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§ Town History 1900-present

Dr. Samuel McMillan, Riverdale (Park's) first mayor, from the Riverdalian, 1926

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.

Turn-of-the-Century Riverdale

When the new century dawned in 1900, Riverdale was thriving. The economic depression of the mid-1890s had been followed by a more favorable climate for growth in suburban communities. Land and house sales in Riverdale suddenly accelerated in 1898--an indication of economic revitalization coupled with anticipation of even better times to come when the streetcar arrived in 1899. An Evening Star article in 1902 also noted that real estate agents were having more success in breaking a popular habit of maintaining both a city dwelling and a suburban cottage used in warm weather and on weekends. Their goal was to get people to move permanently to the suburbs where, as one ad from 1900 said, there were "lovely homes, cheap homes, healthy homes in Riverdale."

Riverdale in 1900 had more than 50 houses, most clustered within walking distance of the handsome Victorian-style B&O station erected by the Riverdale Park Company. The arrival in 1899 of the City & Suburban Railway meant that the community's residents now had two convenient means of traveling into Washington. Advertisements issued by the Riverdale Park Company announced that the trip from Union Station on the B&O was 17 minutes, and the trolley ride from the Treasury Department was half an hour. A streetcar stopped in Riverdale every 10 minutes.

A Community Matures

In the decade between 1910 and 1920, Riverdale underwent a dramatic transformation. The spaces between the widely scattered homesteads were filling in with new construction, and neighborhoods were becoming recognizable. The population continued to grow, and by 1920 it had become more diverse. A viable business community emerged that gave residents more local outlets for shopping and services. The teens also witnessed a major international crisis, which precipitated changes in the Washington area and left its impact on Riverdale. Finally, the somewhat informal management of community affairs handled by the Riverdale Park Company and volunteer organizations gave way to a formal incorporation as a municipal government.

Heading Toward the Jazz Age

On July 12, 1919, the citizens of Riverdale joined thousands of people from neighboring towns in a great victory parade that welcomed home the men and women who had served in the war. Soon they participated in the campaign to raise funds for the Peace Cross in Bladensburg that commemorated those that fell in the conflict. Most people at the parade probably thought that peace would mean a return to life as it was before, but Riverdale was showing signs of permanent change.

Just before the war in 1914, the nostalgia for a former life expressed itself in the incorporation of the Lord Baltimore Country Club at Riversdale. A brochure described club attendants in colonial costumes and showed pictures of the handsomely appointed club rooms. Its opening was attended by members of Congress, District of Columbia officials, members of the diplomatic corps, and Washington businessmen. Plans called for building tennis courts, croquet grounds, and golf links and for the acquisition of the small lake behind the mansion. It is ironic that one of the local founders of the club, Frank M. Stephen, was also creating the Gretta Addition to Riverdale. The lot sizes in Gretta were decidedly unaristocratic, and this part of town developed a working-class character. While the Lord Baltimore Club attempted to recall a bygone era, Riverdale was becoming a community that offered affordable housing within a convenient commute to Washington.

A New Town Experiences Growing Pains: 1920-1945

"Be it enacted by the General Assembly of Maryland, in Regular Session assembled, That the citizens, residing within the area more particularly hereinafter defined, be, and they are hereby made a body corporate by the name and style of the Mayor and Common Council of Riverdale" (House Bill No. 585, April 16, 1920).

Riverdale's first quarter-century as an incorporated town was an uneasy time. The excitement of being recognized as an "official" community soon gave way to the anxiety of managing--and financing--a government. However, civic organizations remained an anchor in the community, culminating in the patriotic spirit felt across the nation during World War II.

First Steps

On April 17, 1920, Governor Albert C. Ritchie approved Bill No. 585 passed by the last session of the Maryland State Legislature the day before--the incorporation, pending resident approval, of the Town of Riverdale. Despite the fact that the bill was only one of a list of 400 that dealt with local government matters (and treated as such in the news accounts of the day), the Riverdale town government soon captured the newspapers' attention with an ambitious legislative agenda--and the town's first political "scandals."

The first meeting of the Riverdale mayor and council was held August 16, 1920, under the gavel of Dr. Samuel M. McMillan in the Sunday school room of the Riverdale Presbyterian Church. By 1924, Mayor I. Burrows Waters and the council had moved into the firehouse at the corner of Madison and Arthur Avenues (now Queensbury Road and 48th Avenue). By December 4, 1937, Mayor William C. Wedding and six former Riverdale mayors had the honor of dedicating a new municipal building on the site.

Riverdale Park Company

As the town government assumed more responsibilities, the Riverdale Park Company continued to fade into the background. Although the company continued to build houses and occasionally offered space for town meetings for a fee, the company no longer set the rules and regulations by which the people lived, and in fact, was increasingly cited as a source of problems by residents. During the early 1920s, the classified section of the Evening Star featured weekly announcements from the company about homes for sale in Riverdale; by the 1930s, the notices had all but disappeared. And the company often complained to the mayor and council about unfair tax assessments placed on their properties, perhaps a sign of their financial troubles.

