This information presented courtesy of the Port Towns Community Development Corporation.
COTTAGE CITY HISTORY
Before there was a presidential retreat at Camp David there was the Friendship House, and before there was a Las Vegas, there was "Jimmy's Place," both within what is now Cottage City.
Cottage City, bounded by Eastern Avenue, the Baltimore and Ohio (CSX) Railroad, the Anacostia River and Bladensburg Road, was once swamp land described by Captain John Smith in 1608 as being inhabited by native warriors and their families. This swamp land was located on the Eastern Branch of the Anacostia River, which derives its name from one of the tribes which settled upon it, the Anacostian tribe.
By 1697 references were being made to settlement in the area, which by that time was known as "Yarrow." A plantation owner reported that one of his slaves had been shot in the back by a group of about 10 natives. The incident apparently stemmed from a trade dispute the owner, who was also a trapper, had with several of the tribes located in that area.
Just across the Anacostia River from Yarrow was the bustling port at Garrison's Landing, which later became Bladensburg. Ships were constantly arriving and departing to and from England and elsewhere, taking out produce and tobacco and bringing in many staple items not being produced locally at the time.
Sometime between 1722 and 1726, Richard Bennett located and built a three-story, two-wheel, water-powered grist mill on a little over seven acres of land near what is now the comer of Bunker Hill Road and 43rd Avenue. He also purchased land for a farm and an upstream dam, which was used to help power the water wheel. At the time of its construction, the mill reportedly was the first grist min in this part of Maryland. It was constructed of the stone used as a ballast for ships coming from abroad. The corn and wheat it ground was used by the local residents and also was shipped from nearby Garrison's Landing to England and to other ports.
In the early 1800's, the Baltimore and Washington Turnpike (Bladensburg Road), was a carriage route from Washington to points north and east. At some point, just west of Bladensburg, the road passed over Dueling Creek, which from the late 1700's until after the Civil War was the site of over 50 duels. While most old maps of the area show the south (Colmar Manor) side of the road as the location of the duels, Cottage City, which is on the north side, may also have been the unwitting host to some of these bloody, and often fatal meetings. U.S. congressmen, senators, military officers and private citizens agreed to assemble there, many times from Washington, D.C., and Virginia, to settle "affairs of honor." Congress outlawed the practice in 1839, but duels continued to occur there until the late 1860's. Dueling Creek dissects the present-day Cottage City, separating the East Gate Industrial Park from the town's residential areas.
The Battle of Bladensburg, which occurred on Aug. 24, 1814, was fought in part on the land that was to become Cottage City. British troops under the command of Gen. Ross were marching on Washington, D.C., and American soldiers were bracing to stop the British assault. An orchard and bam near the grist mill, located near the Georgetown Pike, a toll road which later became Bunker Hill Road, was chosen by the Americans to fortify with an artillery unit and cannons. The site reportedly had a commanding view of Bladensburg and the bridge crossing the Anacostia River. The British, however, discovered a weakness in the hastily-erected defense works, overcame the American resistance, and caused the Americans to flee. The mill was then used by the British as a field hospital.
In 1820, the Friends House (or Friendship House) was built on the west comer of Parkwood Street and 38th Avenue. The two-story mansion had porches at both levels and was said to have been a favorite of President Ulysses S. Grant, who spent many an evening there. Cottage City historians consider the Friends House the Camp David of the 1870's. Early town residents recall the mansion being used in later years as a sanatorium, with adjacent houses serving as nurses quarters. The structure remained until 1930, when it was razed to make room for the apartments which currently stand on the site.
Meanwhile, the old grist mill was still operating, although it had changed hands a number of times since 1726. Henry L. Carleton, a shoe maker and butcher who owned property in Bladensburg, bought the mill in 1853, and from then on it became known as Carleton Mill, and finally, the Old Mill. Early maps show a toU gate on the Georgetown Pike (Bunker Hill Road), near the mill, and it is assumed that Carleton, as did his predecessors, owned, operated and maintained the ton road on his property. Since it was the responsibility of property owners to maintain the roads running through their properties, it was not uncommon for them to collect a toll from each traveler who used them. Travelers could expect to pay tons frequently on a trip which may only have been a few miles long.
The Statue of Freedom was completed in 1862. The cast bronze sculpture, which sits atop the Capitol Building dome in Washington, D.C., was the work of Clark Mills, whose foundry for the project is believed to have been located in the East Gate Industrial Center section of Cottage City.
Sometime before the Civil War the land that on maps had been designated as "Yarrow" began to be called the Highlands and included much of present day Brentwood and Cottage City.
