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Town History 1800-1899

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Lithograph of Riversdale ca. 1827

The following text is excerpted from the book "The Riverdale Story: Mansion to Municipality", edited by Christina A. Davis, and published by the Town of RiverdalePark, 1996. To buy a copy of this book, contact the Riversdale Historical Society, or Riverdale Park Town Offices.

More than a century before the settlement and incorporation of Riverdale, the land on which the town is situated was home to one family and their servants--the Calverts of Riversdale. The mansion and its history is a vital part of Riverdale's heritage and are featured prominently in the town's redevelopment and revitalization plans and in Prince George's County cultural events. Perhaps most importantly, Riversdale continues to hold a permanent place in the hearts of the people of the town, who for decades have looked after the mansion as if it were their own.

The Stier Family Flees to America

The last quarter of the 18th century was marked by turmoil on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Americans had violently shaken off the rule of George III of England, and, in the aftermath of a revolutionary struggle lasting nearly 10 years, were sorting out the nature and the political institutions needed to implement a form of government without any historical precedent. The United States signed a peace treaty with Great Britain in Paris in the fall of 1783. Only six years later, America's wartime ally France, doubtless inspired in part by events that had taken place in America, entered the road to its own revolution, a struggle that would take on a far different character. During the long course of the French Revolution, political power shifted back and forth among the upper middle classes, the lower orders of society (which were to overthrow the monarchy and execute the king), the middle classes, and finally a dictatorship under Napoleon Bonaparte.

In 1793, Henri Joseph Stier[, along with his wife, Marie Loise Peeters Stier and their children, Charles Jean Stier, Isabelle Marie Stier and Rosalie Eugenia Stier,] fled his native Belgium and went to Amsterdam to contract for a ship to take them and their most precious belongings to a new land. Days before the Stiers left Amsterdam, the National Assembly of France, which had become the government, enacted conscription of all able-bodied men and hastily organized and fielded 14 raw by large armies. By the time the Stier family had reached Philadelphia, the revolutionary armies had bloodily suppressed the Vendee, the last internal royalist uprising. And by the winter of 1794, Flanders was completely under French control, and the puppet Batavian Republic was established.

[The Stiers settled in Philadelphia in 1794, and moved to Annapolis in 1795 to live in the William Paca House. ]

A Daughter Is Married

Among 20-year-old Rosalie Eugenia Stier's Annapolis suitors was George Calvert, 10 years her senior and a delegate to the Maryland Assembly. His father Benedict Calvert was the illegitimate but acknowledged son of Charles Calvert, the fifth Lord Baltimore, who provided him with substantial lands and income. Benedict Calvert's social position was good enough for his elder daughter Eleanor to have married John Parke ("Jackie") Custis, George Washington's stepson; thus, George Calvert was uncle to Mrs. Washington's four grandchildren, who, through their marriages and inheritances, built the grand Arlington House (Lee Mansion), Woodlawn Plantation, and Tudor Place.

By early 1798, George Calvert had become a serious and persistent suitor of Rosalie. He formally asked for her hand in marriage, emphasizing his ownership of substantial property and his connection to the Washingtons. He arranged, for example, a dinner for the Annapolis and Alexandria Stier families at Mount Vernon. Mr. Stier, still hoping to return home and fearing separation from his younger daughter if she were to marry an American, was at first reluctant to approve the marriage, although he had nothing personally against George Calvert. Mr. Stier eventually allowed Mr. Calvert to present gifts to his daughter, including a miniature portrait of himself set in a locket.

Baltimore attorney William Cooke drew up a six-page marriage contract, following an upper-class European custom, and on June 8, 1799, Mr. Stier, the young couple, and the lawyer signed the contract before Judge Gabriel Duvall and witnesses Benjamin Ogle II and Charles Stier. The couple obtained an Anne Arundel County license and two days later were married, probably in a simple home ceremony, as was common at the time. After a honeymoon trip that included a few days with the Washingtons at Mount Vernon, including a dinner in their honor attended by members of the Stier family and others, the young couple began married life at George Calvert's 2,000-acre tobacco plantation. Mrs. Calvert referred to this plantation, which lay north of Marlboro and near the now-defunct town of Queen Anne, as Mount Albion. Today, what remains of the plantation is known as Goodwood.

The Stiers Build a Permanent American Home

Before Rosalie's marriage, Henri Joseph Stier had decided that the family would stay in America and thus made plans to buy property and establish a permanent home. Mr. Stier felt that a site near the new Federal City was a good location. In the spring of 1800, George Calvert told his father-in-law of a substantial tract of property near Bladensburg to be sold at sheriff's auction. George Calvert, who himself had purchased land in the vicinity, reported that the land was fertile and the woodlands were good, with the Northeast Branch of the Anacostia River flowing through it. The estate's approximate boundaries, in modem terms, were Old Calvert Road to the north, Kenilworth Avenue to the east, Bladensburg Road to the south, and Baltimore Avenue to the west. The only property on the land was an unprofitable sawmill. By the fall of 1800, Mr. Stier purchased the 729 acre property, along with two house lots in Bladensburg.

The Calverts acquire Riversdale and Begin a New Life

[The Stiers left the care of this property to their daughter and her husband when they returned to Belgium in 1803. ] In 1804, Mr. Stier offered to deed Riversdale to the young Calverts and to pay for the completion of the entrance hall, the central salon, and the dining room. Mrs. Calvert, who was particularly attached to the uncompleted mansion, accepted her father's offer. [Rosalie and George Calvert spent the next quarter of a century finishing construction and decoration of the Riversdale Mansion. The Calverts had nine children, five of whom reached adulthood.]

