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Full text of "The history and construction of Highway Bridge across the Potomac River at Washington, D.C. / Norman B. Belt"

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iM'OHilAjM B. rsELT. 


A toll bridge was "built across tho Potomac «iver 
in 1809 by tho Washington Bridge (jompany. During the war of 

1B13 tho two ends or the bridge were burned. In 18J51 it was 
destroyed by an loe jam and was purchased Dy the U. S.tiovt. 
The government rebuilt it in TSSB. Anumber of floods damaged 
it and caused it to be rebuilt a nunber of tines. A railroad 
took it over and leant it in a state of repairuntil in 1903 
when provision was made ror the construction or a new highway 
bridge. This bridge remains to the present day having had two 
spans removed to make way for the liount vernon nomorlal 


History of the national Capital j^ryan. 

uentennial History of Washington orsw. 

She Evening ritar ■ — j . u . Prootor. 

necords or the bridge jjeBartnent district or Columbia. 



This "bridge, although not the oldest across the Potomac 
at Washington, is one that possesses great historical interest. 
It has gone through three distinct stages in its lifetime, namely; 
the present "bridge owned by the District of Columbia, the old 
Long Bridge o^ned by the United States Government, and the old 
Washington Bridge under private ownership. Each stage will "be 
taken up se^erately in chronological sequence. 


In the winter of 1807 - 1808 an act was passed by the 
United States Congress authorizing the construction of a bridge 
across the Potomac Hirer within the District of Columbia. Subse- 
quently subscription books were opened at Stelles Hotel on ^pril 1, 
18C8. According to the Congressional act subscriptions were author- 
ized up to two thousand shares, ten dollars of each share to be paid 
at the time of subscribing and the residue to be paid in install- 
ments of ten dollars whenever called for by the commissioners. The 
commissioners aooointed under this act -'ere; Robert B re nt, Daniel- 
Carroll of Duddington, Thomas Munroe, James D. Barry, Frederick fcay, 
Samuel H. Smith, Jonah Thompson, Johnathan Swift, Thomas Vowell, 
Cuthbert Powell, Elisha Janny, and Charles Alexander. These men 
were famous in conducting the affairs of Washington during the ear- 
ly part of the nineteenth century. They were authorized to open sub- 
scription books for raising a capital stock not exceeding two hundred 


thousand dollars in shares of one hundred dollars each for the 
purpose of erecting a "bridge across the Potomac River "between 
Washington, D. C. and Alexanders Island on the Virginia shore. 
"H-ienever nineteen hundred shares of stock should "be subscribed 
for in accordance with the provisions of the act of Congress 
they w ere to be considered a corporation under the name and style 
of the Washington Bridge Company, and so far as poppihle the com- 
mlspi oners ^ r ere required to call a meeting of the stockholders for 
the purpose of electing five directors, a clerk, and a treasurer, 
and such officers as might he deemed necessary in the operation of 
the corporation. Subsequently a meeting was held on Monday, Kay 9 , 
1808 in Stelles Hotel for the election of the required officers: 
the directors being, Daniel Carroll, George Blagden, Frederick May, 
,TT illiam Harper, and Robert Young. Daniel Carroll was elected ^re- 
sident; Thomas Vo^'ell, treasurer, and Samuel Elliott jr., clerk. 

^n Kay 4, 1808, the company advertised for bids on timb- 
ers of various kinds, iron w ork, carpenters, and laborers, with 
which to "build the "bridge. The bridge was so far completed a.s to 
he opened for traffic on Kay 20, 1809, hut as it was not quite fin- 
ished the passage was free for a few days. The formal opening and 
dedication T *'as held on May 31, 1809. It was completed at a cost of 
one hundred thousand dollars. 

I was not able to find any pictures or prints, nor a de- 
scription of the type of construction other than that which follows: 
The "bridge had a broad carriage way in the center, and a footv 
on each side set off "by a double rail for the protection of pedes- 
trians. It -""-as a wooden structure and nearly a mile in length. 

According to the length the northeast end must have extended "ray 
up into Potomac Park or near to the present site of the Bureau of 
Engraving and Printing. It must have been "built in sections con- 
sisting of some kind of timber truss. 

