History of the Town of Glen Echo
Glen Echo and the surrounding area were once dense woods, described by early European explorers as lush, green, and full of wildlife such as buffalo, bears, and turkeys. The land was occupied by Native Americans, specifically, the Piscataway and Nacotchtank (Anacostan) tribes, for many thousands of years before European settlement. Glen Echo’s proximity to the Potomac River made it and the surrounding areas an easily navigable and popular area for early European settlers.
In 1888, brothers Edwin and Edward Baltzley purchased 516 acres overlooking the Potomac River to develop suburban communities and market the area for summer resorts. The brothers later allotted 80 acres of their land to National Chautauqua of Glen Echo, creating the 53rd Chautauqua Assembly. The Chautauqua movement sought to unify the Protestant churches by bringing people together for educational classes and discussions as well as entertainment, and physical activity.
The Town was incorporated April 8, 1904, an initiative led by resident John A. Garrett. Garrett was subsequently elected as the Town’s first mayor. The Town’s history boasts many well known residents such as Red Cross Founder Clara Barton, Montgomery County’s first woman mayor Beulah McCuen, and Roger Tory Peterson, one of the nation’s foremost authorities on birds.
The Town lost some of its land to the Clara Barton Parkway, causing the loss of C&O Canal access, but fought off other planned developments that would have changed or destroyed the character of the Town. It was ultimately successful in obtaining the right of way along MacArthur Boulevard where the trolley had run for many years. The town now has approximately 255 residents and 100 houses, some of which were built as early as 1853 and numerous original Sears and Roebucks bungalows.
Part of the area in Town became an amusement park after the Chautauqua ended: Glen Echo Park’s early days saw a merry-go-round, a bowling alley, a band pavilion, and picnic grounds, followed by a Ferris wheel and roller coaster shortly after. After changing ownership in 1911, a grand new attraction was added each subsequent year. These attractions include the Crystal Pool, the Spanish Ballroom, the Midway, the carousel, a dodgem, skeeball alleys and shooting galleries, a penny arcade, the Pretzel, the Whip, the Coaster Dips, and the Flying Scooter. People throughout the Washington D.C. area came to the park for relaxation and entertainment alike.
The Civil Rights Era directly affected the park. In the summer of 1960, students from Howard University staged a peaceful protest against Glen Echo Park’s policy of segregation. After getting arrested for riding the carousel, their case reached the Supreme Court. The students’ activism, combined with community support, officially desegregated the park, beginning in the 1961 season.
In 1966, on Easter Monday, the opening day of the park for the season, the park allowed more than 10,000 people, completely overwhelming the park’s capacity, thus creating a difficult situation for all. Many of the rides started shutting down, causing an angry reaction from the crowds. By the afternoon, the police shut down the park, leaving 6,000 people stranded who needed transportation back into the city. Only six city buses were available. The crowd started walking home to D.C., some vandalizing on their way, causing much damage. After that event, park attendance began to slip. The amusement park officially closed in 1968, and is now owned by the federal government (the National Park Service) and is overseen by a non-profit organization (Glen Echo Park Partnership for the Arts and Culture). The park has returned to a Chautauqua-like set up again, offering a wide variety of art classes and entertainment that are accessible to all.
Today in Glen Echo, we are working to preserve the spirit of community that has persisted through the decades while prioritizing inclusivity as well as our relationship to the natural world. We have recently planted a rainscape garden, we have planted trees and landscaped the green space that used to be the trolley track, and we were awarded certification as a sustainable community through Sustainable Maryland in 2021.
The Baltzley Brothers Establish Glen Echo – 1889
Glen Echo began in 1889 when two brothers, Edwin and Edward Baltzley, purchased land along the Potomac River from Cabin John Creek in Maryland to the Walhonding Road area and named it Glen-Echo-on-the-Potomac. They envisioned stone castles on their land and referred to the area as “The Washington Rhine.” To provide the stone for the castles that they hoped people would build, they opened five local quarries, one of which is still operating on Seven Locks Road. (Read More: Debbie Lange: History of Glen Echo)
“Glen Echo, The Remarkable Saga of a Very Small Town” is available from the town office or our online shop. Written by Carlotta Anderson, the 172-page book with 57 illustrations covers the history of the town from its days as a Native Indian encampment through the Centennial of its founding in 2004.
View the Town Map – The Town of Glen Echo is highlighted in yellow.