On December 10th, the Georgetown Metropolitan posted their quest to figure out what the oldest continuously named street in the District of Columbia was. Based on the assumption that this street would be in Georgetown — founded in 1751 — they came up with the answer as Water Street (tossing aside Dunbarton Street and Prospect Street because each of them were once referred to as avenues). However, I think this view is too narrow.
To begin with, I think minor variations in names need to be forgiven. In searching through old newspapers and maps, inconsistency in spelling or wording often exists. Secondly, focusing only on established settlements and towns discounts rural roads, several of which existed in the territory that later became the District of Columbia. So, if one accepts this broader view of street names in D.C., I propose that Rock Creek Church Road has a good claim to being the oldest continuously used street name in D.C.
For context, take a look at the 1799 “Partial cadastral map of southern part of Georgetown, Washington D.C.” housed in the Library of Congress. This map does not contain either Dunbarton or Prospect streets. It does contain a Water Street, but it is located in the wrong place. The 1799 Water Street is the section of Wisconsin Avenue south of M Street.
Now, let’s look at a map from 1793, also from the Library of Congress collection. The Territory of Columbia map attributed to Andrew Ellicott predates the Georgetown map by six years. It does an excellent job of showing the major rural roads in what became the District of Columbia. Most of these roads are designated by where they go rather than by a true name. The map contains three roads labeled “Road to Bladensburg” for example. Other roads lead to Great Falls, Frederick Town, and Upper Marlboro. However, one road stands out. It has an established name, and that name has been more or less consistent since before the map was drawn. That road is Rock Creek Road, known today as Rock Creek Church Road. These rural roads also appear prominently in a later 1819 map.
Both the name and the contours of today’s Rock Creek Church Road closely conform to the appropriate section of the 1793 map. The detail from the map below generally shows the section of Rock Creek [Church] Road from the 18th century that still exists today.
It makes sense that Rock Creek [Church] Road would be both ancient and established. According to the history shared by St. Paul’s Rock Creek, the church was established in 1712. Colonel John Bradford pledged 100 acres of land to serve as a Glebe for the parish in 1719. This land today contains Rock Creek Cemetery and St. Paul’s church (i.e. the Rock Creek church). For this land to be useful to the church community, it had to be located along a road that would allow worshipers access. So, Rock Creek Road must have predated the founding of the church. It is also likely that the church was informally referred to as the Rock Creek church, taking its name from the road rather than the other way around. That the parish was not officially called Rock Creek Parish until 1856 seems to support this.
With regards to when the word “church” was officially added to the name of Rock Creek Road is difficult to say for certain. I’ve been able to find references to “Rock Creek Church Road” as early as August 13, 1855, in newspapers and this predated the renaming of the parish. There are also many examples of “Rock Creek Road” in newspapers as late as the mid-1950s. To add to this confusion, in searching the Library of Congress Name Authority File, there is also a listed reference to the road as Rock Creek Cemetery Road which dates to December 18, 1837.
All of this suggests that early road names had a certain fluidity to them. Rock Creek Church Road and Rock Creek Road were interchangeable for a very long time, but I’ll grant that early maps have a preference for the shorter version. Still, I suspect that if one asked for directions to Rock Creek Church Road in 1793 (or before), that the question would have been easily understood and an accurate answer would have been given. Keeping that in mind, I think it’s safe to consider that Rock Creek Church Road may very well be the oldest stable street name in the District of Columbia.