The toll charged for the use of this bridge ^as twenty- 
five cents for a man and horse, and one dollar for a four wheel 
horse-carriage and a team of horses. This never provided a reason- 
able profit to the company; nevertheless the toll was enormous for 
these times. The bridge superceeded the use of the adjacent ferry 
for twenty years and furnished continuous communication between the 
two sides of the Potomac. 

During the war of 181? " r hen the British captured the capi • 
tal the Washington end was burned as a means of protection from a 
surprise attack from General Winder's nondescript troops that had 
fled into Virginia. The American troops in turn burned the south 
end to keep themselves out of harm's reach. After the close of the 
war the Washington Eridge Comnany was paid in part for this dis- 
truction since it was proved that the American forces had been re- 
sponsible for some of it. 

V-o serious damage caused by floods or ice jams occur ed to 
the bridge until February 2? t 1831. At this time when the ice was 
breaking up and the river was swollen the bridge was damaged to the 
extent of having fourteen gaps made in it. Then for sometime after- 
wards its use ,,r as suspended. 


The Washington Bridge Company a-o^ealed to Congress for 
assistance to rebuild, but during the ensuing discussion of the 

Viw showing the old ahutnant with Highway ririd^e 
In the extreme hack ground. 

u'wo views showing the old abutment of Long Bridge on 

the Virginia shore. 


question a "bill was introduced for the purpose of purchasing the 

rights of the Bridge Company. This was finally acooraoolisbed on 
July 14, 1832 for + he pum of twenty thousand dollars. This bill 
also carried an appropriation of sixty thousand dollars for re- 
construction of the bridge. Another provision was, that the plan of 
the bridge was to he approved by the President, The plan, approved 
ry President Jackson, was a most elal orate one reported by George- 
C. Orati nt and Colonel Janes Kierney. These engineers reported the 
plan of an iron bridge which would cost about one million three hun- 
dred thousand dollars, and they also reported on a ^ooden bridge 
which would cost about seven hundred thousand dollars. President 
Jackson in a message to Congress stated that he had adopted a wood- 
en bridge in preference to an iron one. Subsequently Congress appro- 
priated two hundred thousand dollars toward the construction of any 
bridge the President mirht approve. On A 11, 1831 : osals 
were published by order of President Jackson, through the Secretary 
of the Treasury, for the construction of a bridge with stone abut- 
ments, rierp and arches. The report - ,f as made on first that a' 
contract had been made for the construction and that it would cost 
nearly two million five hundred thousand dollars. Because of a mis- 
understanding between the contractor and the Secretary of the Treas- 
ury no contract -was actually completed, and the construction of the 
bri'V-r ,„ as delayed. Soon afterwards 0. K. Dibble, who had as a 
contractor done considerable work on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, 
offered to do the proposed bridge, substituting solid masonry for the 
stone pier in the original design for the 'sum of one million three- 
hundred fifty thousand dollars. Mr. Dibble's proposition was 
accepted on Decemher 6, 1832 without being submitted to 

Congress. 'This Independence on the part of the President and the 
Secretary of the Treasury caused resentment in Congress and led to 
Charles Fenton Mercer, Congressman from Virginia, offering a reso- 
lution in the House of Representatives couched in the following 
" T ordF;: "That the President of the United States "be requested to lay 
"before the House of Representatives a copy of any contract which 
may have "been made for the construction of a "bridge across the 
Potomac at Washington, together with the authority under which the 
contract may have "been made; the names of the contractors and their 
securities, if any, and the rlan and estimate of the cost of such 
a "bridge." 

An answer was received to this resolution on January 7, 
1804, and as usual refered to a committee which was the committee 
on roads and canals. This "body decided that it wag incompetent to 
proceed with the construction of the masonry arch bridge across the 
Potomac n ' r hich would cost, according to the "best engineers, anywhere 
from two and one-half to five million dollars. Hr. ilercer, the 
chairman of this committee, reported a hill on Fehruary 10, 1~ 
to repeal all acts which had "been passed on the subject of the 
Washington Bridge, excent so much of the first act - that of July 
1832 - as authorized the contract wj th the Washington Bridge Com- 
pany, and the reconstruction of the same at a cost not exceeding one 
hundred thirty thousand dollars on the site and plan of the old 
"bridge, provided that unon the shoals between the main channels, 
the Washington and Georgetown channels, a solid enhancement might he 
made, not exceeding- 1660 feet in length, which was one-third of the 
space "between the ahutments of the old "bridge. 

