Tuesday, October 4, 2011

B&O Railroad Station, New Jersey Avenue and C Street NW

In the spring and summer of 1861, the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) Railroad Depot just north of the U.S. Capitol at the corner of New Jersey Avenue and C Street, was one of the busiest locations in Washington.  The brick, stucco, and brownstone depot, which had opened just a decade earlier,  was the disembarkation point for thousands of soldiers arriving from throughout the north.  This was the same depot that President-elect Lincoln, traveling incognito, arrived at on February 22, 1861 and from where his casket would sadly depart the capital from four years later on its journey back to Springfield.
An early illustration of the B&O Depot on New Jersey Avenue. (Washington Historical Society)

In May 1850, the Washington  Board of Aldermen and Common Council approved a resolution calling for the relocation of the B&O Depot from Pennsylvania Avenue & 2nd Street to a more suitable location east of New Jersey Avenue.   In return, the city offered to allow the B&O, which then had a monopoly on Washington rail traffic, to use steam power locomotives all the way into the depot.  The depot formally opened in April 1851 (some authors erroneously give the date as 1852).  At that time, the B&O was transporting about 150,000 passengers a year between Washington and Baltimore and employing six steam locomotives on the Baltimore-D.C. line.

The front side of the Italian-style depot was dominated by a four-sided clock tower that rose 100 feet.  The depot was 106 feet wide and 68 feet deep, according to the Baltimore American.  Once inside the depot, passengers entered a beautiful hall to get to their trains.  A ticket office, freight office and ladies and gentlemen's saloons were also located in the depot. The main carhouse, which was 60 feet wide and 330 feet in length, ran diagonally through the square. Its iron roof was supported by granite pillars.

Drawing that appeared in Frank Leslie's Illustrated of the April 1861 arrival of the New York 71st Infantry Regiment at the Washington Depot.  The B&O roundhouse can be seen on the left-hand side.  (New York Public Library)

Illustration of Lincoln's "safe arrival at Washington" from Allen Pinkertson's sometimes fanciful The Spy of the Rebellion." President Lincoln arrived at the Washington B&O Depot on February 22, 1861 on the 6 AM train from Baltimore after traveling incognito to foil an alleged assassination plot. In 1861, the rail journey between Washington and Baltimore took about 1 hour, 45 minutes.  Today, the trip takes about a hour on the MARC Camden commuter line
While the depot was spacious by antebellum standards, wartime passenger and freight traffic soon overwhelmed it.  While rail traffic into Washington was briefly disrupted in April 1861 due to disturbances in and around Maryland, regular service was quickly restored.  From late April 1861 onwards, the arrival of troops from the north was almost constant.  The federal government even erected a Soldier's Rest (i.e. the 19th century version of a USO) nearby to provide temporary accommodations and meals for arriving troops.  Incoming freight soared from an average of eight cars per day in 1860 to more than 400 cars per day.  In October 1861 a new freight warehouse, measuring 20 by 300 feet, was constructed just north of the depot.  To further accommodate the increased traffic, a Y, to turn engines, and additional side tracks were laid in the depot yard in 1864.

The Washington Branch of the B&O came southward down Delaware Avenue before cutting diagonally across North Capitol Street and into square 632 where the depot was located.  From the depot, the tracks then went west along C street for several blocks before turning south onto 1rst street, crossing the mall directly in front of the West Side of the US Capitol and proceeding down Maryland Avenue towards the Long Bridge.  In 1871, Andrew Shepherd, Chairman of the Washington Board of Public Works, had the connecting line of track along 1rst Street, torn up.  May 1865 Map of the Washington And Alexandria Railroad and its Connections with the Baltimore and Ohio, Loudon and Hampshire, and Orange and Alexandria Railroads.  (NARA)

Postwar view of the B&O Depot looking down New Jersey Avenue towards the Senate side of the Capitol.  Starting in 1862, arriving passengers could take Washington's new horse-drawn streetcars from the depot to other locations throughout the city.   (Library of Congress)

 Modern view looking down New Jersey Avenue  towards the U.S. Capitol.  A black arrow indicates about where the front entrance to the Depot was located along New Jersey Avenue.  The intersecting street in this photo is Louisiana Avenue, which cuts across Square 632, but did not exist in the 1860s. (Google Maps)

Rear view of the Washington B&O Depot taken about 1872.  The depot's clock tower is visible in the extreme right-hand side of the photo. (Library of Congress).

Another view of the B&O Depot taken from a slightly different angle.  Photo probably taken in late 1800s. Note bicycles in front of the fence on left-hand side.  (Library of Congress)
1883 bird's eye veiw of Washington sketched by Adolph Sachse.  The B&O Depot is visible north of the Capitol. (Library of Congress)

With the opening of the new Union Station just to the north, the B&O Depot was demolished in 1907 after a half-century of service to the traveling public, government, and military.

June 1861 photograph looking north along New Jersey Avenue from the top of the U.S. Capitol.  The Depot's clocktower can be discerned in the lower center along the dirt road. (Library of Congress)
October 9, 1861 Washington National Republican ad showing departure times for northbound passenger trains leaving the Washington B&O Depot  (Library of Congress)

Red shaded area shows approximate footprint of old B&O depot superimposed on a modern map.

"New Depot at Washington," Baltimore American.
Murphy, J Patrick, Laws and Ordinances Relating to the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company, 1850.
Stover, John. F.  History of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, Purdue University Press, 1995.
"The Washington Railroad Depot," The Baltimore Sun, August 1, 1851.
Topham, Washington.  "First Railroad into Washington and Its Three Depots," Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Vol. 27 (1925), pp. 175-247.


  1. Steve,
    I am the Asst Editor of a newsletter for an organization called RABO, the Retired Administrators of the B&O. We would like to include your blog article in a future issue of the newsletter, News and Notes. Please contact me at fhdewey@charter.net to let me know if you would be agreeable.
    Frank Dewey

  2. Even back in the 1860s, the train depot was a popular place for pickpockets to operate. A December 12, 1861 Washington national Republican article reported the theft of a wallet containing $800 at the depot from a Mr. W.H. Johnston of Pennsylvania: "The city is swarming with pickpockets just now, and it would be well for persons to keep a sharp look out, and especially when in the neighborhood of the railroad depot, which locality these fellows seem most to frequent."

  3. Steven,

    An excellent history and set of pictures. It is the best summary of the 1851 B&O station on the web. Thank you for posting this!

  4. That May, 1865 map is incredible! I can't get your link to the complete map to work, however, and the downloadable version on the National Archives site is of a much poorer resolution.
    Do you think you could help me get a copy for my research on the history of the Northeast Corridor rail line?

    Thank you!
    David Reaves

  5. Steven -- Good afternoon. Could you please provide the source to this photo: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-sBaJlAPqPyM/TodVZjwdPTI/AAAAAAAAAdU/8Tdu78gPMWk/s1600/B%2526OrailroadstationNJavenue.jpg

    Thank you!

  6. Some of my family owned the Emmet House Hotel next door to the old B & O Railroad Depot. I have a nice photo of the hotel behind the depot. Thank you for this wonderful article.

    1. If anyone wants to see the photo, contact me at maryehanson@gmail.com.

  7. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  8. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  9. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  10. Thanks for sharing the post.. parents are worlds best person in each lives of individual..they need or must succeed to sustain needs of the family. i never know the use of adobe shadow until i saw this post. thank you for this! this is very helpful. i love reading this article so beautiful!!great job.Abcya || kizi games || abcya4 games