The First Generation Ends

Rosalie Calvert's health declined in the postwar years [after 1817]. Bouts of typhoid fever plagued her, and she was unable to recover her full strength. In 1820, the Calvert's ninth child Amelia died at age four, probably of diphtheria, along with 10-year-old Henry. Despite her grief over the lost children and her own declining health, Mrs. Calvert found energy to mount a major social campaign, presenting 17-year-old Caroline to Washington society in hopes of finding her a suitable husband. The wartime political animosity between the Federalists and Republicans had given way to an era of good feeling, and the Calverts moved in elite political circles. They attended as many as two or three social events a week, among them President James Monroe's New Year's Day 1818 gala to celebrate the restoration of the President's House, now referred to as the White House. However, Mrs. Calvert's great burst of energy was short lived; in late 1820. she again became ill, bedridden with edema in her lower body. Despite the efforts of seven doctors, congestive heart failure could not be stayed, and she died at Riversdale on March 13, 1821, at age 43.

George Calvert did not remarry despite having five children to look after. Caroline took over housekeeping for her father and cared for her younger sister Julia while George Henry, Eugenia, and Charles Benedict were away at school. Mr. Calvert turned to his farming and business ventures, purchasing more land. By 1828, Mr. Calvert had become by far the richest man and largest landholder in Prince George's County.

Charles Benedict Calvert Takes Over Riversdale

[George Calvert died in 1838 at age 70. ] Charles Benedict took charge of Riversdale and most of his father's land. George Henry, who primarily desired income to support his literary career, accepted the Rossborough Farm in partial settlement of his claim. To settle the remainder of George Henry's claim and those of his sisters, Charles Benedict bought Riversdale from them, which he did at his own valuation of some $20,000.

Charles Benedict Calvert brough Charlotte Augusta Norris of Baltimore to Riversdale as his wife. The Calverts became parents to five sons and a daughter, and their house was recognized as a social center during their life there. [In addition, Charles Benedict helped found the U.S. Agricultural Society, and sold the adjoining Rossborough Farm to the Maryland Agricultural College, which became the University of Maryland, for its campus. He served as the University of Maryland's first president of its Board of Regents, is considered the father of the university. He died in 1864 at age 56.]

Riversdale Leaves the Calvert Family

Charles Benedict's will stipulated that his properties were to be divided among his widow and their children. Charlotte Augusta Norris Calvert received the mansion and 300 of its acres. After her husband's death she "went into a decline" and ultimately spent the rest of her life with a son in Baltimore. In 1887, a firm of New York real estate developers purchased from Charles Baltimore Calvert some 475 acres, including the mansion.

The withdrawal of the Calvert family from Riversdale set in motion a series of events that would unfold for more than 100 years before the mansion would again become the grand home planned and begun by Henri Joseph Stier and completed by George and Rosalie Calvert.

Three generations of the family had occupied the stately mansion and farmed the land, but changes in American society had major effects on the agricultural character of the area in the years following Charles Benedict Calvert's death in 1864. Within 30 years, the land that once supported crops, orchards, and grazing cattle featured a new look of streets on a grid pattern, houses in the latest styles, and new forms of transportation that transformed the ways people lived and worked. The Riversdale estate became the Town of Riverdale.

Location is Everything

The development of Riverdale was part of a national trend of growth in the rural areas surrounding older urban centers. Even before the town appeared, there were clear signs that change was coming to the sections of Prince George's County that bordered the District of Columbia. The 1878 Hopkins atlas of the county shows two areas of growth around the old Riversdale property: to the south, Hyattsville and the old colonial port Bladensburg; to the north, College Lawn (now College Park), clustered around the Maryland Agricultural College (now the University of Maryland). Indeed, the relatively dense population distribution throughout most of the Bladensburg Election District of the county is evidence that farming was being displaced by new uses for the land.

In the decades following the Civil War, people began moving out of the cities, seeking relief from crowded, unsanitary conditions. Washington, DC, like many cities of the Gilded Age, had an unsavory reputation with its floating brothels, dirty tenements, and corrupt politicians. An emerging middle class of federal employees working for new or expanded government entities such as the Pension Bureau, the Government Printing Office, and the Navy Yard were increasingly attracted to an ideal of rural life free from the evils of the city. The end of the 19th century was also known as the dawn of the Progressive Era, a time when people became more interested in the causes of good government, public health, and self-improvement. Some of the reform agenda was directed toward improving conditions in the cities, but another strain of this movement expressed itself in a desire to create a new, more moral life in communities appearing outside of the cities.

The one impediment to achieving this ideal was the necessity of traveling into Washington to get to work. People who lived beyond walking distance of their jobs had the option of traveling by horse and carriage, and several livery stables in the Hyattsville--Bladensburg area served this need. But owning and maintaining horses was an expense accessible to only more affluent people in society. Residents of Hyattsville and College Lawn had a second, less-expensive alternative in using the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) Railroad train service that stopped in both towns. The B&O line between Baltimore and Washington had commenced service in 1835, and it ran through the old Calvert estate.

However, the most dramatic growth in the suburbs became possible when a third, less-expensive and more-convenient mode of transportation appeared. Electric streetcars were the engines of suburban growth throughout the Washington area, and the City & Suburban Railway Company began service in Riverdale parallel to the B&O line in 1899. The advent of the streetcar allowed less-wealthy people to move away from the city. Most of the housing in Riverdale reflects the unpretentious tastes and modest means of a middle-class population that was able to afford a suburban lifestyle because of the inexpensive and efficient transportation offered first by the City & Suburban line and later by the Washington, Spa Spring, and Gretta line on the eastern edge of town. The arrival of the streetcar had a dramatic effect on the town. After 1900, house construction accelerated as Riverdale evolved from a collection of scattered homesteads to a full-fledged community in the first decades of the 20th century.

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