| Town History
The following text is excerpted from the book "The Riverdale Story:
Mansion to Municipality", edited by Christina A. Davis, and published
by the Town of RiverdalePark, 1996. To buy a copy of this book, contact
the Riversdale Historical Society, or Riverdale Park Town Offices.
When the new century dawned in 1900, Riverdale was thriving. The
economic depression of the mid-1890s had been followed by a more
favorable climate for growth in suburban communities. Land and house
sales in Riverdale suddenly accelerated in 1898--an indication of
economic revitalization coupled with anticipation of even better times
to come when the streetcar arrived in 1899. An Evening Star article in
1902 also noted that real estate agents were having more success in
breaking a popular habit of maintaining both a city dwelling and a
suburban cottage used in warm weather and on weekends. Their goal was
to get people to move permanently to the suburbs where, as one ad from
1900 said, there were "lovely homes, cheap homes, healthy homes in
Riverdale in 1900 had more than 50 houses, most clustered within
walking distance of the handsome Victorian-style B&O station
erected by the Riverdale Park Company. The arrival in 1899 of the City
& Suburban Railway meant that the community's residents now had two
convenient means of traveling into Washington. Advertisements issued by
the Riverdale Park Company announced that the trip from Union Station
on the B&O was 17 minutes, and the trolley ride from the Treasury
Department was half an hour. A streetcar stopped in Riverdale every 10
In the decade between 1910 and 1920, Riverdale underwent a dramatic
transformation. The spaces between the widely scattered homesteads were
filling in with new construction, and neighborhoods were becoming
recognizable. The population continued to grow, and by 1920 it had
become more diverse. A viable business community emerged that gave
residents more local outlets for shopping and services. The teens also
witnessed a major international crisis, which precipitated changes in
the Washington area and left its impact on Riverdale. Finally, the
somewhat informal management of community affairs handled by the
Riverdale Park Company and volunteer organizations gave way to a formal
incorporation as a municipal government.
On July 12, 1919, the citizens of Riverdale joined thousands of people
from neighboring towns in a great victory parade that welcomed home the
men and women who had served in the war. Soon they participated in the
campaign to raise funds for the Peace Cross in Bladensburg that
commemorated those that fell in the conflict. Most people at the parade
probably thought that peace would mean a return to life as it was
before, but Riverdale was showing signs of permanent change.
Just before the war in 1914, the nostalgia for a former life expressed
itself in the incorporation of the Lord Baltimore Country Club at
Riversdale. A brochure described club attendants in colonial costumes
and showed pictures of the handsomely appointed club rooms. Its opening
was attended by members of Congress, District of Columbia officials,
members of the diplomatic corps, and Washington businessmen. Plans
called for building tennis courts, croquet grounds, and golf links and
for the acquisition of the small lake behind the mansion. It is ironic
that one of the local founders of the club, Frank M. Stephen, was also
creating the Gretta Addition to Riverdale. The lot sizes in Gretta were
decidedly unaristocratic, and this part of town developed a
working-class character. While the Lord Baltimore Club attempted to
recall a bygone era, Riverdale was becoming a community that offered
affordable housing within a convenient commute to Washington.
A New Town Experiences Growing Pains: 1920-1945
"Be it enacted by the General Assembly of Maryland, in Regular Session
assembled, That the citizens, residing within the area more
particularly hereinafter defined, be, and they are hereby made a body
corporate by the name and style of the Mayor and Common Council of
Riverdale" (House Bill No. 585, April 16, 1920).
Riverdale's first quarter-century as an incorporated town was an uneasy
time. The excitement of being recognized as an "official" community
soon gave way to the anxiety of managing--and financing--a government.
However, civic organizations remained an anchor in the community,
culminating in the patriotic spirit felt across the nation during World
On April 17, 1920, Governor Albert C. Ritchie approved Bill No. 585
passed by the last session of the Maryland State Legislature the day
before--the incorporation, pending resident approval, of the Town of
Riverdale. Despite the fact that the bill was only one of a list of 400
that dealt with local government matters (and treated as such in the
news accounts of the day), the Riverdale town government soon captured
the newspapers' attention with an ambitious legislative agenda--and the
town's first political "scandals."
The first meeting of the Riverdale mayor and council was held August
16, 1920, under the gavel of Dr. Samuel M. McMillan in the Sunday
school room of the Riverdale Presbyterian Church. By 1924, Mayor I.
Burrows Waters and the council had moved into the firehouse at the
corner of Madison and Arthur Avenues (now Queensbury Road and 48th
Avenue). By December 4, 1937, Mayor William C. Wedding and six former
Riverdale mayors had the honor of dedicating a new municipal building
on the site.
As the town government assumed more responsibilities, the Riverdale
Park Company continued to fade into the background. Although the
company continued to build houses and occasionally offered space for
town meetings for a fee, the company no longer set the rules and
regulations by which the people lived, and in fact, was increasingly
cited as a source of problems by residents. During the early 1920s, the
classified section of the Evening Star featured weekly announcements
from the company about homes for sale in Riverdale; by the 1930s, the
notices had all but disappeared. And the company often complained to
the mayor and council about unfair tax assessments placed on their
properties, perhaps a sign of their financial troubles.
