Open spaces are important parts of the cultural landscape. The Washington region is chock full of parks with histories as magnificent as the settings with which they are associated. The National Mall and Rock Creek Park are two notable examples. Other metro area parks have lesser-known histories or have been overtaken by development and erased from the landscape. Bladensburg, Maryland’s, Spa Spring is one example with close ties to Washington’s history.
Bladensburg is an 18th-century Prince George’s County town that hugs the east bank of the Anacostia River. Adjacent to the original town limits there was an undeveloped and frequently flooded tract with free-flowing springs. Today it includes property within the Maryland-National Capital Planning Commission’s Anacostia River Stream Valley Park and Bladensburg’s light industrial fringes. But 200 years ago it was part of Henri Joseph “H.J.” Stier’s 729-acre Riversdale plantation.
An Early Plantation Tourist Site
By the first decade of the 19th century the area had been dubbed “Spa Spring” and it was becoming a popular early tourist attraction. Stier’s daughter, Rosalie Stier Calvert (1778-1821), wrote some of the earliest surviving descriptions of the springs in letters to her father, a Belgian expatriate who had returned to Europe in 1803. “The waters of Spa Spring have suddenly gained such a reputation that Dougherty’s house is not large enough to handle the crowds of the fashionable who come to drink the waters every day,” wrote Calvert in 1803.
Correspondence between Calvert and her father was published in the 1992 book, Mistress of Riversdale: The Plantation Letters of Rosalie Stier Calvert, 1795-1821. The letters provide an early glimpse into the site’s history.
Rosalie had moved into Riversdale with her husband, George Calvert. Rosalie completed work on the Georgian home and worked with her husband establishing the plantation’s agricultural enterprises and light manufacturing, including mills and a tannery. Their holdings extended south, well into into present-day Bladensburg, and they included the spring site and adjacent properties known as Spa Spring Woods.
Rosalie’s father encouraged her to work with her husband to develop the property to maximize its potential as a working farm and retreat for people visiting the spa spring. After returning to Antwerp, Stier wrote to his daughter:
I was truly pleased to see that you like being in the vicinity of Washington and that they have improved the road. I predict that in a few years your location will be as agreeable as one could wish for. However, the vogue for Spa Spring will not be so pleasant since you will be subject to inconsiderate and tiresome visit. Beware of opening roads on that side, and above all, of opening the spring in your woods which people say is even better than the other … Do persuade your husband to make the formation of meadows a goal and take care to clear the woods …
Bladensburg’s stake in local history derives from a War of 1812 battle fought there in 1814 and Civil War era dueling grounds. The Baltimore Road (now U.S. 1) passes through the town linking Baltimore with Washington, D.C. and it briefly served as the southern terminus for the Washington branch of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.
The spa spring property remained undeveloped for much of the 19th century. Washington newspapers regularly ran advertisements for local pharmacies selling the spa spring’s famed water. In 1890 a Virginia newspaper published an unflattering description of Bladensburg and its few amenities. “A spa spring of chalybeate water flows uselessly away at one end of the only street of the village,” wrote the Fredericksburg Freelance. “And the picture of gloom is completed with two or three taverns, rendezvous for negroes.”
Another Unrealized Scheme for James Crutchett
In 1852, Washington resident James Crutchett bought ten acres of the former plantation, including the spa spring site. Crutchett (1816-1889) was a Washington original. He arrived in Washington in the 1840s with plans to light the city using a gas manufacturing system he patented. His resume includes mounting a gas lantern on top of the Capitol in 1847 and selling objects carved from wood harvested at Mt. Vernon to fund completion of the Washington Monument.
At the time Crutchett bought the spa spring site, it was outside Bladensburg’s 18th century town limits. In 1854, the Maryland legislature granted the Village of Bladensburg a corporate charter and gave the village’s new commissioners the powers to expand the community’s corporate limits. The spa spring site was annexed, along with other properties south of the Anacostia River.
Crutchett never exploited the spa spring or its water during the 30 years that he owned the property. In March of 1886, in failing health and into his third decade seeking restitution for the Union army occupation of his Capitol Hill property, Crutchett gifted the spa spring property to the federal government. “The use of said spring and land has for these many years not been developed,” Crutchett wrote in the deed transferring the property to the United States.
