History of Spa Spring site

 

“A History of the Spa Spring Site.” Excerpted from Evaluation for Historic Site Designation: Findings, Conclusion, and Recommendation (Spa Spring Site, Historic Resource 69-001). Memorandum from Thomas W. Gross to Prince George’s County Historic Preservation Commission. Upper Marlboro, MD: Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, September 12, 2017.

 

 

Statement of Significance

Spa Spring Site is significant as the location of a prominent tourist attraction, drinking water source, and Bladensburg landmark throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The spring featured prominently in marketing materials for local real estate ventures and was frequently used as the venue for social and political gatherings. The waters of the spring were tapped not only for drinking but to supply the Equitable Ice Company in East Hyattsville, the first commercial ice manufacturer in that area, in the first decade of the twentieth century.

Historic Context

Spa Spring Site is located on property that was originally patented to members of the Beall family, although it is not clear whether Colonel Ninian Beall or his brother, John Beall, Sr., owned the land where the spring was located. A 918-acre portion of the patent, known as New Dumfries, was sold by Ninian Beall to John Gerrard in 1711.[1] The deed describes the property as “formerly called Beall’s Meadows but now called or known by the name of Aston Clinton.” Shortly after the marriage of Gerrard’s daughter, Rebecca, to Charles Calvert in 1722, the land was transferred to the couple and resurveyed with the name Charles and Rebecca. In 1735 the property passed to Elizabeth Calvert, who owned it at the time the Maryland General Assembly passed an Act in 1742 authorizing the establishment of a town “near a place called Garrison Landing.” The land for the new town, which was to occupy 60 acres on the south side of the Eastern Branch of the Potomac River, was purchased from Elizabeth Calvert by a group of five commissioners and divided into 60 one-acre lots.[2]

Despite its historical association with Bladensburg, the site of Spa Spring appears to have been just north of the area purchased by the commissioners for the new town. There is a “town spring” noted on a 1787 survey of the town, but it was located near the east end of the settlement at what is now 4100 Edmonston Road. Spa Spring was located near the boundaries of several tracts but was likely within the limits of Charles and Rebecca, the northern boundary of which followed roughly the course of the Northeast Branch of the Anacostia River. Ownership of the property in the latter half of the eighteenth century could not be definitively traced in County land records, but by 1801 it is known to have been owned by William Steuart, an attorney living in Bladensburg.[3] The Spa Spring site may have been among the considerable property near Bladensburg that Steuart is known to have held in trust for the sons of Dr. David Ross, although no record of Ross purchasing that tract—from either the Calvert or Beall families, the most likely previous owners—could be located. There is no evidence that Steuart developed the area immediately surrounding the spring.

 

James Crutchett

In December 1852 Steuart sold 10 acres to James Crutchett of Washington, D.C., the deed for which sale includes a specific reference to “the Spa Spring” among the metes and bounds description of the property.[4] Crutchett (1816–1889) was an entrepreneur whose ventures included the installation of gas lighting near the U.S. Capitol in the 1840s and a factory built in the 1850s to produce George Washington keepsakes from wood harvested on the Mount Vernon plantation.[5] This scheme landed Crutchett heavily in debt and his factory was seized by the federal government at the beginning of the Civil War for use as a soldiers’ rest home. Crutchett likely purchased the Spa Spring acreage as an investment, although there is no evidence that he made any effort to develop or subdivide the land during his thirty-plus years of ownership.

In June 1886 Crutchett presented the U.S. Government with a deed of gift for six acres near Bladensburg, which was described as containing “an ever-flowing spring of the well-known and celebrated chalebiate [sic] mineral water so well known and commonly called Bladensburg spa water…the use of said spring and land has for these many years not been developed for the beneficent use they are capable of.” The deed expresses Crutchett’s hope that Congress would authorize the erection of a fence and suitable buildings around the spring, as well as pumps and pipes to supply the spring water to the Capitol, the White House, and other public buildings. While nominally a gift, Crutchett concluded the deed by noting he “leave[s] it to the U.S. Government to allow me anything or nothing for said property.”[6] Crutchett had recently asked Congress to reopen his claim for damages tied to the seizure of his property during the Civil War and may have thought the gift would persuade lawmakers to act in his favor.[7] Congress did not officially accept title to the land until 1889, after resolving a question as to whether Crutchett’s claim of ownership was valid.[8]

Spa Spring in the Nineteenth Century

Throughout the nineteenth century, the Spa Spring site was generally accepted to be open to the public regardless of who held title to the land surrounding it. The earliest mention of the spring as a tourist attraction appears in a letter from Rosalie Stier Calvert to her parents in 1803, in which she relates that the “waters of Spa Spring have suddenly gained such a reputation that Dougherty’s House (a local inn) is not large enough to handle the crowds of the fashionable who come to drink the waters every day.”[9] Stier warns her father of the likelihood of “inconsiderate and tiresome visits” to his home at Riversdale owing to the spring’s popularity.[10] By the 1840s, Spa Spring and its adjacent grove had become a regular venue for social and political gatherings. Spa Spring also lent its name to a local baseball team in the 1870s. [11]

Real estate speculators and other entrepreneurs frequently referenced Spa Spring when promoting their Bladensburg ventures. An 1804 newspaper advertisement for the Union Tavern welcomes “such persons as feel disposed to visit the Spa,” while property owners with available rooms frequently touted the spring when soliciting seasonal boarders.[12] The Spa City Hotel appears on the 1878 Hopkins Atlas, its name derived from a real estate enterprise promoted in the 1870s by the Washington, D.C., brokerage of Hall & Ross.[13] Newspaper advertisements for land and houses in and around Bladensburg frequently mentioned the distance to Spa Spring from the property in question. An item appearing in the December 2, 1884 edition of the Evening Star, announcing the sale of property owned by the estate of Clark Mills, includes a 9.25-acre lot that purports to contain “the celebrated Spa Spring;” the lot description, however, does not match the location of the spring.