According to a survey made in the winter of 1832 and ' 


the width of the river at the point where the bridge was construc- 
ted was 4,984 feet as follows; middle channel 575 feet, flats P43- 
feet, Washington Channel 437 feet, flats 1,716 feet, Virginia Channel 
371 feet. Of this there was not more than 450 feet of firm bottom, 
and in some places this bottom was not reached until twenty-six 
feet. It was thought that forty-two feet in height would be suf- 
ficient to permit the passage of steamboats, as the chimneys could 
be lowered. According to Colonel Kearry the bridge if built to con- 
form with the act of Congress would be somewhat as follows: 

Proceeding from the Washington abutment for three arches 
and three piers - P!" fret; for the Washington draw and piers - 
feet; for thirty-three arches and piers to the opening of the 
Georgetown pier - 3,734 feet; for the Georgetown draw and piers - 
88 feet; for four arches and six piers - 45? feet; for three arches 
and two piers descending - ?70 feet; the total - 4,9?4 feet. The 
arches mentioned above must have bf en timber half through because 
that was what was shown in an old photograph taken during the Civil 
War and found in the records of The Evening Star newsoaper. 

The plan decided upon by President Jackson gives an idea 
of what he -would have done had he not been stopped by the econom- 
ical spirit of Congress. He had decided upon it before April 11, 
1832 as he was required to do by Congress. His plan was as follows: 
The bridge was to have had forty-one arches and two draws, forty- 
two piers and two abutments with their half niers. The arches were 
to have, had ninety-si x feet span and twenty-five feet rise above 
the springing line, and were to be multicentered arch curves, all 
semi-eliptical. The piers and abutments were to have risen seven 
feet above the low water. The draws were to have been sixty-six 


feet wide "between parapets and tine piers, arches, and abutments 
were to have "been of granite. This "bridge "'ould have cost "between 
two and three million dollars. 

The bridge <phich was "built was opened to traffic on 
October 1, 1835 ^ben President Jackson and his Cabinet walked across, 
returning by carriage. These were the ceremonies which were con- 
sidered fitting for the occasion. The engineer of construction 
was George " r . Hughes, and according to his report the bridge cost 
one hundred thirteen thousand, one hundred twenty-six dollars; near- 
ly seventeen thousand dollars less than the sum appropriated for 
the construction by Congress. The engineer also said that he con- 
sidered the bridge very uncertain as to the length of its exis- 
tence. Under favorable circumstances it might last thirty years and 
then it might be destroyed within a year. However, no one was to 
blame for the building of such a bridge except Congress who should 
not have permitted the erection of anything but a substantial bridge. 

The predictions of the engineer as to the existence of 
the bridge began to' be realized in May 1836 when a freshet did con- 
siderable damage to it. On June ? Congress passed a resolution 
authorizing the Secretary of the Treasury to have all necessary re- 
pair- 7 made to the bridge, using the money left from the original 
appropriation made for the purpose of constructing it. 

On March 3, 1839 the jurisdiction of the Corporation of- 
Washington was extended over this bridge. On February 10, 1840 
the bridge was nearly destroyed by an ice jam. great damage having 
been done to the draw spans. During the flood Chain Bridge was 
carried away. This disaster caused inquiry into the propriety of 
the location of Long Bridge; and some persons were of the opinion 


'that a "better one could be found where the Alexandria Canal Com- 
pany' 53 aquaduct crossed the rivi?r. These people reasoned that the 
Alexandria and Falmouth Railroad would soon "be seeking a passage 
across the Potomac, and it was thought that the railroad should 
cross the river in connection with the aquaduct. Others thought that 
there was no unsurmoun table obstacle to making Long Bridge a per- 
manent structure, nothing "being required exneut the construction 
of stone oiers with ice blockers above, strong enough to resist and 
check the mass of floating ice. The difficulty in getting a sub- 
stantial bridge built was the fact that committees of Congress were 
not. in the habit of consulting with men rho understood the work 
at hand. 

