Tenleytown

Behind the Name: Tenleytown


01.08.2012_tenleytown.jpg
Tennallytown, 1861. Courtesy of the Tenleytown Historical Society

History has a funny way of taking names and changing them ever so slightly. What we now know as the Potomac River, for example, was once the Patowmack River (or a host of other variations; it wasn't until 1931 that Potomac became the official name of the river). The same can be said for Tenleytown, the Northwest neighborhood that sits atop the highest point in the District.
Back before the District ever came to be, John Tennally moved from Prince George's County to the intersection of what you would now recognize as River Road and Wisconsin Avenue NW. At the time, the area was known as "Friendship," a name chosen to celebrate the spirit of the way in which the land was bequeathed by Charles Calvert to Thomas Addison and James Stoddert. There, he established Tennally's Tavern, a bar whose name was eventually adopted by the Maryland neighborhood as a whole. Tennally Town was born, and quickly incorporated into the newly created District of Columbia in 1791.
According to Washington at Home: An Illustrated History of Neighborhoods in the Nation's Capital, it wasn't until 1846 that the name was formalized, though. Late that year, the first post office in the upper northwest segment of then Washington County was established as Tennallytown Station. Still, it took another 70 years before postal officials settled confusion over the spelling of the name and declared that the area would be known as "Tenleytown" from that point on. (Even the Tennally family had trouble deciding to spell their own name, it seems; historical records indicate that variations included Tennely, Fennely and Tennoly.)
Given its vantage point at 411 feet above sea level, Tenleytown was chosen as the site of one of the forts that ringed the District during the Civil War. Originally named Fort Pennsylvania but later renamed, Fort Reno was the largest and most heavily armed fort in the city. The presence of that many soldiers provided development opportunities including modestly priced lots for freed slaves; Reno eventually became an African American neighborhood. Today, the neighborhood may have fewer African American residents, but its elevation remains a draw -- almost all of the principal TV stations in the city have broadcasting towers there.
In 1984, local residents successfully lobbied Metro to changed the name of the planned new Red Line station from Tenley Circle to Tenleytown. Given the neighborhood's history, though, I'm still waiting for someone to resurrect Tennally's Tavern.
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