Spa Spring also makes a brief appearance in the written record of the Civil War. In July 1864, an agent of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad who had been sent to inspect the Laurel Bridge and the road from Beltsville to Bladensburg reported that rebel forces camped north of the town “have one piece of artillery, with which they threw a shell which fell near the camp in the vicinity of the Spa Spring.”[14]

Although the spring was located outside the area acquired by the Bladensburg commissioners in 1742 and was not officially owned by the town until its transfer from the federal government in the early twentieth century, civic leaders made efforts to maintain Spa Spring throughout its existence. An 1873 account in the National Republican notes that the spring site had been “inclosed [sic] with a tasty pale fence, and recently planted with shade trees.”[15] In 1901 the town commissioners authorized the erection of a new fence around the Spa Spring lot “and to open the same as a public park.”[16] Since the lot was labeled “Bladensburg Park” on the 1878 Hopkins Atlas and had a long record of public use before that, it is possible that access was being reopened by the town after having been restricted during the period of federal ownership. A wood gazebo appears in early twentieth century photographs of Spa Spring, although its exact construction date is unknown.

Spa Spring in the Twentieth Century

References to Spa Spring as a tourist attraction diminish in the early 1900s, possibly because the spring itself had begun to falter; the Evening Star reported in 1902 that the veins of the spring had become clogged and needed reopening.[17] The aquifer that fed the spring continued to serve as an important source of drinking water in Hyattsville and Bladensburg through at least the first half of the twentieth century and was also mentioned in 1912 as supplying the newly established Equitable Ice Company in East Hyattsville.[18] The Spa Spring name also remained associated with Bladensburg through the opening, in 1910, of the Washington-Spa Spring-Gretta electric streetcar. The line ran from 15th and H Streets NE in the District of Columbia to its northern terminus near Hyattsville, and was later extended to Berwyn. The streetcar venture was reorganized as the Washington Interurban Railway Company and sold following bankruptcy in 1915, after which “Spa Spring” all but disappears from the written record for nearly 20 years.[19]

A committee of the Prince George’s County Exchange Club was formed in 1932 with the aim of redeveloping Spa Spring, but the effort appears to have failed.[20] In 1940 the lot was sold to the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, which announced the following year that “the old ‘spa’ spring on the property will be raised 2 feet and a spring house built over it.” Commission officials noted at the time that the “exceptionally pure” water from the spring could supplement the local water supply in the event of an air raid.[21] By the 1950s the landscape surrounding Spa Spring had been altered dramatically, to the south by industrial development and the realignment of Tanglewood Drive, to the north by flood control measures along the Northeast Branch of the Anacostia River, and to the east by the construction of a Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission sewage disposal facility. These changes to the surrounding area, and the lack of any visible trace of the spring, makes a precise determination of Spa Spring’s original location difficult. It is most likely just west of the point where a small stream crosses Tanglewood Drive near its intersection with 46th Street. Tanglewood Drive is referred to in several deeds from the early twentieth century as “Spa Spring Road,” although its current alignment dates to the 1950s.

 

[1] Land Records of Prince George’s County, Liber E:80

[2] Sister Catherine Wright, Port O’ Bladensburg: A Brief History of a 1742 Town, Bladensburg, MD: Town of Bladensburg Bicentennial Committee, 1977, 21-22.

[3] Land Records of Prince George’s County, Liber JRM8:586

[4] Land Records of Prince George’s County, Liber ON1:247

[5] David Rotenstein, “The gas man and his magic lantern come to the Capitol,” Greater Greater Washington blog, November 18, 2010.

[6] Land Records of Prince George’s County, Liber JWB6:313

[7] Evening Star, April 1, 1886.

[8] “The Question of the Title of Spa Spring,” Evening Star, February 25, 1889.

[9] Margaret Law Calcott, ed., Mistress of Riversdale: The Plantation Letters of Rosalie Stier Calvert 1795-1821, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991, 55.

[10] Calcott, Mistress of Riverdale, 68.

[11] “Tournament, etc. at Bladensburg,” Evening Star, July 5, 1878.

[12] “Summer Boarding,” Classified advertisement, Evening Star, May 29, 1855.

[13] “Spa City,” Classified advertisement, Evening Star, March 1, 1870.

[14] “Affairs on the Railroad,” Evening Star, July 13, 1864.

[15] “A Word for Bladensburg,” National Republican, July 12, 1873.

[16] Evening Star, May 27, 1901.

[17] Evening Star, June 9, 1902.

[18] “New Organization Will Control Ice Company in Suburb,” Washington Times, April 7, 1912.

[19] “Washington Interurban Railway is to Be Sold,” Evening Star, December 23, 1915.

[20] “Toledo Man Addresses County Exchange Club,” Evening Star, February 4, 1932.

[21] “Work Begun on Park in Bladensburg Area,” Evening Star, April 3, 1942.