|The Potomac Aqueduct, c. 1865. Source: Library of Congress|
The solution was to build an aqueduct bridge over the Potomac and connect it to a canal on the Virginia side to carry boat traffic down to Alexandria. Congress granted a charter to the Alexandria Canal Company in 1830 and pitched in $100,000 to support the project, which was to be privately owned. Work began in 1833 on both the bridge and the Alexandria canal and lasted a full decade. (All that's left of the canal is a recreated lock at the privately-owned Tidal Lock Park on the Alexandria Waterfront.)
When Congress stepped in, it put the U.S. Topographical Engineers, predecessors of the Army Crops of Engineers, in charge of the bridge work. Captain William Turnbull (1800-1857) headed this daunting task. Building the bridge's piers was the biggest challenge. The plan was to construct cofferdams at appropriate spots in the river, pump the water out and then build the piers inside them. However, they had to be built at an incredible depth—through 18 feet of water and 17 feet of silt—to reach a solid bedrock foundation. River cofferdams had never been built so deep before. The first ones erected leaked mercilessly and had to be completely replaced. The second set were little better, filling with water after an hour or so and with mud oozing in from below.
As recounted by Pamela Scott, Turnbull was clearly concerned that the deep and unproven cofferdams—even when finally watertight—might not hold up while the bridge piers were being constructed inside them. In his journal, he observed that the spectacle of "men busily at work so far below the surface of the river, seemed to interest the public exceedingly; but to the engineer, whatever might be his confidence in the ability of the dam to resist the immense weight which he knew to be constantly pressing upon it in the most insidious form, the sight was one which filled him with anxiety, and urged him to the most unceasing watchfulness."
|Aqueduct Bridge during the Civil War (Source: Library of Congress).|
|The bridge as seen from the Virginia side, c. 1865 (Source: Library of Congress).|
The new owners saw lots of potential profit in this unique river crossing. They removed the old wooden base section of the bridge and replaced it with a new one for use once again as an aqueduct. Above that they built a sturdy wooden superstructure, supported by graceful arching trusses, to carry a new toll road across the river.
|The second Aqueduct Bridge (Source: D.C. Public Library via Flickr|
|Stereoviews of the second Aqueduct Bridge. The slow exposure dramatizes the leaky aqueduct (Author's collection).|
The opening of the new bridge on April 11, 1888, was cause for a massive celebration in Georgetown. Flags, streamers, and bunting of all sorts adorned Bridge Street, and more flags fluttered from the new bridge itself. According to The Washington Post, "the most extensive celebration ever held" in Georgetown "or West Washington, as it is now called" was held, complete with marching bands and long-winded speeches. Everyone was delighted to have a free bridge at last.
|Postcard view circa 1910 (Author's collection).|
The bridge was actually closer to 60 feet high than 100, and a number of people jumped off without suffering any harm. In June 1894, William Aldurfer, a soldier at Fort Myer, jumped into the water on a $50 bet. He swam ashore without suffering any harm. He was greeted by so much adulation from awestruck bystanders that he went right back out on the bridge and did it again, just for kicks. Later that same year, 19-year-old Flora Smith, crestfallen that her true love had found another woman, leapt from the bridge but was saved by the crew of a passing tugboat. Miss Smith was a maid in the household of Army Captain M. C. Foote, and her erstwhile lover, like Mr. Aldurfer, was a soldier at Fort Myer. Captain Foote, upon learning the reason for Flora's distress, promptly had the young soldier court-martialed.
Two years later Marcia Hopkins, a clerk in the Sixth Auditor's office of the Treasury Department, decided to end her woeful life by jumping from Aqueduct Bridge. She survived without a scratch and with a fresh attitude about life to boot. As recounted in the Post, she stated: "I must confess now that most of my trouble was fancied. I thought the devil was after me, and would only be satisfied when I was dead, but I am rid of him forever. God came to my rescue, and life is as sweet to me now as when I was a little girl, romping about without a care of any kind."
Jerry McCoy tells the story of the unfortunate DC cop, John Jacob Smith, who was assigned to the Aqueduct Bridge on the 4th of July in 1904. A group of carousing soldiers from Fort Myer (apparently an endless source of Aqueduct Bridge antics) were headed into Georgetown to celebrate that evening and stopped near the Georgetown end of the bridge, blocking others from passing. Officer Smith tried to get them to move on, but one of the soldiers, 23-year-old Samuel R. Young, took out his pistol and shot the officer several times in the abdomen. Young thought he was just being mischievous because his gun was loaded only with blanks. The blanks were nonetheless powerful enough to fatally wound Officer Smith, who died after surgery several days later. Smith was only the 7th DC police officer killed in the line of duty.
Needless to say, the bridge that was hosting all of this drama posed a number of safety issues. Since the 1890s, officials had worried that the bridge was too narrow and rickety for the traffic it carried. After the flood of 1889, some of the piers seemed to be deteriorating, and in 1903 an expensive two-year effort began to replace one of them. Other piers were repaired in subsequent years. According to the Baltimore Sun, the District's commissioners argued as early as 1902 that a more attractive stone arch bridge should be built in its place. Congress finally acted in 1916, authorizing the construction of a replacement bridge, and the Army Corps of Engineers began work on the Key Bridge in 1917.
|Ice on the Potomac above Aqueduct Bridge, February 1918 (Source: Library of Congress).|
|Postcard view of the new Key Bridge before the Aqueduct Bridge was removed (Author's collection).|
|The Aqueduct Bridge's Georgetown abutment (Photo by the author).|
* * * * *
Sources for this article included: Gary A. Burch and Steven M. Pennington, eds., Civil Engineering Landmarks of the Nation's Capital (1982); Benjamin Franklin Cooling III and Walton H. Owen II, Mr. Lincoln's Forts (2010); D.C. Department of Highways, Washington's Bridges Historic and Modern (1956); Historic American Buildings Survey, Potomac Aqueduct (HABS DC-166); James M. Goode, Capital Losses (2003); Robert C. Horne, "Bridges Across the Potomac" in Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Vol. 53/56 (1956); Vincent Lee-Thorp, Washington Engineered (2006); Donald Beekman Myer, Bridges and the City of Washington (1974); Pamela Scott, Capital Engineers (2005); and numerous newspaper articles.