The origin of the Highland name is uncertain, although it may have been derived from the topographical nature of the land. Flooding conditions had existed along the Anacostia River in the Bladensburg area as far back as colonial times. The higher elevation of the Highland tract, then, would have been the most logical reason for its name.
In 1870 a group of developers began promoting a new community which they called "The Highlands," and for which they had created a street map and laid out streets and residential lots. An advertising brochure distributed by the investors touted the advantages of owning cottages and villas on land with wide avenues, a good view, nominal taxes, close to Washington, D.C., close to the historic Bladensburg battlefield site and spa spring, and close to a famous dueling ground, among other things. Despite the attractive advertising campaign, the venture failed.
A sportsman, Col. Gilbert Moyer, purchased the Highland tract from Carleton's son in 1886; he bought the farm tract in 1887 and the Carleton mill tract in 1888. In the same year in which he bought the mill, Moyer incorporated The Highland Company, and the land which was to become Cottage City was re-subdivided into lots similar to what they are today. Moyer's company tried to sell lots, noting in its ads that a street car line was forthcoming and that prospective buyers could obtain construction loans on liberal terms. It appears that this second attempt at development also failed, however, as evidenced by the number of times the land changed hands after 1888.
Moyer's activities went beyond trying to sell lots. His love for horses, which reportedly led to his death when he fell off of one, spurred him to make working plans for a race track on his property. This plan was abandoned when it was determined that the land was not suitable for the project.
In 1890 Moyer began construction on two large lakes on the lowland at the north end of 42nd Avenue and Bunker Hill Road. Using mounds of dirt to separate one lake from the other, he stocked them with various kinds of fish. In 1900, he replaced the wooden water wh@ at the mill with iron ones, which left some to wonder why, since the mill at that time was hardly operational.
Moyer raised his family on the estate, and some of the land stayed in the family until 1962. The mill and farm house remained, although in a deteriorating condition, until the 1950's when the Anacostia Flood Control Project caused them to be demolished. The only remaining artifacts from the mill are two mill stones in the sidewalk at 3718 42nd Avenue, and a sliding bolt lock owned by a former Cottage City resident.
The final section of what had been Moyer's estate was sold in 1962, but the death of the buyer tied the transaction up in court for a number of years. The land was again sold, some homes were subsequently built in Cottage Terrace, and in 1974 a senior citizens apartment, Cottage City Towers, was constructed on the remaining land on Bunker Hill Road. The lakes were filled in with rubble from the excavation of the Washington Hilton Hotel, and that portion of land was converted by The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission into the Northwest Branch Park, complete with a ball field.
About 1904 the "town" as it presently exists began to take shape, with broad streets laid out and trees planted along the streets. At that time only a few houses had been built.
In 1910 a single-track trolley line ran through the community from Washington to Bladensburg. Called the Washington, Spa Spring and Gretta Railroad Company, the trolley ran along Bladensburg Road. Because of its close proximity to the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad on the community's northern boundary and the street car line in Mt. Rainier, the Bladensburg Road trolley was discontinued in 1923.
A four-room wood school was built in 1910 at the corner of 40th Avenue and Cottage Terrace. It served both communities which are today Cottage City and Colmar Manor. In 1923 a two-story brick school was dedicated on the same property, and four years later an additional four rooms and an auditorium were added. The Cottage City School was closed in 1967 following the expansion of the Colmar Manor School. It later became an industrial education school, but closed for good in 1976 and was demolished.
Electric service was introduced to the community in 1914, although on a limited scale.
It was about this time that the serious development of what would become the Town of Cottage City began. In 1915, Charles M. Lightbrown borrowed money from a lending company to create a new town. He used the same 1888 subdivision plat, with a few minor changes, that other potential developers of the Highlands had used unsuccessfully.
Lightbrown's first five houses were all one-story cottages with four rooms, no basement, no running water, and complete with "outhouses." A recessed area under each cottage contained the furnace and coal bin. The uniform look of the cottages suggested the name of the new town, which would become Cottage City. Except for on 42nd Avenue, where most individual home owners built their own homes, Lightbrown constructed almost every other home in the town over the next 10-year period.
Maybe it was luck. Maybe it was timing. Maybe! Maybe! Maybe! Lightbrown had succeeded where two other attempts had failed. Some attribute the success to the fact that World War I was coming to an end in Europe, and returning veterans would be seeking permanent homes. Also, Lightbrown was offering what many other developers at the time were not - economical homes, ready to move into with financing available.
To assist his home buyers, Lightbrown installed a water tower on his own property, which was filled by pumping water from a well, through a series of "purifiers," and into the tower tank. Then the water was gravity-fed through a single pipe into the homes of the community. While this helped some, the process had its drawbacks.
