The History of Bethesda MD Real Estate (Part I)

If you’re thinking about moving into the Bethesda MD real estate market, you probably would like to know a little about the area’s history. I always find it fascinating to learn how these small towns evolved into the “best places to live.” One early resident said that Bethesda was once little more than “a wide spot in the road.” The road started as a ridgeline trail through woodland, frequented by early settlers and Native Americans alike.

By the end of the 17th Century, farmers had taken over some of the land to grow wheat and tobacco, or to raise livestock. By the mid-18th Century, there was an old stone tavern to replenish passersby. (Note: In 1929, the Daughters of the American Revolution would commemorate this area by erecting a 10-foot-tall “Madonna of the Trail” statue and put Bethesda on the map as a wayside stop. Artist August Leimbach created 12 identical statues – of a pioneer mother cradling an infant while a small child clings to her skirt – which were placed between Bethesda and Upland, California.)

In 1817, the Maryland legislature worked to improve the local roads and added a new turnpike leading to the capital. They imagined it would eventually keep going past Frederick. Modest clapboard houses were intermittently built over the following years, which led to a post office and general store established in 1862. The name “Bethesda” came from the local Presbyterian meeting house (which still stands high on a hill) and was officially sanctioned on January 23rd, 1871.

Once the 1873 railroad came whistling past Bethesda MD real estate, many farmers abandoned the toll road to transport their goods quicker and easier. Permanent population was sparse in the years following the Civil War – only 20, in fact. There was a lawyer, a doctor, two blacksmiths, shopkeepers, a carpenter, a postmaster and a carriage maker.

However, in 1898, the Chevy Chase Land Company began to buy up property just east of Bethesda to create a haven for Washington’s elite. Then, in 1891, the trolley brought an even more direct method of carrying produce into the city. Likewise, city dwellers found they liked taking in the fresh air of the country.  At the terminus of the trolley at Alta Vista (north of Cedar Lane), an amusement park was built to provide entertainment to local residents. Sadly, this park was decimated by a hurricane in 1896 and was never reconstructed.

By 1900, the trolley line was extended to Rockville. This line was a huge boon to Rockville, Chevy Chase and Bethesda MD real estate. Soon, Bethesda established itself as the shopping destination for new suburbanites. There was a new general store, a polling place, a library and a bank. By 1910, the B&O Railroad ran through town, which brought commercial growth – coal yards, lumber yards, an ice plant, and loading stations – along Bethesda Row.

Even with all this industry, there was still a rural quality about Bethesda that people fancied. Horses, sheep and cattle were still seen along either side of Wisconsin Avenue. By the time the automobile arrived, the surrounding areas were all vying to be the most prestigious bedroom community. Walter E. Tuckerman purchased 185 acres in the southwest corner, carved it into 250 lots and created the first gated community – which is now known as Edgemoor.

In the 1920s, a sports complex with tennis, swimming, bowling and golf facilities opened up and became “the place to play.” Sports and social clubs became a defining element of Bethesda living. The massive Leland Shopping Center became a picturesque row of shops like people had never seen before. George Sacks opened up his shopping area and Northwest Ford opened a beautiful auto showroom nearby. More than 80 years later, you can still shop in these centers.

Be sure to stop back! The DC Real Estate Marketplace Team will continue this Bethesda MD real estate feature…

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