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Capital Region

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Montgomery and Prince George’s counties now form the Maryland suburbs adjoining Washington. In many ways, they followed parallel paths; both largely agricultural until the twentieth century, dependent from early settlement on tobacco cultivation, later benefiting from proximity to the U.S. government to underpin suburban communities and establish agencies within their borders. However, more southerly both geographically and in mindset, Prince George’s County sustained enslavement-based tobacco plantations longer, reflected in its current wealth of former plantation houses. It is also significant today as one of the most prominent majority African American counties in the nation. Its tobacco legacy is attributed to a soil more conducive to tobacco growth and better access to navigable waterways, with six tobacco ports to Montgomery County’s one. Abolitionist Quakers, the first settlers in Montgomery County, also made large-scale plantations dependent on enslaved labor less sustainable, resulting in more town development and dispersed populations. As ardent promoters of agricultural experimentation, Friends formed early agricultural societies resulting in a timelier move to less labor-intensive grain production.

Early European settlers to both counties were largely descendants of Maryland’s first immigrant populations from the Chesapeake, migrating up the Patuxent River and its tributaries. Early buildings thus reflected the architectural traditions of the Chesapeake, embracing hall-parlor-plan frame and log dwellings at the center of a farmstead augmented by freestanding dependencies and outbuildings.

In Prince George’s, early town development resulted from the designation of tobacco ports and inspection stations. Upper Marlboro witnessed the greatest growth, becoming the county seat in 1721, followed by Bladensburg, designated in the 1740s. With over half the county’s population enslaved in 1750, a less fluid society resulted in stagnated population growth until the post-Civil War end to the plantation system. Meanwhile, by the 1820s iron works and textile mills developing around Laurel offered new economic opportunities.

Montgomery County’s grain production and the growth of local mills created anchors for market town development, attracting trades related to agricultural processes as part of a progressive national trend. The county’s only port was Georgetown, later annexed for the nation’s capital. It fortuitously marked the southern terminus of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal by the 1830s. Although quickly overshadowed by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, the canal passed through the county, facilitating the movement of agricultural goods and other commodities.

The two counties shared more post-Civil War. Prince George’s, formerly the wealthiest tobacco-producing county in Maryland, witnessed a reversal of fortune as large plantations, no longer sustainable, were broken up into smaller farms. The formerly enslaved worked mostly as tenant farmers and sharecroppers aided by the Freedmen’s Bureau. Tobacco remained the principal crop, although agricultural experimentation promised change, led by individuals such as Charles Benedict Calvert, who helped establish both the Department of Agriculture and the Maryland Agricultural College (University of Maryland), built on a portion of his Riversdale estate beginning in 1856. In Montgomery County, free Black communities grew mostly around existing enclaves in towns such as Sandy Spring.

Both counties benefited from the arrival of the B&O Railroad, in Prince George’s County the Washington Branch and in Montgomery County the Metropolitan Branch. The B&O touted “hundreds of locations along the line” where “picturesque” suburban homes and bucolic surroundings offered “health, comfort, and happiness” within easy commute to the city. By the 1870s preexisting communities such as Hyattsville and Rockville were further subdivided for building lots. The growth of the federal government facilitated by the passage of the Pendleton Civil Service Act in 1883 contributed to suburban development by establishing a stable workforce. In the 1880s, new communities were created, while hotels, resorts, and retreats gave refuge to Washingtonians seeking to escape the summer heat.

Rapid post-World War I growth generated concern leading to the 1927 creation of the bi-county Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC), which regulated growth and established an extensive system of regional parks and scenic parkways. Growth continued even during the Great Depression with investment by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal era programs and experiments in affordable housing through prefabrication. Depression and wartime housing shortages witnessed the development of apartment complexes based on Garden City design principles backed by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). Prefabrication characterized the 1950s and 1960s in communities with both noteworthy modern and more traditional housing developments.

After World War II, fear of nuclear attack on the capital accelerated the decentralization of federal agencies and military installations into the suburbs that began earlier with facilities such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Beltsville Agricultural Research Center and Bethesda Naval Hospital. Both counties have since grown and expanded exponentially, once again generating concerns about unbridled development and urban sprawl. The opening of the Capital Beltway (I-495) in 1964 and the Metro subway system in 1976 further blurred the lines between city and suburb, facilitating the movement of workers into downtown Washington and solidifying this region’s role as a bedroom community for the nation’s capital.

Writing Credits

Lisa Pfueller Davidson and Catherine C. Lavoie

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