The Anacostia Trails Heritage Area is full of wonderful places to visit.
Bringing the Past to Life
Maryland Milestones celebrates the history, culture, and natural resources within the Anacostia Trails Heritage Area. Taking our name from the Anacostia River, the region is built upon the historic trails and routes that crisscross the whole region – from rivers to trails, to roads, to air routes. The region also extends all the way to the Patuxent River, connecting two major rivers within Maryland. The Heritage Area contains relatively intact and unspoiled historic resources that tell stories about significant aspects of American history and advances that transformed the American landscape. Since the earliest native groups, later replaced by European settlers arriving at the end of the 17th century, each successive century has seen changes that have affected not only the local landscape but the American character as well.
Maryland Milestones celebrates the history, culture, and natural resources within the Anacostia Trails Heritage Area.
History of Anacostia Trails Heritage Area
The earliest history of the region’s name comes from the Nacotchtanks, who generally settled around the mouth of the modern Anacostia River at the Potomac River. Captain John Smith visited and mapped the area in 1608. The first settlement of Europeans arrived in 1634. Later the river’s name was changed to the Eastern Branch of the Potomac, a name that was used interchangeably until the early 1900s. For a deeper history of the Anacostia River, visit The Anacostia in History” from the Anacostia Trust. As the new Federal capital was being proposed, the land was bought and transferred. In 1792, boundary markers (three of which are in the Heritage Area) were laid out and the boundary of Washington D.C. was established with the Heritage Area. On our northern boundary, the Patuxent River has a history that holds the oldest discovered artifacts in the Mid-Atlantic region. Captain John Smith also is credited with mapping the river and giving its name “Pawtuxunt.”
The Agricultural Influence
Since the earliest native groups, later replaced by European settlers arriving at the end of the 17th century, each successive century has seen changes that have affected not only the local landscape but the American character as well.
The National Agricultural Library, located across the street from the BARC headquarters, is the largest agricultural library in the world and holds letters from Jefferson, watercolors from around the world, and the span of the history of agriculture in print. Just on the edge of BARC are the Patuxent Wildlife Research Refuge and National Wildlife Visitors Center. These two institutions were originally seeking to explore the intersection between agriculture and wildlife, but Patuxent is now the center for the study of wildlife and wildlife management. The National Wildlife Visitors Center is a great way to get up close and personal with nature. Finally, the region is becoming a hub for green technologies and sustainable living. From solar panels on municipal buildings to green streets to sustainable methods of transportation to farmer’s markets and living healthy, this region is leading the way to protect and preserve the cultural resources in the heritage area.
As a site of war and battles, the heritage area has multiple sites to explore the history of how conflict has impacted the region. Bladensburg and the Port Towns have been a site of the Battle of Bladensburg during the War of 1812 and Fort Lincoln during the Civil War. Beltsville and Laurel both saw action during the Civil War as well. The many historic churches and cemeteries are final resting places and celebrate the need for peace and reconciliation.
The impact of the region on American life is particularly true in the field of aviation as the entire span of aviation and aerospace history is represented within the Heritage Area. In 1784, the first documented balloon ascension in America took place in Bladensburg when a local attorney and inventor sent aloft an unmanned aerostatic globe. Wilbur Wright tested the Wright B flyer at College Park in 1909 as part of the Army Signal Corp, based at, what is now, the oldest continuously operated airport in the world. This airport has always been a research and development hub – from the start of Air Mail Service in 1918 to the first helicopter flights in 1920. Later, as the United States began to journey into space, to the moon and beyond, the Federal government chose Greenbelt in 1958 and the land around the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center to place what is now known as NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.
As part of the Maryland Milestones, the Heritage Area contains some of the most significant historic resources in the state, many of which are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Nationally significant transportation and communication developments in the Heritage Area also include the operation of the Baltimore to Georgetown Road, over what is basically present-day US 1, which in 1783 became one of the first stagecoach lines in the country. This roadway also became part of the first federally funded mail route in the nation in 1785 and, in 1812, one of the first turnpikes in the country. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, which was one of the first railroad lines in the country and the first in Maryland, constructed its Washington Branch through the Heritage Area in 1835, thus immediately fostering the development of new communities and trading centers. In 1844, Samuel Morse sent the first experimental telegraph test message into Washington from a point along the railroad line near the Riversdale plantation and hence began the means for nationwide conversation. Later, the trolley systems of Washington D.C. arrived in the region, connecting Mount Rainier and Hyattsville to downtown, later extending to Riverdale Park, College Park, Berwyn Heights, Beltsville, and Laurel. As highways became more used than trains and trolleys, the region began to build the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, a National Park Service-owned road between Fort Meade and Washington D.C. Afterward, Interstate 95 and the “Capital Beltway” both moved cars faster from the work and life in the Nation’s Capital to their homes and lives outside the city.
The region also contains sites that document the nature of settlement patterns around Washington, D.C. and the rise of the African-American middle class. These include plantation and tobacco culture sites, Native American lifeways, a nationally known Depression-era planned “greentown,” streetcar suburb sites, and several examples of pattern book architecture from the 19th and 20th centuries. The history of these historic communities has grown with the Federal government only to be surpassed by the outer ring suburbs. But today, these communities are seeing a resurgence as new populations seek new and interesting places to live. As trails are built along riversides or in place of the trolley line, as roads are upgraded and new connections are made, and as communities are revitalized with new opportunities, the region continues the history of settlement and growth.