A Brief History of Cabin John

Based on the book Cabin John: Legends and Life of an Uncommon Place by Judith Welles.

The Early Years

As a recognized place, Cabin John emerged only in the 19th century but of course there were inhabitants long before then. When the first European explorers appeared in the early 17th century, the native Americans living in the area were the Susquehannahs. Later the Piscataways, and still later, the Senecas occupied the land.

By the middle of the 17th century, Maryland was becoming a settled colony, and Lord Baltimore, proprietor of the colony, was making land grants along the Potomac River. Several of these grants embraced what is now Cabin John. During the 18th century, farming predominated, particularly of tobacco. In the 19th century, the building of the C & O Canal in the 1820’s and 1830’s brought settlers to the Cabin John area, and the population further increased with the construction of the Washington Aqueduct in the 1850’s and 1860’s. Land ownership remained concentrated, however, and at the end of the century, three families owned virtually all the property in today’s Cabin John.

(For a pictorial history of Cabin John, check out Richard Cook’s Website on the History of Glen Echo and Cabin John. )

Cabin John Takes Shape

In 1912 the American Land Company, represented by J.S. Tomlinson, bought up a large tract of land in Cabin John, divided it into residential lots, and began a vigorous sales campaign of what it called Cabin John Park. Although many of the new owners built houses for summer occupancy only, the town’s year-round population grew steadily and a sense of community began to appear.

A significant event was the founding, in 1919, of the Cabin John Park Citizens Association which immediately began to work for improved amenities for the community-better mail delivery, better street lighting, better telephone service. The 1920’s and 1930’s also saw many other community endeavors-the Cabin John Home Demonstration Club, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, and, most visibly, the Cabin John Volunteer Fire Department.

The Cabin John Volunteer Fire Department

In 1930 Charles Benson led the community in establishing its own fire department, with the firehouse on MacArthur Boulevard built entirely by the volunteer labor of Cabin John residents. For many years the hall above the fire trucks was the scene of community meetings and social events, and the sound of the siren, summoning volunteers to the station to respond to an alarm, was a familiar part of Cabin John life. Originally staffed wholly by volunteers, the department added some career firefighters in 1959. Eventually, in 1984, the firehouse on MacArthur was sold and the station was moved to its present location on River Road.

Today, the Cabin John Fire Department, in addition to fighting fires, is a primary provider of emergency medical services and also handles rescue work on the Potomac. It is a visible community force, delighting the kids at the Crab Feast and holiday party. And just before Christmas, Santa visits Cabin John on a big red fire truck.

Cabin John Gardens

Built by the Federal Government in the early days of World War II to house workers at the David Taylor Model Basin, Cabin John Gardens consists of 100 houses on the south side of MacArthur Boulevard, split by the entrance to the Clara Barton Parkway. At first, the Government owned the houses and rented them to Model Basin employees and later to veterans. In 1956, the Government sold all the property to the newly-formed Cabin John Gardens, Inc, a cooperative housing project. By 2001, about 90% of the houses had been remodeled and enlarged, but the spirit of friendliness and cooperation lives on.

Carver Road

At the same time, in the early 1940’s, in the days of segregation, the Federal Government built 20 houses off Seven Locks Road to house black workers at the Model Basin. Of the families who moved in then, most are still there-children and grandchildren-providing a close community with a long legacy of caring about each other. Over the years, many of Cabin John’s strongest leaders have been Carver Road residents. Beginning in 1998, homeowners began replacing their small houses with larger, more modern houses.

The Community Plan

In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s Cabin John was faced with the possibility that several unused tracts in the community might be purchased by real estate developers interested in erecting high density housing. Concerned about what this might do to the ecology and life style of the community, the Citizens Association circulated a questionnaire in 1971 asking residents to express their views on the kind of Cabin John they wanted to live in. Then, based on the survey results, a community plan was gradually put together, with the invaluable assistance of the Montgomery County Office of Community Development. It included a zoned commercial area, previously lacking in the community, which resulted in the development of today’s shopping center. The Community Plan was agreed to at town meetings in March and April 1973 and later was incorporated legally into the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Master Plan. An outstanding example of a community determining its own future, the Cabin John Community Plan has been a major factor in preserving the Cabin John “way of life.”

