Uncovering the Everyday: Exploring US Route 1 From Baltimore to Washington, DC

College Park Little Tavern
Little Tavern, College Park

Written by Aaron Marcavitch, author of US Route 1: Baltimore to Washington, DC

How often do we pay attention to our surroundings as we drive along America’s highways and byways? In the earliest days of the highway, the windshield was like a film screen with the film “Our Great American Landscape” rolling out in front of the driver. Today, we often prefer to take the interstates versus the highway because they are faster, less cluttered, and unfortunately, less interesting. In the heavily populated corridor between Washington, DC and Baltimore, MD, the experience of seeing the landscapes around U.S. Route 1 roll along beside us has all but disappeared and changed dramatically over the generations. US Route 1: Baltimore to Washington, DC sheds some light on the highways beginnings and fills in the back story about this particularly important span of what was once considered “America’s Main Street.”  
As a researcher and writer, I have been drawn to the history of everyday landscapes – the roads and roadside architecture, amusement parks, and American popular culture – from the time I started degree work in Historic Preservation at Roger Williams University in Bristol, RI. There I worked to document the history of a forgotten amusement park which then led me to documenting the history of recreational life in Rhode Island. From there, I attended Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, TN where I worked in Public History. My thesis advisor, Dr. Carroll Van West, encouraged me into roadside architecture – particularly standardized architecture. Here I discovered the idea of landscapes with standard, common architecture was both an interesting insight into American design and economics and a way to understand what preservation philosophies one had to consider when approaching these common styles of buildings. The Little Tavern in College Park, MD was a regional example of these types of buildings along US Route 1.  (Image)
Upon starting as the Executive Director at Maryland Milestones, I recognized how my interests could dovetail with the history of the region. Maryland Milestones/Anacostia Trails Heritage Area became a certified heritage area by the State of Maryland in 2001. Maryland Heritage Areas are a state based program that seeks to preserve and promote history, art, culture, and natural resources of a defined region. Our heritage area includes the region around the tributaries of the Anacostia River and a wide variety of historical sites, including those that near US Route 1. One of the goals in the management plan was to document the history of US Route 1. The history of the region has major ties in the history of transportation and communication.

US Route 1 runs north-south from Fort Kent, Maine to Key West, Florida. It is the longest north-south route in the United States, although most of the route has now been overtaken by Interstate 95. Much of the highway was originally based on the 1920s era Atlantic Highway – and earlier, the Kings Highway, the Post Road, and the Fall Line road. Within Maryland, US Route 1 enters at the Washington, DC line, runs north to Baltimore, and eventually continues toward Philadelphia. In the portion between Washington, DC and Baltimore, most of the road is a four lane, undivided road. Surrounding the road are many small towns and cities – especially in Prince George’s County between the Washington, DC line and the Capital Beltway. These small municipalities span history from the earliest sailing days when the Town of Bladensburg was a deep-water tobacco port to when the City of Greenbelt which was a 1930s New Deal planned community to ease “slum housing” (as the designers called it) in Washington, DC.
Laurel Diner
Laurel Diner

While researching this topic to create this book, I was fortunate to have a well-researched history on the topic of highways in this region from Susan Pearl, Prince George’s County’s former historian. Her wealth of knowledge plus the chance to work locally and access the National Archives II at College Park made short work of research. The National Archives II in College Park, especially the photographic collection, the Prince George’s County Historical Society, the Howard County Historical Society, the Library of Congress, and the Maryland State Archives were all repositories consulted in preparing this book.
Within the National Archives photographic collection were several large files under the Bureau of Public Roads (BPR), which had been established in 1915. The BPR was preceded by the Office of Public Roads (1905) and Office of Road Inquiry (1893). The BPR and its predecessors were largely within the Department of Agriculture – reflecting the original idea that roads were intended to connect farms and towns. The Bureau continued until 1967 when the program was transferred to the Federal Highway Administration. Because US Route 1 was a major highway leading out of the BPR headquarters, we are fortunate to have a large collection of photographs from 1915-1967 covering this regional span of US Route 1. This image of Laurel in the 1940s is one of the only photos that shows the original Laurel Diner and was taken by the BPR. (IMAGE)
I was particularly pleased to find images that had not been seen by historical experts in the region. Having an opportunity to see how the landscape has filled in and changed over nearly 300 years of American history was interesting every step of the way. Modern experiences of the road have changed dramatically. As a road from farm to port, a road overtaken by rails, and a road once filled with automobile related building, US Route 1 is now filled with shops, housing, and development. So, as you drive take a moment to see the layers of history buried beneath the modern landscape. I hope this book will help others see our region in a new way.