The North Central Freeway, 1965-70:
Threat to the Park


Sally Gagne

An excerpt from Sally Gagné's North Hills of Sligo Creek: History, People and Surroundings; 2003. Distribution information from Sally Gagne.

Information for this section came from an interview with Eddy Hutmire, and from Oshel and Slatick's History of Woodside Park, Home Sites of Distinction.
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Post-war housing increased commuter traffic between suburbs and the District. Since 1944 one version or another of a connecting highway had been proposed. In 1968 the State Roads Commission announced a six-lane expressway to start in Washington, wind through a swath of houses in Takoma Park, then move along the width of Sligo Creek Park and connect with a road to I-70. Most versions of the so-called North Central Freeway would have removed houses from Woodside Park and widened the roads there. A sign once posted on the Beltway over the creek read "Future Exit 31."

Much of Sligo Park came so close to being converted to a highway that the project is recorded here as an object lesson: for those who value green space, vigilance is ever called for. Plans for the Freeway were not formally abandoned until 1970. In fact, the Beltway bridge over the Sligo hiker-biker path once spanned a great length to accommodate the potential highway, and the bridge is known as the "Northern" Bridge. When major repair work was carried out in 2001, the width underneath was decreased.

At least one person recalls an all-out public demonstration (probably held on Jan. 18, 1970), in which 1500 residents who lived along the Parkway marched with signs opposing the speedway that would replace the park.

While investigating this protest, the author came into contact with Eddie Hutmire from Takoma Park, a homeowner who vigorously opposed the Freeway. Eddie moved to Takoma Park in about 1952 when he married. His house had belonged to Sammy Abbott, who became the outspoken mayor. One Sunday in October fifteen years later, as Eddie browsed through the Sunday paper, he was taken back to read of plans for the Freeway. A map showed that it would displace at least 1300 families, including those of Sammy and Eddy, and would take many acres of land along the Creek.

The Freeway plan was presented to the public by John Funk, Chairman of the State Roads Commission. Hearings and environmental impact studies were not customary at the time, and were not scheduled. Hutmire talked with Abbott and others. On Friday the 13th of October, thirteen people, as Eddie recalls, met at the library of Montgomery College in Takoma Park, to see if all agreed in opposing the road. They did. Conveners searched for a clinching argument to combat the Freeway. One of those who attended was Cody Phanstiel, later a spokesperson for the Metro system. Cody pointed out the need for a rail system. The group jumped at such a novel idea. Cody was pleased. But he had to ask, "Where were you all last spring when I wanted support rail support?" Now he had strong backing from all.

Gradually the group of thirteen amassed support from many residents along Sligo. Takoma Park citizens were vociferous. The City Council told Annapolis it opposed the freeway "definitely and unequivocally," and the same message was voiced by the Save Takoma Park Committee and other groups. Sammy Abbott led a campaign placing strong pressure on the state. At a momentous hearing in the Silver Spring Armory, 150 citizens came to testify. Not all could speak in one evening, but they demanded their chance, so the meeting was extended to two or three days. In the end, the citizens won, but not as a result of demonstrations or letter writing. Success came because the road originated in the District, and that made District backing essential. When Maryland first proposed the Freeway, the D.C. Highway Commission had readily agreed.

But as Takoma Park citizens realized that neighborhoods in northeast D.C. would be altered as well as their own, they organized a protest in D.C. near Catholic University. Two houses there had already been condemned and barricaded for the road. One day D.C. Commissioner Julius Hobson, Sammy Abbott, and possibly Jesse Jackson, physically took down the boards from the houses and moved in; their act caught the attention of D.C. residents. In a short time the District of Columbia government turned against the highway. Without its backing, the Maryland plans collapsed and Funk capitulated. A vestige of the Freeway in D.C., a dead-end highway near New York Avenue where the road would have started, remained in place until at least a few years ago.

For Takoma Park residents who worked by day and attended meetings at night, the Freeway became a lengthy preoccupation. Near us in Woodside Park, the roadway understandably "elicited extreme opposition" and the Woodside Civic Association "sent many letters and telegrams to public officials." It seems likely that some North Hills residents participated in opposition also, but there are no civic association records that speak for the time.