Bethesda is located just northwest of the U.S. Capitol of Washington, D.C. It takes its name from a local church, the Bethesda Meeting House, which in turn took its name from Jerusalem’s Pool of Bethesda. The National Institutes of Health main campus and the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center are in Bethesda, as are a number of corporate and government headquarters. In 2014, it placed first on both Forbes’ list of America’s most educated small towns and Time’s list of top-earning towns. Bethesda is situated along a major thoroughfare that was originally the route of an ancient Native American trail. Henry Fleet, an English fur trader in the 1600’s, was the first European to travel to the area, which he reached by sailing up the Potomac River. Most early settlers in Maryland were tenant farmers who paid their rent in tobacco. The extractive nature of tobacco farming meant that colonists continued to push farther north in search of fertile land, and in 1694 Henry Darnall surveyed a 710-acre area that became the first land grant in present-day Bethesda.
Throughout most of the 19th century, Bethesda never developed beyond a small crossroads village, consisting of a post office, a blacksmith shop, a church and school, and a few houses and stores. It was not until the installation of a streetcar line in 1890 and the beginnings of suburbanization in the early 1900s that Bethesda began to grow in population. Subdivisions began to appear on old farmland, becoming the neighborhoods of Drummond, Woodmont, Edgemoor, and Battery Park. Further north, several wealthy men made Rockville Pike famous for its mansions. World War II and the expansion of government that it created, further fed the rapid expansion of Bethesda. Both the National Naval Medical Center (1940–42) and the NIH complex (1948) were built just to the north of the developing downtown. This, in turn, drew further government contractors, medical professionals, and other businesses to the area. This recent growth has been significantly vigorous following the expansion of Metrorail with a station in Bethesda in 1984.
Washington Metro’s Red Line services two primary locations in Bethesda: the downtown area at the Bethesda, and the area near the National Institutes of Health and the Walter Reed Medical Center at the Medical Center Washington Metro stations. The Maryland Transit Administration’s Purple Line, a light-rail rail currently under construction, will provide a direct connection from Bethesda to Silver Spring, the University of Maryland, College Park, and New Carrollton. The Purple Line will allow riders from Bethesda to move between the Red, Green, and Orange lines of the Washington Metro transportation system, as well as to MARC and Amtrak trains, without needing to ride into central Washington, D.C.
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