Monday, May 27, 2013

Bladensburg Crossroads: The Town as a Regional Gathering Place for Business, Information, Refreshment and Entertainment

Bladensburg’s location as a port at the highest navigable point on the Anacostia River (Eastern Branch), created a natural spot for people to gather for business and other purposes.  Ships brought European goods in exchange for tobacco.  Later, the local economy diversified, but Bladensburg remained a center for commerce and industry.   At the time of its founding, the river was the most important transportation link, but as the first fordable point, the head of the Eastern Branch also was a place where east-west travelers would find their fastest land route from Annapolis or Upper Marlboro to the regional port towns emerging at Alexandria and Georgetown and points farther west.  In addition, Bladensburg was a node on the north-south road, connecting the Virginia tidewater region with Philadelphia and fast-growing Baltimore.  As a crossroads, Bladensburg also became a regional economic center with businesses and services.

Commercial Operations.  Stores, warehouses, wharves, grist mills, gunpowder mills, a blanket factory, tannery, forges, manufacturing locations and smaller service businesses provided by carpenters, shoe makers, saddlers, tailors, etc.  These were places where the buying and selling of tangible goods occurred; locations where products were processed or made.  The post office often was located at a commercial site, and the mails were the way newspapers were distributed; hence, post offices were a key locus drawing people interested in timely information.  Some of these operations were quite extensive, as suggested by this 1820 description of a tannery on the river, “51 layaway vats, 4 limes, 3 trendlers, 2 pools, 2 bates, 4 latches, a complete bark mill, with machinery to grind the bark by water, team and bark houses, a large and convenient currying shop, newly erected, new mill for grinding Spanish hides, lofts for hides, hair, wool, and horns, a comfortable dwelling house, with a good garden attached, suitable either for the owner or manager.  The whole yard is supplied with the best water and hydrants which convey the water..." [1]

Taverns & Hotels.  Licensed ordinaries appear almost as soon as Bladensburg was laid out and remained a constant feature of the crossroads town.  Taverns usually were the location of the stagecoach stop.  In addition to food and drink, taverns usually provided overnight accommodations.  Hotels eventually emerged as an alternative to drinking establishments.  Performances (dramatic, musical) and other entertainments (prize fights, cock fighting, balloon ascensions, prostitution) sometimes occurred in or near taverns and hotels.  Many business transactions occurred at taverns, such as sales of real estate and property, including slaves.  Taverns were one enterprise where women thrived.  In Bladensburg tavern licenses were held by Jane Martin, Elizabeth Prather, Mary B. Scott, Catherine Wirt, and Margaret Adams.  Adams was an African American, whose tavern was patronized by Charles Willson Peale and Thomas Lee Shippen.

Spa Spring.  Early travelers through Bladensburg noted the presence of a mineral spring and its potential to become a spa.  Over time, a spa did emerge in a park like setting.  It was the site of both organized events and casual visitation.  One local tavern keeper, William Ross, saw the spa as a potential inducement for visiting his establishment in this advertisement from 1804, “The subscriber respectfully informs his friends and the public generally, that he has opened a House of Entertainment in Bladensburg...Such persons as feel disposed to visit the spa, during the season, can be comfortably accommodated...” [2]

Educational & Professional Services.  Professionals such as medical doctors and lawyers, also ministers, school masters, artists, dance and music instructors, midwives, bookbinders, etc.   The Bladensburg Academy was established with the support of some of the leading businessmen in the town.  A published account of a public performance of a poem written by the school master, Samuel Knox, preserves the names of some of the students at the school: Thomas Dick, O.H. Williams, William Stuart, John Howitt, Thomas Contee Bowie, and George Ponsonby. [3] Their teacher went on to publish several treatises on the need for a system of higher education in the United States.  Knox’s ideas were said to have influenced Thomas Jefferson’s plans for the University of Virginia.

By Doug McElrath, May 27, 2013.

[1]  Daily National Intelligencer, 11/18/1820.  Repeated in Nov and Dec.  "Valuable Tannery in Bladensburg For Sale."
[2] Washington Federalist, 6/8/1804
[3] American Museum, April 1789

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