Old Olney: The Ring Road

In his poem, “To A Mouse”, Scottish poet Robert Burns suggested, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men/Gang aft agley” (translated: The best laid plans of mice and men/go often askew), and such was the case with the most concerted of attempts made to save the old buildings at the Olney crossroads.

The issue of rapidly increasing suburban automobile traffic through the Olney intersection, versus the locally historic buildings of the old crossroad village, which so constricted the flow of that traffic, had been looming for years. Montgomery County’s “Master Plan” never seemed to be finalized, and Transferrable Development Rights (TDRs) allowed Olney-area farmer/landholders to buy the dense development rights of farms in more rural areas of the county. This exchange of development rights bound the more distant farms to not sub-develop, and allowed far more residential sub-development in the Olney area than the existing road system could ever hope to handle.

As the farm fields around Olney steadily converted from agriculture to dense suburban housing, one can imagine that Olney became, from a population and transportation perspective, a giant cul-de-sac of humanity. The Olney area, with a major road to a large, urban population center due south, is firmly constrained, to the north, by historically protected Brookeville, on the west by incorporated Laytonsville, and on the east by historic Sandy Spring. For years, there had been talk of creating a bypass road around the old village center, but there was really nowhere to bypass to. In the case of Olney, Maryland, an old village crossroads was at the epicenter of the larger area, to which all the traffic was headed.

In the earlier half of the 1970s, one suggestion for somehow bypassing Olney’s old crossroad village was discussed and projected widely enough to have developed a name, the “ring road”, and I was just alert enough, a teen in a Olney home, to be aware of the term. I was also aware enough to understand that it was neighbors from our own sub-development, on the next street over from ours, that were going to be the undoing of the plan.

The first residential sub-development in Olney was one of the many farms, throughout the area, owned by the Barnsley family. In the mid-1950s, that property, about a half-mile south of the intersection and on the west side of Georgia Avenue became Williamsburg Village. King William and Queen Mary Drives ended at Lafayette Drive, and those three roads defined the outer boundaries of the sub-division, with the fourth side of the rectangle being Georgia Avenue. Olney Elementary School was built in the same time period, and created something of a buffer between the density of the new residential area and the old crossroad area.

By the early 1960s, grading had begun for the second residential sub-development in the Olney area, Cherrywood, which would be located “behind” Williamsburg Village, by extending Queen Mary, King William and Lafayette Drives, to which were linked a whole new network of residential side streets. Cherrywood was complete and mostly occupied by the end of the decade, and, while not necessarily palpable to the children of Williamsburg Village and Cherrywood, the acrimony between the homeowners of the two neighborhoods set up a pattern that continued into the early 21st century; wherein the homeowners of each subsequent, new neighborhood would feel inconvenienced by, have their investments threatened by and were, thus, resistant to the next new neighborhood.

Evidence of a planned ring-shaped road network around Olney first appears, implemented, in the late-1960s, when a road through the new Olney Mill and Perspective Woods neighborhoods, crossing Route 108, is given the name Queen Elizabeth Drive, and built on such an alignment that it could be connected to a pre-existing Queen Elizabeth Drive in Cherrywood. However, as is so often the case in a land where time further complicates already complicated problems and solutions, by the process known as “political compromise”, one interest’s “approved”, but controversial, solution is simply defeated my another interest’s mis-implementation of the plan.

From the moment it was laid down, aligned, but not connected with, the old, two-block long, dead-end Hines Road, Queen Elizabeth Drive, in Cherrywood, could have connected directly to Georgia Avenue. Later, the newer section of Queen Elizabeth Drive, laid down in Perspective Woods and Olney Mill, could have connected Cherrywood’s Queen Elizabeth Drive to Route 108, establishing a potential by-pass in Olney’s southwest quadrant. In spite of all that forethought and planning, the Cherrywood section of Queen Elizabeth Drive had already been developed -housing, drainage and infrastructure- in a way, to a scale and at a density, which immediately defeated its capacity to serve as a conduit for any significant amount of traffic.

Even now, 35-40 years later, as an adult looking back on a situation I was too young to comprehend at the time, and wishing, remorsefully, there’d been a way to save old Olney… I can still see why, when being asked to accept what the “ring road” would bring down their quiet, suburban side street, the homeowners on Cherrywood’s Queen Elizabeth Drive resisted vigorously and would, eventually, succeed in blocking the connections to Hines Road and the other, newer Queen Elizabeth Drive.

The ring road concept, as an Olney bypass, was abandoned, with hardly a whimper, in 1977. The arc of the ring passing through Cherrywood would never be completed, and, even if it were, wouldn’t have solved as much as might have been hoped. Nonetheless, the rest of the ring road network was eventually completed, with the latter sections, the newer sections of Prince Phillip Drive that complete an arc around the east side of the Olney intersection, being laid down and developed around in a manner much more conducive to its role as a traffic conduit, relieving some of the traffic load on the center of Olney. Today, this road named Prince Phillip Drive meets Georgia Avenue south of Olney across from the new Hines Road, which could have, just as easily, been Cherrywood’s Queen Elizabeth extended. From that intersection at Georgia Avenue, Prince Phillip Drive proceeds east and north to where it connects with Route 108, east of Olney, near Montgomery General Hospital. From the Route 108 crossing, Prince Phillip then continues north and west, to where it reconnects with Georgia Avenue, north of Olney. Crossing Georgia Avenue at that point, the road becomes Olney Mill’s Queen Elizabeth Drive, which, running west then south, crosses Route 108, west of Olney, into Perspective Woods, where it ends, rather than connecting, through what is now the Headwaters community, to Cherrywood.

The final abandonment of the ring road concept sealed the fate of the old buildings in Olney’s crossroad village. In order to accomodate the rapidly increasing traffic volume through the Olney intersection, both Georgia Avenue and Route 108 would be widened, at the intersection, to two lanes each way, plus a dividing island and turn lanes. In order for that to happen, Mr. Murphy’s home and tinsmith shop, Dr. Alvin Berlin’s Olney Drugs, formerly a Barnsley home and then Hoyle’s General Store and Boarding House (1864), Dudley Finneyfrock’s blacksmith shop (1885)  and Francis Hawkins’ Olney Foods, formerly Grange Hall #7 (1873) would all have to be destroyed. Olney residents knew this would be a terrible loss, but the Olney Inn, which had become the standard-bearer for Olney’s older history, still stood and, in some way, the fact that Olney Inn would still be there, sitting on Olney’s highest point, made losing the buildings around the main intersection less painful.

The old businesses around the intersection began to remove themselves from their old buildings in 1977. Dudley Finneyfrock built a new building for his blacksmithing operation, set appropriately back from Georgia Avenue, and “Doc” Berlin moved his Olney Drugs business to a new shopping center in the southwest quadrant of the intersection, behind Murphy’s Tinsmith Shop. An event I recall well, the auction of the old Olney Drugs fixtures and furnishings, was scheduled for mid-April of 1978 and affirmed the painfully inevitable change that was coming. Then, just a few weeks before that auction, to the dismay of Olney’s residents, but not entirely to the surprise of some, a suspicious fire consumed Olney Inn.

Continue to… Old Olney: The Bulldozers

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2 Comments

Filed under General, History, Olney

2 responses to “Old Olney: The Ring Road

  1. Andy, this is so interesting. Thanks for writing about a time and place that was a huge part of my childhood and young adulthood.

  2. A very compelling read, Andy. I have to say that nearly every time I drive through the “center” of Olney, I am struck how without character it is compared to what I remember being there when I was a boy. The “ring road” I knew nothing about; thanks for the history lesson.

    John O.

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