Town Continues to Offer a Rich Community Life

Throughout the town's early days, Riverdale residents continued to give their time to civic organizations, which, without the burden of managing town affairs, planned more enjoyable pursuits. The Riverdale Citizen's Association and the Riverdale Woman's Club planned events to mark major religious and patriotic bolidays, many of which were featured in newspaper accounts of the day. To celebrate the Fourth of July in 1921, the association held a celebration in Bennett's Woods. Several hundred people attended the day's festivities, which included a baby parade in the morning, a picnic at noon, patriotic exercises led by master of ceremonies J. S. Caldwell, a community sing led by Eva Chase, and athletic events.

Landmarks Highlighted and Established

From the 1920s to the 1940s, residents seemed to value their historic and other recognizable landmarks. The first quarter of the town's municipal history saw concern about Riversdale's deterioration and the establishment of many of the town's most recognizable sites still standing in 1995. [n.b., Riverdale Elementary School, Crescent City Charities (formerly Leland Memorial Hospital), Crestar Bank building (formerly Citizen's Bank of Maryland/Riverdale), and a World War I memorial in Dupont Circle on Clevelend Avenue.]

World War II Comes to Riverdale

In the late 1930s, the ERCO plant near the town's north boundary produced the spin-proof Ercoupe (see Chapter 4). By 1941, production at the plant was diverted to war-related materials, just months after the production of the airplanes was featured in the Prince George's Post as one of the county's most successful businesses. World War II had come to Riverdale. Although coverage of the war in the town's official records is sparse, the local newspapers reported residents and civic groups doing their part. Many of the town's men in uniform were awarded medals for their service. In addition, two Riverdale women had I unusual wartime experiences that went beyond folding bandages and participating in air raid drills. And some of Riverdale's families suffered additional hardships brought on by the loss of a loved one killed in action.

Preparing for Peace and Prosperity

No one could predict the changes that befell Riverdale after the end of [World War II]. Young families settled in the community in record numbers, replacing the town's founders, many of whom carried Riverdale's institutional memory to the grave. Few residents remembered the town's charms during the early part of the 20th century, so practically no one wished to halt the advance of "progress," with its rapid home building and road construction, that threatened the end of a small town.

End of a War Heralds the End of a "Small" Town

The demand for housing was one of the primary forces that influenced the changes in Riverdale after 1945. The Calvert Homes Project, meant to temporarily house war workers, became home to veterans employed at the Engineering and Research Corporation (ERCO) plant, which was once again manufacturing the popular Ercouple Airplane. In addition, the federal government was expanding and creating more jobs, and Riverdale was very convenient to the District of Columbia. For the first time in the nation's history, owning anhome of one's own was possible for thousands of young families as the Veteran's Administration (VA) provided secured loans with no down payment. Development of empty parcels of land and lots eligible for subdivision filled the demands of a booming real estate market.

Town Government Expands to Serve a Growing Community

Self-government in the Town of Riverdale stemmed from meetings in the streets and over backyard fences held by neighbors who felt they could improve their town by being recognized as a group. The town's first elected leaders spent their time and talent in improving the general welfare, and their accepted compensation was their only satisfaction in getting the job done. In the first few years following the end of World War II, the town government operated as it always had. The town office and meeting room shared space wiht the fire and police departments. Operation of sanitation services was provided from a small wooden building on Rhode Island Avenue (now Maryland Avenue in the industrial area beyond Town Center.)

In addition to the mayor and various numbers of councilmembers and clerks, the town government functioned through the work of a small number of full-time and part-time employees providing police and public works services. The mayor often handled the management of public works services, and a town clerk put in a few hours a month to record minutes of meetings and send out correspondence. Riverdale's ever-expanding population and traffic forced an increase in the number of town government personnel and in the responsibilities expected of elected officials. Governing expanded from a few hours a month into a full-time concentration on solving problems, managing employees, and fulfilling service obligations.

Local Landmarks Undergo Major Changes

[In 1949, Riversdale owner Abraham Lafferty sold the mansion to the Maryland-National Capitol Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) for $28,000. It was used as the headquarters for the M-NCPPC for the next 16 years. It was then used as the headquarters for the Prince George's County Delegation to the Maryland General Assembly until 1976, when the Riversdale Historical Society began resoration work.

In 1950, Riverdale Presbyterian Church moved from its original building (razed during construction of East-West highway in the 1960's) to its current location in University Park.

The congregation of St. Bernard's Catholic Church acquired land and built a church just east of Riverdale Park's town boundaries in 1961.

In 1952, Citizens Bank of Riverdale changed its name to Citizens Bank of Maryland, and expanded its headquarters.]

Town Landscape Undergoes Dramatic Alteration

[July 15th, 1945 - 4.88 inches of rain fell in 5 days. Cellars in homes east of the river were flooded.
August 3, 1951 - a flash flood left eight inches of water on Riverdale Road.
Labor Day, 1952 - another flash flood swept the town.
December, 1954 - Army Corps of Engineers begin work to straighten the meandering path of the Northeast Branch of the Anacostia.

Zoning decisions made between 1959 and 1962 allowed developers to build apartment complexes between the Northeast Branch of the Anacostia and Kenilworth Avenue south of Riverdale Road.

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