Montgomery College Turns 75: A Look Back At Its Early Years

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In downtown Takoma Park, between the rumbling train cars that hurry past, and the roar of vehicles speeding down Highway 410, sits the Takoma Park/Silver Spring campus of Montgomery College. It is one of the three main campuses that make up the local community college, which serves over an estimated 55,000 credit and non-credit students a year.


As professors walk through the trails of the campus to prepare for the start of the Autumn semester, it appears most people are unaware of the history, and the landmark that the school is about to hit, its 75th anniversary.
Montgomery College was officially established as Montgomery Junior College on August 20, 1946, and opened its doors to 175 new students on September 16th of the same year. When the college started it only offered classes beginning after 4 PM because it was run out of Bethesda-Chevy Chase (BCC) High School. Of the 175 students, the majority of them were World War II veterans who were unable to be admitted to one of the more traditional colleges in the area.


Despite the modern school’s official start date, the history of Montgomery College, and its Takoma Park campus goes back far beyond 1946. Roughly where the campus sits now, used to be an entirely different school, the Bliss Electrical School, which the current school absorbed in 1950, adding its classes to that of the ones offered by them.


The Bliss Electrical School was founded on October 15, 1893, by Dr. Louis D. Bliss, and started with only 26 students. The school quickly grew in size, and notoriety, going on to play a substantial role in history.
Bliss’ students included Charles Francis Jenkins, an engineer who contributed to the invention of the television, and W.B. Connelly, an inspector for General Electric who oversaw two miles of switchboard installations for the Panama Canal.


But the most important role the school played was in the World Wars. Bliss was granted permission by the U.S. War Department in 1917 to form a searchlight company of 57 engineers. These men were sent overseas to provide training at the Parisian Searchlight school. Searchlights in World War I were used to create an artificial light for overnight attacks. Dozens of lights would be pointed towards the sky, where they would reflect off the bottoms of clouds. This reflected light was commonly called “artificial moonlight,” allowing for much-needed visibility during the German nighttime raids when they’d drop bombs from Zeppelins.


All but one of the 57 students returned home safely, with the one casualty being a result of a car accident in Paris. After the war, the War Department presented a captured German Spotlight to the Bliss Electrical School as a tribute to their work. The spotlight, which was about ten feet tall, stood on the original campus for years, with no official record ever stating what happened to the light.


The government went on to contract the school to develop an intensive training course for the fundamentals of electricity which could be taught to drafted men entering the Army. The course developed and went on to be adopted by colleges throughout the country. Due to the success of the course, the War Department contracted the school to feed, house, and instruct groups of soldiers in the newly developed course. Bliss took on over 700 students and technically became part of the Student Army Training Corps for the duration of these classes, which lasted until December 1918.


The following year the school returned to civilian work and continued to grow. It was during this time a large dormitory was constructed on the Takoma Park campus to house the majority of students who were traveling long distances to attend the now prestigious school. It was during this era that the school began offering many extracurriculars including Choir, and Orchestra, in addition to many sports teams. In the 1920 school year, the Bliss Electrical School Basketball team competed against and beat Georgetown University.


But this interwar time of prosperity wouldn’t last. Bliss was once again chosen for service; it was one of six engineering schools picked by the U.S. Navy for their new Electronic Training Program. This program was considered unusually difficult and top-secret, but that didn’t stop Bliss from having over 3,000 soldiers successfully graduate.


Following the Second World War, thanks to the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, more commonly known as the G.I. Bill, the soldiers who returned home were able to afford to go to college. Unfortunately, many of them were unable to get into one of the pre-existing schools, because of this the President’s Commission on Higher Education established a network of public community colleges that would allow for a more diverse student body.


It was at this time that the Maryland State Department of Education, and the Montgomery County Board of Education began putting together Montgomery Junior College. BCC was chosen for the college’s evening classes. BCC’s own chemistry teacher Hugh G. Price, who was a former administrator of Morgan Park Military Academy, and of a junior college in Chicago, was selected to be the first Dean of the new school.
While the new school served its purpose for the first few years, having a college based out of a high school presented a certain set of challenges. Most notably, classes had to first and foremost be set around the high school’s pre-existing schedule. Because of this, the college began looking for a new location so they could offer classes other than at night.


It was August of 1950 when it was announced that school President, Dr. Bliss, would sell the entire Bliss Electrical School campus and all of its equipment to Montgomery County for $350,000. A conference was held about the purchase and included plenty of experts to advise on it, including the President of the University of New York, Alvin Eurich, and Dr. Henry W. Littlefield, the chairman of the committee on the curriculum of the American Association of Junior Colleges.


Montgomery Junior College took over the Takoma Park campus in 1950 and immediately began remodeling its new campus. It was decided that the Bliss Electrical School would continue, and be renamed the Bliss Electrical School of Montgomery Junior College, but it would still offer its one-year certificate award in Electrical Engineering.


Despite the Bliss name being dropped by Montgomery College, the Electrical Wiring Certificate is still a tentpole in the school’s Building Trades Technology Program. Dr. Louis Bliss’ program that started in 1893, still is going strong with the college 128-years-later.


As the school reaches its 75th anniversary, it’s important to remember that its roots are much deeper and older than 1946. While many students and even staff are unfamiliar with the detailed origins of the college, it’s apparent that those initial roots are still present.


The legacy of Dr. Bliss lives on with every student that is a part of Montgomery College. Without the Bliss Electrical School, and its involvement in the World Wars, who’s to say if Montgomery College would even exist at all today. And that is why Dr. Louis Bliss should be remembered as Montgomery College celebrates this momentous occasion.

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