Brief History of Berwyn Heights

Incorporated in 1896, the Town of Berwyn Heights in Prince George's County, Maryland is today a quiet, mostly residential community of 3,100 residents situated on the eastern slopes of the Indian Creek valley.

Before the area was settled, the land was home to the Anacostanks, a native people that was part of a chiefdom called the Conoys. The first British colonists had extensive contacts with the Conoys beginning in 1634, but by 1750 the Algonquian culture had vanished. Fragments of their civilization survive in occasional archaeological finds. A Berwyn Heights archaeologist discovered one of the largest prehistoric sites on the East Coast along the banks of Indian Creek.

During the 18th century, the area was known as the New Scotland Hundred, after the many Scottish emigrants who settled here. Tobacco was the chief money crop, with slaves and indentured servants performing much of the intensive manual labor. Men from this era fought in the American Revolution. The grave sites of two Revolutionary soldiers from the Walker family are located in a DAR authenticated cemetery in neighboring Greenbelt. At one time, the Walker family owned most of the northern portion of the land that would become Berwyn Heights.

In 1888, a group of Washington investors led by James Waugh, Edward Graves and Benjamin Charlton platted the railroad suburb of Charlton Heights as a convenient country refuge for well to do Washingtonians. They established the Charlton Heights Improvement Company and, between 1889 and 1892, built the first set of houses, many from plans of Victorian pattern books. The Company foundered in the real estate slump of 1891-1893 and a large number of properties went into foreclosure. Most ended up in the hands of Jacob Tome, a wealthy Maryland banker, who had financed the real estate transactions of the investors.

Wishing to make a new beginning, residents lobbied the Maryland legislature to incorporate their community under the name of Berwyn Heights. On April 2, 1896, the Town officially came into being by an act of the Maryland General Assembly. The 1896 Charter called for the election of three commissioners to serve for one year without pay to administer the affairs of the Town. However, it would be 28 years before the Town had a fully functioning government.

On April 9, 1924, the Maryland legislature enacted a new Town Charter. This was the result of the efforts of the Berwyn Heights Association, which drafted the charter and petitioned the legislature to adopt it. Founded in 1915, the Berwyn Heights Association was the forerunner of today’s Town government and provided essential public services for its residents with money raised from a variety of public entertainments. The 1924 Charter called for the election of five commissioners elected for two-year terms, and gave women the right to vote and hold office. It also established a Board of Assessors charged with valuing all property on which the Town was authorized to levy taxes. The first board of commissioners was elected on May 15, 1924. Most commissioners were former members of the Berwyn Heights Association.

In the next 30 years, the Town of Berwyn Heights grew slowly. But during the post-war era, the number of homes jumped from 316 in 1955 to approximately 1,000 by 1970. As the population increased, water and sewer lines were added, roads were paved, shopping centers opened along the new Greenbelt Road and Town services expanded. In 1956, the Town Hall was opened at the corner of Berwyn Road and 57th Avenue. It housed a small administrative office and a garage for a police car. In 1958, a new elementary school was built on top of Pontiac Street, replacing the old summer home of St. Ann's Orphanage. In 1965, a maintenance building was constructed on 54th Avenue (now Ballew Avenue), and in 1967, the volunteer fire department moved from its location next to the Town Hall to a new building on 60th Avenue.

Today the Town is fully developed with little space remaining for new home construction. The population has stabilized at the 3,000 mark and reflects the diversity found in the greater Washington, DC metropolitan region. Many residents work for the University of Maryland and federal agencies located in the vicinity, including the Agricultural Research Center and NASA Goddard. Other residents are employed in the trades or run small businesses. Despite the changes in and around the Town, Berwyn Heights enjoys a strong sense of community. Volunteers run a variety of civic clubs and Town committees, which organize events, run athletic programs, or assist the Town study emerging issues and concerns.

More information on the history of Berwyn Heights can be found in "Berwyn Heights: The History of a Small Maryland Town" by Donald D. Skarda, and the website of the Berwyn Heights Historical Committee.