Another freshet did considerable damage to the bridge in 
1856, and at this tine an attempt was made by certain persons to 
secure the discontinuance of Long Bridge. Ofcourse this movement 
was opposed by others. A meeting of the citizens of Alexandria wan 
held on February PO, 1857 for the purpose of expressing hostility 
to the proposed removal of the bridge. They considered that the 
aqueduct as a point of transit from one side of the river to the 
other was exceedingly inconvenient to their northern connection, and 
urged their representatives in Congress to use their best efforts 
to avert this calamity. There was also a movement in Alexandria to 
prevent the piers of the aquaduct from being used for the support of 
a railroad bridge. A committee of citizens waited on the committee 
of the House of Representatives on February P5, 1857, addressing 
them on the immeadiate reconstruction of the bridge and also making 
the offer of the Washington and Alexandria Railroad Comoany to re- 
pair the bridge and maintain it if Congress would "nermi t the con- 


struction of a railroad track over It. 

These movements pursued "by the neople prevented the entire 
destruction of the bridge by Congressional Authority, and in due 
time measures -ere taken to again repair it. By November 1, 1858 
the bridge w as once more in use. 

It nas again damaged hy freshets in 1860, 1862, and 1866. 
In February 186? the bridge was carried aws i by floating ice, ren- 
dering communication v et"reen the two cities impossible except by 
way of Chain Bridge which involved ' ' s journey. 

During the Civil War the Department of War Placed tracks 
over it, and used it as a military bridge. According to another re- 
cord Congress authorized the Washington and Alexandria Railroad Com- 
pany on March 2, 1863 to extend its tracks down Maryland Avenue and 
across Long Bridge provided it did not interfer with regular travel 
over the structure. The following year the Railroad Company com- 
pleted a bridge close to and paralleling the original structure. 
In doins this they subdivided the old span by piles driven at a dis- 
tance of from eleven to eighteen feet, thus altering it from a truss 
bridge to one supported by piles. 

In 1870 a freshet washed away a part of the south causeway 
and draw. The bridge was again repaired and in 1877 ice pushed 
several of the spans out of positi on on their support. It was neces- 
sary to jack them back in olace inorder to once more place the 
bridge in service. 

In February 1881 ice packing up against the bridge formed 
a dam which caused the lower x>art of the city from the Washington 
Monument to the Capitol to be flooded with several feet of water. 
Part of the bridge gave way under the pressure and uermitted the 

-1 .•-. 

water to subside. However, this "'as again repeated in 1887 when 
Pennsylvania Avenue was flooded and considerable damage was done. 


Thi^ proceedure of destruction and repair continued until 
provision was made for the construction of a multiple s?an steel 
truss bridge. Prior to this the flats had been reclaimed and made 
into Potomac Park. This reduced the length of the bridge. In Octo- 
ber 190Z «'or3c was started on t?-e steel bridge and completed in 
June 1907 at a cost of one million two hundred twenty- one thousand 
dollars. The piers were of stone masonry on pile foundations. The 
length between abutments was 2,667 feet. The bridge consisted of 
eleven fixed spans each 216 feet long, one swing span 290 feet 
with two channel spans each IIP feet clear width. It had a forty 
foot roadway with an eight foot walkway on each side. In the cen- 
ter of the roadway was a double track trolly line. The clearance 
of the draw span was twenty- two feet above mean low tide. This 
bridge was constructed under the supervision of the United States 
Army Engineer Corps. The north ap" roach fr^m ^ater Street was 
3,025 feet in length and the south approach 2,255 feet long, ma- 
king a total length of 7,f47 feet. This bridge was built by the 
Pennsylvania Bridge Company. 

Highway Bridge was transfered to the Commissioners of the 
District of Columbia on Kay 1, 1921, The District provided for the 
construction of a new floor system, and this was done by the i A arris- 
Engineer Company at a cost of one hundred sixty-eipht thousand, 


six hundred eighty dollars in lC n 8 - '29. 

When the ^eorr.e Washington Memorial Parkway was "built 
recently it was necessary to renore Wo sr>ans fron the southwest 
end, shortening the length to 2,234 feet 7 inche?. 

During the spring and summer of ITZf 1 the street car line 
was removed and the TapMngton approach straightened. 

rro views of Hlflpnray rSrid.r^e taken from the Virginia side