indeed, later deeds speak of “Commerce or High street”. (DC Liber WB36, f.387/281; JAS12 (1846) f.6/5.)

The anticipation of future demand led to the sale of three hundred new lots in  Beatty and Hawkins’ Addition to Georgetown (1770), by which Georgetown expanded northward on both sides of High Street, almost to what is now Fulton Street. It took almost four decades for there to be houses at the northern end of Upper Georgetown. In the years 1808-1810, Murray Barker and Peter Colter were assessed for houses along High Street; Barker was a recently freed slave, and Colter appears to have been a German immigrant.

George Washington––having conferred in Georgetown with the Commissioners who were to acquire land for the new federal city––rose at before dawn on June 30, 1791, and passed up High Street through this neighborhood, on his way to Frederick. On June 3, 1800, when President Adams came to take up residence in the new capital, he came down the same road. From these treeless––and still unpopulated––heights Adams was able to see the unfinished Capitol, and the unfinished Presidential Mansion.


Note the way the path of animal migrations adheres to the divide between watersheds. (Andrew Ellicott, Map of the Territory of Columbia, 1794 , detail)



Note the way the path of animal migrations adheres to the divide between watersheds. ( Dennis Griffith, Map of the State of Maryland, 1794, detail)


After the defeat at Bladensburg in 1814, demoralized soldiers and civilians filled the road to Tenleytown. About where the Safeway is now, a black man driving a cart was stopped by an exhausted American officer, who unhitched the carthorse, mounted him, and resumed his flight. A month later, the driver’s employer––or owner––was still advertising for the return of the horse. (Georgetown Federal Republican, September 30, 1814).

In the parlance of a former time, the highest point within the corporate limits of Georgetown––now occupied by the Russian embassy––was exposed to salubrious breezes, and enjoyed a commanding prospect. And yet, despite these advantages, during the first hundred years of local history, no one built a house on this desirable land. A possible explanation for this may be the fact that the original survey of the Beatty and Hawkins’ Addition to Georgetown seems to have intended for High Street (Wisconsin Avenue) not to bend at Calvert Street, as it does today, but to continue straight up the hill. This had the unfortunate result of dividing an otherwise choice site into several awkward lots.

When Georgetown relinquished its claim to this inconvenient roadbed in 1861, Dr. Bohrer of Georgetown assembled the lots on the hilltop into a single parcel, and after the Civil War a Georgetown butcher began to build himself a house there. “The elegant villa erected by B.F. Hunt on Bohrer’s Hill is nearly complete.” (Georgetown Ordinances, February 16, 1861; Georgetown Courier, May 6, 1871; plat of “Mount Alto”, surveyed June 17, 1867, beginning at the “Northwest boundary stone of said town”, including the abandoned “Bed of Old High Street”:  DC Liber ECE17 (1867) f. 46-8)

Streetcar service between Georgetown, Tenleytown and Bethesda began in 1890. In 1897 the Washington and Rockville Railway was formed, and the track reached Rockville in 1900. The last streetcar came up Wisconsin Avenue on January 3, 1960.  (LeRoy King, 100 Years of Capital Traction, 1972)

The name High Street survived until about 1881, when an attempt was made to bring Georgetown––now West Washington––into the system of numbered north-south streets of Washington City: the new name was 32nd Street. Above where the Russian Embassy is now, the name Tenallytown Road was still in use when it was decided that it should become Wisconsin Avenue (Annual Report of the Commissioners, July 22, 1890); and, in 1905, the commissioners extended the name south to the Potomac River.




 Carlton Fletcher

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