Stories from the NFCCA Newsletter, the “Northwood News”

Northwood News ♦ December 2021

History Corner(s)

Early Roads in (and Through) Four Corners, Maryland

By Ken Hawkins

In the spring of 1855, three road examiners were appointed by Montgomery County’s commissioners to survey a new road to connect the neighborhood of the Carroll Chapel (near today’s Forest Glen) on the Union Plank Turnpike (Georgia Avenue) to “intersect the Bladensburg or Burnt Mills road near the residence of the late Thomas Gittings” about two miles east (at Colesville Road near Blair High School), in response to a petition.  The petition and the recording and dedication of the road that came from it (now Forest Glen Road) highlight the two types of early road development in the County — roads built from growing neighborhoods to reach larger, established older roads — and the people of multiple races who they impacted.

Street sign for Old Bladensburg Road, saved after the road name was changed to University Boulevard in 1957.  Courtesy: Woodmoor Cleaners.

The road examiners included Henry McCeney, George Knowles, and Thomas Connelly, all three of whom enslaved Blacks to work their landed property in the area.  Such examiners surveyed the roads with the labor of chainmen and axemen, taken in some cases from Blacks they enslaved.  They confirmed that “the public convenience” required the new road for access to two churches near its east end, as “a short and convenient route to a large portion as a mill road” for the Burnt Mills, to promote “social intercourse of the respective neighborhoods,” and to increase the value of the lands through which it would pass.  The value the road would give to adjoining landowners (including the Clark heirs and Thomas N. Wilson) was such that damages were nominal, “except Ben Johnson (negro) through whose garden more than half the road is located.”  Connelly and the others agreed that he be paid damages ($25) and directly for property ($125), several times more than the others.

Johnson was a free Black who had lived in the area since at least 1840, keeping a house that included an enslaved man and two women.  He remained at the location, joined by other Blacks like the Wallaces, for many years, north and south of the park later named for their neighbor George W. Getty (who, according to his daughter, tried without success to buy them out).  While it is unclear if Johnson was paid these amounts, the road that took land from him and ran to the Gittings — also known as the Cross Roads and, after the Civil War, as Four Corners — was built and many of us still drive it today.

1817 advertisement from the Daily National Intelligencer newspaper for a sale at Gittings Tavern, showing the importance of roads and distances for commerce in daily life and historical evidence.  Courtesy: Maryland State Archives.

What the petition called the “Bladensburg or Burnt Mills Road” was in fact two separate roads that were among the area’s earliest and formed its distinctive cross roads.  While themselves passing through and beyond the area, these two roads tied it closely to the transport of slave-produced tobacco, grains for milling, white suburbs, and today’s rush hours.  Of the two, the earliest was the road coming from the south (and ultimately Georgetown) to the mill seat on the Northwest Branch established by Samuel Beall, Jr., in the 1740s.  His son, Walter Beall, operated the mill through the 1790s and the road leading to it was referred to as reaching his place.  The rolling road that crossed it followed the highest levels between the Sligo and Northwest Branches to reach the tobacco port at Bladensburg, about eight miles to the south and east.  After Montgomery County was established in 1776, it became known as the Main Road, running from Montgomery courthouse to Bladensburg.

Whether it truly was used long as a rolling road is uncertain, as tobacco quickly exhausted the area’s soil and some planters turned to raising corn and other grains.  In any case, it became well-established and used, often appearing in property advertisements with miles distant from those points to help readers locate the eligible sites.  Both roads had long histories.  In 1831, local Whig assemblyman and enslaver Thomas Gittings steered a bill through to improve the road to Burnt Mills from the north and thence to the Cross Roads near his house.  Through the 1840s, the Main Road featured a number of landmarks, including a toll gate, a wolf pit just north of a marsh east of the Cross Roads, and a way to walk to a family burying ground set aside in 1772 as an easement from the adjoining properties, maintained in following deeds until the 1950s.

1790 plat for road from Jonathan Nixon’s plantation through Henry Clark’s land to the road from Montgomery Court House to Bladensburg.  Maryland State Archives.

Other early secondary roads included one that was laid out in 1790 from the Jonathan Nixon plantation across the lands of Henry Clark to the northeast of the cross roads, to the Bladensburg Road.  It was lost over time but others remain.  The beginning of Eastwood Avenue, where it climbs the hill from Southwood, originated as a way to the eighteenth-century Holly View plantation of Josiah Bean and the Gittings, and later as one of the lines by which a trust established in the 1850s by Emily Beale for her grandchildren was divided in 1903.  Another property line that dated to the Gittings became the eastern boundary of George Beale’s Indian Spring Farm, then belonged to District U.S. Judge Abram B. Olin and, finally, to Elwood Matthews, also from the District but a sometimes bootlegger who laid it out in 1912 as the first subdivision in the area.  Matthews named the road he had built on the line after himself, as it remained until 1937 when he was murdered in a notorious Four Corners crime spree; afterwards it became St. Lawrence Drive.  The point at which it meets University Boulevard was the location of the wolf pit.

Most later roads in Four Corners were filled into the spatial framework of roads and property established under Maryland’s slave society and carried into the restricted residential subdivisions of the 1930s to 1950s.  Some of the street names, including the old rolling road, Bladensburg, were changed as the area was made over into a place at once modern and tied to its history.  But the underlying structures, and at least some of the power and rights they expressed or withheld, remained to help carry us as we move about today.

[Hawkins holds a Ph.D. in history and lives in Northwood Park.]   ■

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