The first residents of our area were Native Americans.
Beginning about five thousand years ago, Algonquian Indians found quartzite stones for their weapons and tools in a quarry along the Piney Branch. Various tribes also prized Rock Creek as a valuable food source for fish and turtles.
Records of early European settlers include Captain John Smith's writings, which suggest he may have ventured by Rock Creek during the early 1600s. A trading post was established at the mouth of the creek in 1703.
The first settler with title to Crestwood may have been Henry Darnall, who owned six thousand acres in Rock Creek Valley in 1688. As Georgetown and Alexandria developed into ports, ships could sail up Rock Creek as far as P Street. A series of eight mills drew power from the creek to serve farmers in the valley.
The most famous mill owner was Isaac Pierce (also spelled Pearce or Peirce). He bought a mill and 150 acres along the creek in 1794. By 1800 he controlled an estate stretching from today's National Zoo to Chevy Chase. In 1820, Isaac and his stonemason son Abner Pierce rebuilt Pierce Mill, which is today the only surviving mill along the creek. Their spring house still exists in the traffic island in the middle of Tilden Street. The former Pierce carriage house by the entrance to the parking lot now houses Park Service offices. The family distillery is a private home across the street.
Also in 1820, we find the first evidence of a different community of residents: official records show that the Pierce estate was worked by 11 slaves and four servants.
Isaac's son Joshua built what is today called Klingle Mansion as his residence. It was constructed on Linnaean Hill, so named by the family in honor of the Swedish botanist who developed the system of classifying plants and animals.
Pierce Mill prospered until steam power undercut the water mills in the 1880s. The main shaft of the mill broke in 1897.
Our homes occupy land that belonged to Thomas Blagden (1815 1870). His father George was superintendent of the stonework used in constructing the Capitol…and his brother, the Reverend George W. Blagden, was pastor at Boston's Old South Church. The property included a mill…and both the mill and the estate were named Argyle after a county in Scotland. The mills were located on what today is a clearing on the west side of Beach Drive just below Boulder Bridge. They were severely damaged by flooding in 1889, with the ruins removed in 1899 during the initial construction of Beach Drive. One of the old bridge abutments leading to the mill survives on the east bank of the creek.
The Blagden estate included a large frame Georgian home located near an area bordered today by Upshur, 17th, Varnum and 18th Streets. It was demolished in 1936.
Not far from Crestwood are the ruins of Fort Stevens at 13th Street and Piney Branch Road. You can also make out the earthworks of Fort DeRussey in Rock Creek Park above Military Road. Both were involved in an important Civil War showdown in 1864 (in fact, President Lincoln is said to have been fired upon during the fighting at Fort Stevens). In the heat and humidity of that July…after traveling 200 miles over the previous two weeks…Confederate forces under the command of General Jubal Early rested for a day, setting up camp not far from our area. That one day gave the Union Army enough time to march soldiers up what is now Georgia Avenue to defeat Early's troops in the Battle of the Suburbs. Otherwise, the Confederates might have taken Washington.
The Civil War led to a boom in development in Washington, including the construction of the suburb of Mt. Pleasant Village in 1865. The Blagden heirs worked with Alexander “Boss” Shepherd to install more roads into Rock Creek Valley. Only the creation of Rock Creek Park in 1890 kept early development out of Crestwood.
Beach Drive was named after the park superintendent who directed its original construction. The section between Military Road and the site of Argyle Mill was inaugurated in 1899. By 1902, Boulder Bridge was finished. In 1904, the Pierce Mill waterfall was constructed to ornament what had become a popular picnic area and meeting place. By 1905, Pierce Mill was in use as a teahouse. African American Hattie L. Sewell took over the concession in 1920, but her lease was not renewed after racially motivated complaints. The Girl Scouts ran the teahouse for a while, followed by a charitable group within the War Department. The last tea was poured in 1934 when the first restoration of the mill was ordered. During the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps was active in the park, building the stone house now used by the Park Police.