The Village News

The late 1960s also saw the birth of “The Village News,” a monthly community newspaper which, from its first modest mimeo sheet in 1967 to today’s eight-page professionally printed newsletter, has been a bonding force in the community, as well as the major source of information on activities of the Citizens Association and other community groups. It is mailed free to all Cabin John households. Except for the actual printing, all work on the paper — writing, editing, layout and design, business management, addressing and mailing — is done by volunteers. The printing and mailing costs are covered by ads and a donation from the Citizens Association.

The Crab Feast

Another community institution — the Crab Feast-was first held in July 1970, originally to raise money for the Cabin John Home Study Program, a volunteer organization created in 1964 to help black children in the recently integrated public schools. The backyard of Bill White’s house at 21 Carver Road was the site of the first Feast. Later, it spilled over into a large vacant lot. When houses were built on the lot, the Feast had to move and since 1990 it has taken place at the Clara Barton Community Center. Today, the Crab Feast is the largest community event, held traditionally on the afternoon of the first Saturday after Labor Day and drawing hundreds of all ages, with games for children, music, and sometimes special entertainment. Dozens of volunteers contribute their time to organizing and carrying out an event which brings Cabin John together in a festivity enjoyed by all.

The Cabin John Citizens Association

The Citizens Association plays a major role in furthering community values and preserving Cabin John’s identity. It serves as a forum for discussion of problems affecting our town, and represents our interests in dealing with county, state and federal government agencies, as well as with private developers and other businesses. It also carries out community improvement projects and provides community services. In recent years, the CJCA has been a major player in the transformation of the former Clara Barton schoolhouse into today’s community center; has worked with the National Park Service on restoring the C & O Canal after the disastrous floods of 1996 and with the Montgomery County government on an annual clean-up of Cabin John Creek; has cooperated with local authorities on the improvement of Seven Locks Road and the beautification and maintenance of MacArthur Boulevard; and has joined in an effort to reduce noise and pollution from aircraft using Reagan National Airport. It also monitors all zoning issues affecting Cabin John. Its community services and social activities have included, in addition to the annual Crab Feast, a family-oriented holiday party each December, generously supported by many Cabin John merchants; the periodic publication of a community directory; house tours and a summer canoe trip on the Potomac; and a community clean-up day and blood drive.

How Cabin John Got Its Name

There are several stories about the origin of the name “Cabin John.” According to one of them, it was named for a hermit named John who had a cabin near the present Union Arch Bridge. Some versions say that the hermit was the husband of the “female stranger” whose tombstone is in Alexandria, Virginia. Edith M. Armstrong writes in her Cabin John history: “Another story makes the mysterious John a pirate who eluded his own crew and made his way up the Potomac to bury his treasure. This interpretation was also held in good faith by the American Land Co., which put in many deeds the intriguing provision that ‘The Party of the first part reserves the right to one-half interest in any treasure or articles of special value which may have been hidden on said lot or parcel by John of the Cabin.’ “However, in many old records, as far back as 1715, the creek is referred to as Captain John’s Run or Branch. Thus it would seem that Cabin John is a corrupt spelling of Captain John.”

And who was “Captain John”? He could well have been Captain John Smith, founder of Jamestown and the first man to map the Potomac River near Cabin John. The following is a description of the Cabin John area as recorded by Captain Smith in 1608: “The river … maketh his passage downe a low pleasant valley overshadowed in manie places with high rocky mountain from whence distill innumerable sweet and pleasant springs … Having gone so high as we could with the bote, we met divers savages in canowes well loaden with flesh of beares, deere, and other beasts whereof we had part. Here we found mighty rocks growing in some places above the ground as high as the shrubby tree .”