Starting in the 1830s, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad company built a station on the Mall to bring people and commercial goods to the city of Washington. At that time, railroad lines grew along the east coast and expanded westward. Building a rail station near the Capitol kept the new railroad business in front of politicians, while also opening the city to new business development even if some residents complained about its impact on the Mall’s parkland. In 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt ordered the Mall’s last rail station be destroyed.
What happened to the railroad stations on the Mall?
In the 1830s, the Baltimore and Ohio Railway built the first train tracks and rail station on the Mall. The B&O operated daily passenger trains on First Street, just below the US Capitol building until 1851. These early trains traveled from Baltimore to Washington in about 2 hours, a trip that takes about 40 minutes today. Watching the new steam rail cars arrive and depart drew Washingtonians from all parts of the city to the brick depot, listening for the arrival and depature bells. After outgrowing its space on the Mall in 1851, the station moved to New Jersey Avenue.
In 1841, William Henry Harrison was the first president-elect to travel to Washington by train for his inauguration ceremony. After arriving in Washington, Harrison took the presidential oath at the Capitol where he delivered the longest inaugural address on record.
In 1872, a second railroad company built tracks and a station on the Mall. The Baltimore and Potomac, part of the larger Pennsylvania Railroad, ran tracks that bisected the Mall along 6th Street and built a station where the West Building of the National Gallery of Art stands today. Its Victorian Picturesque architecture matched nearby Central Market and Smithsonian buildings. Inside, passengers found 3 public waiting rooms, a restaurant, and 2 private waiting areas. Nearby, a 130-foot train shed stretched halfway across the Mall. Some residents protested the tracks and trains destroyed the natural beauty of the Mall’s landscape. Others felt that the railroad symbolized and promoted national prosperity and modernity.
In 1881, the Baltimore and Potomac station was the site of a national tragedy. On July 2, President James Garfield arrived at the station ready to leave Washington for a summer vacation. Charles Guiteau followed Garfield into the station and shot him at close range. President Garfield died weeks later. The railroad company placed a memorial tablet on the station wall and a star on the floor making the spot where the president fell. After the assassination, some called on the railroad to close the station.
After Garfield's assassination, more citizens protested the railroad's presence on the Mall. Local homeowners and businesses claimed the railroad destroyed property values. As the railroad grew, so did its presence as freight cars extended into the Mall, passengers clogged streets, pollution increased, and accidents increased where tracks crossed public roads. When Congress created a comprehensive plan to redesign the National Mall in 1901, designers and architects forced the railroad off the Mall. After the last train departed from the Baltimore and Potomac depot in 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt ordered the building to be demolished.