The term Crestwood originated with the marketing of homes in 1940 by Paul Stone and Avon Shockey, along with A. S. Lord and E. E. Caldwell. Their advertising depicted Crestwood as “wooded country in the downtown residential district, only ten minutes from the White House.” Those interested in property were invited to call at 4220 Argyle Terrace. The house built by Stone & Shockey at 1901 Upshur Street was pictured on the brochure…and in 1940 it was named the first Silver Star Model Home by the Evening Star.
The word “Crestwood” may have first appeared on an official District map in 1941 as an Air Raid Warden Group. But World War II also interrupted Stone's plans to develop the area. He was back promoting his home sites — without his former partners — in the early 1950's. Nearby was the new Carter Barron Amphitheater, constructed in 1950 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Washington as the seat of the national government.
In this postwar period, a major fishing and swimming hole existed at the foot of Blagden Avenue, where you could catch fish weighing up to three or four pounds and dive into the creek to a depth of at least ten feet. Where Mathewson Drive is today was a beautiful little valley with a small stream at the bottom. The “Old Pond” existed on the south side of Shepherd Street at 17th, where kids would float on rafts or catch tadpoles in the summer and ice skate in the winter.
Tragically, restrictive covenants had been written into many property deeds. The official papers of some of our Crestwood homes may, even today, still contain language forbidding sales to African Americans and Jews. These remaining covenants are, of course, illegal and therefore moot—but it is not difficult to get such foul language expunged from a deed.
Everyone should feel welcome in our neighborhood. We hope you agree with British Ambassador Lord James Bryce, who described our area this way in 1913:
“To Rock Creek there is nothing comparable in any capital city in Europe. What city in the world is there where a man living in a house like that in which we are meeting, in 18th Street, can within...a quarter of an hour on his own feet get into a beautiful rocky glen, such as you would find in the woods of Maine or Scotland...with a broad stream foaming over its stony bed and wild, leafy woods looking down on each side?”
Street names (There is more street name information in David Swerdloff's history blog, here)
Wonder how Crestwood streets got their names? Here are some explanations…mostly from amateur historian Rowena Adamson’s manuscript, Street Names in Washington, D.C:
ARGYLE—name of the estate (and one of the mills) of Thomas Blagden… in honor of Scotland's second largest county.
ALLISON—William Boyd (1829 1908), influential Iowa Congressman and Senator who spoke up for Midwest farmers.
CRITTENDEN—John Jordan (1787 1863), U.S. attorney general under Harrison and Fillmore; Kentucky Senator known for the “Crittenden Compromise” aimed at averting the onset of the Civil War...also his son, U.S. Army General Thomas T. (1819 93).
MATHEWSON—Family whose property became part of the Crestwood development.
QUINCY—Josiah (1772 1804), Congressman, Boston mayor and president of Harvard.
RANDOLPH—the famous Virginia family that included Peyton, president of the First Continental Congress; Rogers, sculptor of the large bronze doors at the east entrance to the Capitol; and Virginia Congressman and Senator (and descendant of Pocahontas) John.
SHEPHERD—Alexander (1823 1890), colorful and controversial DC city manager and planner; as head of public works, he improved 80 miles of streets with concrete paving, dug sewers, filled in swamps and planted trees…no matter how much it cost.
TAYLOR—President Zachary…or perhaps David Taylor, U.S. marine and aeronautical engineer.
TRUMBULL—John (1756 1843), colonel and revolutionary patriot; as an artist he painted four of the eight large paintings in the Capitol rotunda, most notably the depiction of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
UPSHUR—Abel P., Virginian, Secretary of State under Tyler, killed in a cannon explosion in 1844 aboard the USS Princeton in Alexandria...also John H., Navy admiral of the late 1800s.
VARNUM—James Mitchell (1748 98), soldier with George Washington at Valley Forge in 1778, member of the Continental Congress, and later a judge in the Northwest Territory who helped write a legal code for that region.