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From A to B: Construction Crews Preserve Georgetown, One Stone at a Time

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The reconstruction of O and P Streets in historic Georgetown is nearing completion after more than a year of painstaking work.
Martin Di Caro
The reconstruction of O and P Streets in historic Georgetown is nearing completion after more than a year of painstaking work.

Older D.C. residents may remember their city's streetcar era. The trolleys stopped operating in 1962, a full half-century ago. In Georgetown, where streetcars started running in the late 19th century, the tracks remained in place on O and P Streets. The roads, however, became an obstacle course for cars as the underground conduit that used to contain electric cables eroded, sinking the streets into uneven, tire-tearing, pothole-filled paths. Now, after more than a year of work and much public support, a project to restore the streets is nearing completion.

Since last March, O and P Streets have produced a cacophony of construction. Men wielding shovels, back hoes, circular saws, and a very loud machine called a plate tamper, have reconstructed the roadways made of granite stones and trolley tracks to preserve the historic character of the neighborhood. Construction is slated to finish this fall.

"We're reusing as much of the old material as absolutely possible," says project spokeswoman Dara Ward.

The work has been painstaking. All the granite pavers (their actual name is setts) were excavated and inspected for reuse. About 90 percent were deemed good enough to be power washed and then, one by one, hammered into place. Sand and gravel were swept over the setts to fill the cracks and crevices. The last step is handled by the operator of a plate tamper, a loud machine that can be heard a couple of blocks away. The tamper levels out the roadway so it can accommodate vehicular traffic.

The reason why the District of Columbia embarked on the $11.8 million project was to make O and P Streets navigable again. Before construction, the trolley tracks rose above the grade of the road, forcing drivers to "surf" the narrow railings to keep their tires from tearing.

"There were pieces of jagged metal sticking up," says Georgetown resident Stephen Martin. "I'd say I was replacing the tires on one of my cars every year. They never made it through the tread life."

"We have actually been getting one complaint in particular from the residents who live on these blocks that are newly done, and it's that the cars are driving too fast," says Ward. "They don't have to go so slowly because the road has been evened out now."

Unlike most of the setts, the streetcar tracks were in bad shape, warped and corroded over the decades and requiring intensive work to be restored. Additionally, the 19th century water mains and original gas lines were replaced.

"It was really a project of efficiencies," says Ward. "It was kind of a no-brainer to also invite D.C. Water to replace the water mains and also work with Washington Gas as they wanted to upgrade the gas lines as well."

Residents are looking forward to the end of construction and their new "old" roads.

"I like the fact that it is so quaint looking," says resident Rebecca Clay. "That's why we live in a historic neighborhood. It would be sad to make it plain old asphalt again."

The P and O Streets of another era

While real streetcars are making a comeback in other parts of D.C., the restored trolley tracks on O and P Streets only evoke memories of a bygone era. The streetcar system reached Georgetown in 1872 and lasted until 1960, says Jerry McCoy, the special collections librarian and historic preservationist at the Peabody Room of the D.C. Public Library.

"The community was already over 100 years old before the streetcar system was authorized by Congress," says McCoy, who says the Metropolitan Railroad Company, chartered in 1864, operated the first trolleys in Georgetown.

The first streetcars were pulled by horses. In 1892, Congress decided to eliminate horse-drawn trolleys from the District.

"Congress deemed that all horse-powered vehicles had to cease and some other form of power had to be found," says McCoy. "That was the period when cable cars were introduced into history, just like those in San Francisco."

Georgetown's electric cables were run underground in the conduit that remained long after the trolleys stopped running. That empty, rotting conduit was what led to O and P Streets collapsing over the past 50 years.

"You're talking about almost 150 years of rainwater and salt and people losing their coins and purses and everything down here. The time really took a toll on this underground chamber between the tracks," says McCoy.

The streetcar operators briefly experimented with another type of propulsion: batteries.

"They were storage batteries," says McCoy. "Like when we complain about our smartphones not lasting very long on batteries, it was the same problem back then in the 19th century. These power storage batteries were not capable of holding charges long enough."

There were three main reasons why streetcar service ended in Georgetown in 1960 and across the District in 1962: Congress wanted to open the roads to car traffic, create a city-wide bus system to replace the trolleys, and follow the example of other cities attempting to modernize their transit systems.

"Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York were all ripping up their streetcar tracks at the time," says McCoy.

The tracks on O and P Streets are only for show, but McCoy says they are still important to Georgetown nonetheless.

"I think it is really important that this small piece of time be preserved in Georgetown," he says. "Georgetown isn't only about 18th century colonial America. There is really some important 20th and 19th century history embodied here."

As for motorists who may not be aware of the streets' rich history, they will be grateful for the smooth ride.

Music: "A to B" by The Futureheads from The Futureheads / "On the Road Again" by Chet Atkins from The Collection

Photos: Georgetown Street Construction

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