Washington & Great Falls Electric Railway


I like to explore. To see things from every angle. To really understand how it all fits together. I want to see a bridge not just from the top, but from underneath as well.


For years, DC area transit was a hodgepodge of these half measures, stitched together but never a finished a thought… Multiple operators, multiple modes, and multiple payment schemes – the outcome of a more or less free market approach to public transit. The Washington and Great Falls Electric Railway was an entrepreneurial venture susceptible to profit margins and the volatilities of demand. Its ultimate closure is attributable in large part to the rise of the automobile, which was marketed to appeal to the American sense of independence – a quality lacking in the collective, rail-bound atmosphere of a train.

Today, the publicly-owned Metro certainly doesn’t lack for ridership, but it is maligned and cursed, affectionately or not, for its state of disrepair, sometimes charming and sometimes deadly. Frayed carpets are less serious than frayed wires, but on any given day there is a chance you could encounter both somewhere in the system. In contrast to the Washington and Great Falls, the Metro was brought forth by a few visionaries who decided that mass transit was a public good – one that alleviated traffic and air pollution, diminished the demand for parking lots and highways in our urban landscape (both of which were once planned for the National Mall!), and ultimately made the city of Washington, DC a more walkable, vibrant place.

Metro is chronically underfunded, perhaps a consequence of a resurgent car culture or an aversion to so-called “wasteful government spending.” As for transportation, ridesharing is the latest buzzword, along with “on-site parking” at many of the District’s hottest mixed-use developments.

Neither of those are inherently bad things, mind you, but it is worth remembering that even if you rarely or never ride the Metro, you are in its debt. Every rider is one less driver on the road, one less freeway carving through your neighborhood, one additional free parking space on your street, or a lung just slightly less saturated with exhaust.

I’d call most of those things priceless. But remember, you get what you pay for… Or in this case, what your elected officials don’t pay for.

The key difference between the Washington and Great Falls Electric Railway and the Metro is that one was conceived to turn a financial gain, and the other was designed to render up a public good over anything else.

As I stand upon the skeleton of a century-old electric railway trestle, built by capitalism to meet a demand that never materialized at profitable levels, I wonder which will turn out to be the more sustainable experiment.

The present, the here and now, is little more than a bridge that links the past to the future.

And as I mentioned, I like to see that bridge from all angles.


Georgetown and Walhonding Brook

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Abandoned Washington DC by Thomas Kenning


7 thoughts on “Washington & Great Falls Electric Railway

  1. Hi! I was wondering when your last visit was to this place. Also I’d like some advice on how to get started doing things like this. I’m just graduating high school this year and live in the DC area. I want to go exploring some of these places with friends and was wondering how bad of an idea that is (we all hike in our spare time and are pretty confident on our feet). If you have any beginners advice or locations it would be great if you could share!

    Posted by Backwards | May 23, 2012, 1:16 am
    • I’ve been out this way in the last couple of weeks, actually, in May 2012. Still standing, as it has for the better part of the last century. My best advice for checking these places out is to respect them. Be careful and don’t take any dumb risks. Leave them as you find them so the next person can enjoy them as much as you did. And have fun! Feel free to send along any photos/stories you come up with!

      Posted by DCinruins. | May 24, 2012, 12:14 pm
  2. While trying to discover the history of some peculiar ruins in Cabin John Park, I found a topo map from 1923 online. I noticed, passing just south of the area I was looking at, a right of way labeled “W & GF Electric (not operated).”
    This right-of-way goes East from Great Falls, crosses River Road and from there is exactly the present route of Bradley Boulevard. The topo I found ends just below Fernwood Road, so I don’t know what happened to that right-of-way south and east of there. But since the railway never got to Great Falls, this indicates that there were even more extensive plans beyond there, too. So far, I’ve found no other reference to this part of the proposed line.

    Posted by Paul Bennett | November 21, 2012, 3:01 am
  3. Do you have a more specific location for this spot? For some reason I can’t find Walhonding Brook.

    Posted by Sharlene | October 10, 2013, 4:10 pm

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