Though Crutchett did nothing to develop the spa spring as a tourist destination, other Washington entrepreneurs did. In 1853 Charles Calvert sold 200 hundred acres to Washington speculators with plans to build a “commodious house of entertainment,” reported the Washington Star. Located east of the actual spa spring site, this area became known as the spa spring woods. Despite its use for recreation, none of several late 19th century plans to build an enduring resort there that appear to have never come to fruition.
Was the Park a Gift or a Bribe?
The reasons behind Crutchett’s spa spring donation remain unclear. Considering has past business exploits and the various legal proceedings in which he was enmeshed towards the end of his life, it’s possible that Crutchett believed that the gift would affect his changes to win his longstanding Civil War claim. As the Senate was evaluating his March 1886 gift offer, Crutchett also was lobbying Congress to re-open 20-year-old claim. On April 1, 1886, the Washington Evening Star reported that the Senate has rejected Crutchett’s request for $173,000 in restitution; he was awarded a fraction of what he sought after the army returned his property, $14,000 in 1873.
Like Crutchett’s other exploits, the spa spring donation remained mired in process and controversy. Despite reports in Washington newspapers that the federal government had accepted the gift, no vote or other administrative action appears to have been taken until February 1889 when Maryland Senator Arthur Gorman introduced a resolution accepting “certain lands near Bladensburg containing valuable springs of chalybeate spa waters.”
Gorman’s resolution memorialized Crutchett’s wish that the spa spring waters be piped from Bladensburg into Washington. Gorman’s resolution allocated $35,000 and would have authorized the Secretary of the Interior to
,,, at once take possession of the property donated, and improve the same, arrange the springs to one head, and convey the same by iron pipes to the Capitol and other such buildings, hospitals, and parks.
The resolution was read twice and referred to the Committee on the District of Columbia where it languished. Meanwhile, James Crutchett died in Washington City Hospital April 30, 1889; one newspaper reported that the octogenarian had succumbed to cancer. Despite owning several properties in Washington, he apparently died destitute and intestate. His grave in Congressional Cemetery is unmarked and litigation over his properties persisted long after he was buried.
Clues about why Congress never moved forward with Gorman’s resolution may lie in how the property was informally used by Bladensburg residents. Shortly after Gorman introduced his resolution, the Washington Evening Star reported that there were questions about Crutchett’s title to the property. Though land records clearly showed Crutchett was the legitimate owner with the authority to transfer title to the federal government, the City of Bladensburg had squatted on the site since the 1850s. “The Bladensburg town commissioners have had the spring enclosed ever since 1856, and have used and regarded it as exclusively the property of the corporation,” wrote the Evening Star in February 1889.
Area legends have long held that the spa spring site is where the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission in the 1940s built a sewage intake facility. Local historian Dick Charlton said in a 2008 interview with the Gazette newspaper that he believed that the spring was capped and that WSSC built a circular brick building on the site. “I suppose you have to do something with [the sewage], but to us, it’s kind of a sacrilege,” Charlton told reporter Elahe Izadi.
The WSSC building actually was constructed in the area historically known as “Spa Woods,” a tract situated east of the Spa Spring. The utility bought the property in 1935 from T. Howard and Josephine Duckett. Over the next several years, WSSC bought additional properties and rights-of-way to complete its sewage facility. The brick building constructed there first appears in a county real estate atlas published in 1940 and subsequent Sanborn fire insurance maps.
The actual spa spring location ultimately was transferred to the City of Bladensburg around the turn of the 20th century, though no land records appear to have been filed. In 1901, the city built a new fence around the spa spring lot and newspapers reported that it was opening as a public park. The lot in 1940 was one of two parcels Bladensburg sold the M-NCPPC; the other was the city’s former jail site (west of Baltimore Ave.). Both parcels were incorporated into new county parklands that flank the Anacostia River.
The Spa Spring episode was one of James Crutchett’s curious contributions to Washington area history. It is one of the many stories that lie behind the area’s better and lesser known parks and characters.
Read more about James Crutchett’s exploits in Washington:
- The gas man, George Washington, and a magic lantern (November 2010)
- Civil War Lost and Found: Lincoln’s First Inaugural Ballroom (June 2011)
- The Civil War, George Washington, and the Mount Vernon Factory (July 2011)
© 2016 D.S. Rotenstein