Throughout the town's early days, Riverdale residents continued to give
their time to civic organizations, which, without the burden of
managing town affairs, planned more enjoyable pursuits. The Riverdale
Citizen's Association and the Riverdale Woman's Club planned events to
mark major religious and patriotic bolidays, many of which were
featured in newspaper accounts of the day. To celebrate the Fourth of
July in 1921, the association held a celebration in Bennett's Woods.
Several hundred people attended the day's festivities, which included a
baby parade in the morning, a picnic at noon, patriotic exercises led
by master of ceremonies J. S. Caldwell, a community sing led by Eva
Chase, and athletic events.
From the 1920s to the 1940s, residents seemed to value their historic
and other recognizable landmarks. The first quarter of the town's
municipal history saw concern about Riversdale's deterioration and the
establishment of many of the town's most recognizable sites still
standing in 1995. [n.b., Riverdale Elementary School, Crescent City
Charities (formerly Leland Memorial Hospital), Crestar Bank building
(formerly Citizen's Bank of Maryland/Riverdale), and a World War I
memorial in Dupont Circle on Clevelend Avenue.]
In the late 1930s, the ERCO plant near the town's north boundary
produced the spin-proof Ercoupe (see Chapter 4). By 1941, production at
the plant was diverted to war-related materials, just months after the
production of the airplanes was featured in the Prince George's Post as
one of the county's most successful businesses. World War II had come
to Riverdale. Although coverage of the war in the town's official
records is sparse, the local newspapers reported residents and civic
groups doing their part. Many of the town's men in uniform were awarded
medals for their service. In addition, two Riverdale women had I
unusual wartime experiences that went beyond folding bandages and
participating in air raid drills. And some of Riverdale's families
suffered additional hardships brought on by the loss of a loved one
killed in action.
No one could predict the changes that befell Riverdale after the end of
[World War II]. Young families settled in the community in record
numbers, replacing the town's founders, many of whom carried
Riverdale's institutional memory to the grave. Few residents remembered
the town's charms during the early part of the 20th century, so
practically no one wished to halt the advance of "progress," with its
rapid home building and road construction, that threatened the end of a
The demand for housing was one of the primary forces that influenced
the changes in Riverdale after 1945. The Calvert Homes Project, meant
to temporarily house war workers, became home to veterans employed at
the Engineering and Research Corporation (ERCO) plant, which was once
again manufacturing the popular Ercouple Airplane. In addition, the
federal government was expanding and creating more jobs, and Riverdale
was very convenient to the District of Columbia. For the first time in
the nation's history, owning anhome of one's own was possible for
thousands of young families as the Veteran's Administration (VA)
provided secured loans with no down payment. Development of empty
parcels of land and lots eligible for subdivision filled the demands of
a booming real estate market.
Self-government in the Town of Riverdale stemmed from meetings in the
streets and over backyard fences held by neighbors who felt they could
improve their town by being recognized as a group. The town's first
elected leaders spent their time and talent in improving the general
welfare, and their accepted compensation was their only satisfaction in
getting the job done. In the first few years following the end of World
War II, the town government operated as it always had. The town office
and meeting room shared space wiht the fire and police departments.
Operation of sanitation services was provided from a small wooden
building on Rhode Island Avenue (now Maryland Avenue in the industrial
area beyond Town Center.)
In addition to the mayor and various numbers of councilmembers and
clerks, the town government functioned through the work of a small
number of full-time and part-time employees providing police and public
works services. The mayor often handled the management of public works
services, and a town clerk put in a few hours a month to record minutes
of meetings and send out correspondence. Riverdale's ever-expanding
population and traffic forced an increase in the number of town
government personnel and in the responsibilities expected of elected
officials. Governing expanded from a few hours a month into a full-time
concentration on solving problems, managing employees, and fulfilling
[In 1949, Riversdale owner Abraham Lafferty sold the mansion to the
Maryland-National Capitol Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) for
$28,000. It was used as the headquarters for the M-NCPPC for the next
16 years. It was then used as the headquarters for the Prince George's
County Delegation to the Maryland General Assembly until 1976, when the
Riversdale Historical Society began resoration work.
In 1950, Riverdale Presbyterian Church moved from its original building
(razed during construction of East-West highway in the 1960's) to its
current location in University Park.
The congregation of St. Bernard's Catholic Church acquired land and
built a church just east of Riverdale Park's town boundaries in 1961.
In 1952, Citizens Bank of Riverdale changed its name to Citizens Bank of Maryland, and expanded its headquarters.]
July 15th, 1945 - 4.88 inches of rain fell in 5 days. Cellars in homes east of the river were flooded.
August 3, 1951 - a flash flood left eight inches of water on Riverdale Road.
Labor Day, 1952 - another flash flood swept the town.
December, 1954 - Army Corps of Engineers begin work to straighten the meandering path of the Northeast Branch of the Anacostia.
Zoning decisions made between 1959 and 1962 allowed developers to build
apartment complexes between the Northeast Branch of the Anacostia and
Kenilworth Avenue south of Riverdale Road.