Turnover from the first homes he built was frequent, perhaps because of the lack of running water and sanitation. That dilemma was solved for most residents in 1919, when the Washington Suburban Sanitary Comn-dssion installed water service to the most populated part of town (the lower side of 38th Avenue through 41st Avenue). Sewer service was installed the next year.
While early residents were adjusting to the "modem conveniences" of community living, another kind of change was taking place in the Cottage City area, near Eastern Avenue.
About 1921 Jimmy Lafontain acquired the Reeves property and opened up "Jimmmy's Place," a gambling casino. The Reeves estate stood very near the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad tracks, just inside the Maryland boundary line with Washington, D.C. John C. Reeves (also spelled Rives), who had been editor of the Congressional Globe in the 1860's, acquired the property in 1847 and lived in the mansion there until his death in 1864. He had been a well-respected member of society.
Lafontain, on the other hand, continually ran afoul of the law in connection with his gambling establishment, which was later dubbed the Las Vegas of Cottage City. It has been said that the mansion was on the Maryland side of Eastern Avenue, and the bam on the D.C. side, making it convenient for Lafontain to dart from one jurisdiction to another during police raids. After much controversy over the operation, "Jimmy's Place" was closed down. That section of Cottage City was annexed into the corporate limits in 1958 and shortly thereafter was sold to a developer who built the East Gate Industrial Park. "Jimmy's Place" later was destroyed by fire.
The Cottage City Fire Department was organized in 1922. The first equipment was a hand-drawn hose reel and was housed in a garage on 41st Avenue. The siren was on a phone pole at the corner of 40th Place and Parkwood Street. The resident who lived on the corner would go to the pole and turn on the siren to call volunteers. The first permanent station was built in 1924 on 38th Avenue, just before the bridge into Brentwood. A new fire station was built at the corner of Bladensburg Road and 40th Avenue in 1939 and is still in use.
Also in 1922, Congress approved money to pave Bladensburg Road.
The Town of Cottage City officially incorporated in 1924 as a commission form of government. The first commissioners, who were included in the referendum on the proposed municipal charter, were Sam A. Oppliger, Alan Leighton and Vincent A. Simmel.
Gradually over the next 16 years water and sewer service came to the remaining parts of the town.
The Great Depression brought hard times to the newly incorporated municipality, and town officials were forced to improvise and economize in every way possible. The town's proximity to Colmar Manor, which was incorporated in 1927, led to the sharing of resources by both towns. Eventually this sharing resulted in the renaming of the fire company to the Cottage City-Coh-nar Manor Fire Department. Years later the two jurisdictions would share a police department.
By 1933, street improvements were beginning and a drainage system was installed.
A World War II Memorial was erected in 1944 at the comer of Parkwood Street and 38th Avenue. The memorial featured an honor roll for veterans from Cottage City. Later the honor roll was replaced by a small stone marker located outside of the current town hall.
In the late 1960's, town offices were located in a small cottage immediately behind the fire department, on 40th Avenue. The building still exists. Prior to that time, meetings were held in the homes of residents or in other places which were rented for the occasion. Some meetings were reportedly held in the upstairs portion of the outdoor advertising company on Bladensburg Road. Records often were stored in the homes of elected officials or in garages, and it is reported that a flood destroyed many early records. In 1987 the town built a new municipal center and police department at the comer of 40th Avenue and Cottage Terrace, the site of the former Cottage City School.
Catherine B. Howes became the town commission's first woman in 1979 or 1980.
Today, Cottage City is a racially, economically and culturally mixed community which is relatively crime free. The town has its own police department and offers the full gambit of municipal services to its residents.
Along with Colmar Manor and Bladensburg, Cottage City is participating in the Port Towns Revitalization Project, which not only focuses on the development of the Bladensburg Marina, but which also provides for the development and execution of new roadwork, help for local businesses and general improvement of each town's infrastructure. Citizen input at every step of the process is one of the strengths of the project.
The Friends House is gone, and "Jimmy's Place" no longer caters to the high rollers. However, while the residents and commissioners of Cottage City may occasionally stop to look back at the rich history that has formed the very fiber of their community, they more often look forward to the challenges and opportunities which they are ready, willing and able to face.
Most of the above information was obtained from the book entitled Proud Past Promising Future
and was reprinted with the permission of the author
George D. Denny, Jr.
Proud Past Promising Future
details the history of each municipality located within
Prince George's County, Maryland.
For more information on Proud Past Promising Future
George D. Denny, Jr.
P.O. Box 54
Brentwood, MD 20722