The Long and Colorful History of the 14th Street Bridge(s)

It’s now a sprawling complex of five separate spans across the Potomac River: three for cars, one for trains, and another for Metro. They are among the plainest and most utilitarian of the city’s many bridges, associated in most people’s minds first and foremost with rush hour traffic tie-ups. Yet this is actually one of Washington’s oldest river crossings, with a long and remarkable history.

View from the Virginia side of the five bridges that currently make up the 14th Street Bridge complex, taken in November 2013 (Source: detail of photo by Antony-22 on Wikimedia Commons).

This was the city’s third crossing, after Chain Bridge above Georgetown and a bridge across the Eastern Branch (Anacostia) river. In 1808, President Thomas Jefferson signed into law the authorization for a new bridge to be constructed at the foot of Maryland Avenue and 14th Street SW to provide a direct crossing from Washington City to Virginia. There was much rivalry in those days between promoters of the fledgling Washington City and businessmen representing the more established upstream port of Georgetown. The Georgetowners objected to the location of the new bridge, arguing that it would cause silting, flooding, and other impediments to river traffic. Their objections (which would soon come true) were overruled by federal officials who were more concerned about developing the new capital than promoting business in Georgetown. The privately-owned Washington Bridge Company was soon organized to raise funds from investors and build a toll bridge over the river.

A map of Washington from 1835 shows the Long Bridge, in pink, crossing the Potomac to Virginia (Source: Library of Congress).
Opened in May 1809, the nearly mile-long bridge was the longest in the country. At the time, the river was much wider at this spot than it is today. The Tidal Basin, East Potomac Park, Hains Point—none of them yet existed. The wide expanse of the river included a vast area of shallow submerged flats that wouldn’t be dredged by the Army Corps of Engineers until much later in the 19th century. Across this expanse, a low and rickety wooden-pile bridge was constructed, aptly called the Long Bridge, with its narrow roadway only about 10 feet above the water. Standing at one end, it would have been impossible to make out what was happening at the other.


And so it stood in August 1814, when the British invaded Washington, the only time enemy troops have set foot in the nation’s capital. The British invaded from the east, first clashing at the town of Bladensburg, Maryland, with a small force of American militia, which they scattered. Some of the retreating Americans, having run all the way through Washington, fled across the Long Bridge to the safety of Virginia and then burned the Virginia end of bridge to keep the British from following. When the British troops saw smoke rising at the other end of the bridge, they promptly burned the Washington end to keep the Americans from crossing back into the city. It would be two years before the badly damaged bridge would be repaired and re-opened.

Of course, fire wasn’t the bridge's greatest enemy. Such a flimsy structure was never going to be able to withstand the power of the mighty Potomac when raging floodwaters came pouring through. The first destructive flood came in February 1831, when the bridge was severely damaged in 14 places.

The flood damage was just too much for the privately-held Washington Bridge Company. Its investors were sick and tired of footing the bill for the expense of maintaining the span, which had never made a profit. Friends in Congress saw to it that the federal government relieved them of their misery, buying out their interests. The next question was how the government should rebuild the bridge. Engineers recommending a larger, iron structure elevated higher above the river. True to form, Congress balked at the expense of building an iron bridge and instead only allocated enough money to rebuild the old wooden span. According to a later newspaper account, chief engineer George W. Hughes told observers that he considered this approach “very uncertain.”

Nevertheless, there were nothing but smiles and celebration in October 1835 as President Andrew Jackson and his cabinet proudly marched across the newly rebuilt bridge on foot. It was such a long trek that they returned to Washington in carriages rather than walk all the way back. After the next devastating flood occurred five years later, Georgetowners renewed their attack on the bridge, lobbying to tear it up and replace it with a new structure at Georgetown. Once again, powerful Washingtonians pressured Congress to authorize reconstruction, and the bridge remained in place. It would not be replaced until 1906. In the meantime, severe flood damage would occur again in 1856, 1860, 1863, 1866, 1867, 1870, 1881, and 1889, the last event resulting from the same storm that had caused the Johnstown flood in Pennsylvania.

A view of the Long Bridge around 1860. The bridge crosses in the middle distance; a schooner is docked in the foreground, where a man stands on a load of lumber (author's collection).

The Bridge in Wartime

The bridge was a key strategic asset for the Union during the Civil War, serving as the primary connection between Washington and the extensive battlefields of Virginia. Fort Runyon was constructed just south of the Virginia end of the bridge to guard its approaches after Union troops crossed the bridge during their first action to occupy Alexandria, Virginia, in April 1861. Just three months later, panic-stricken Union troops fleeing the Battle of Bull Run would straggle back across the Long Bridge (which must have seemed very long indeed) to reach safety in Washington. Throughout the war, the bridge was a gateway to the South, a place of trepidation for young troops from the North crossing over for the first time into enemy territory. After the war was over, veterans sometimes returned to the bridge to remember the momentous crossing into the theater of war.

Civil War view of the Washington end of the railroad bridge built alongside the Long Bridge (Source: Library of Congress).
The bridge was upgraded during the war with a stronger, wooden truss structure to accommodate heavy military traffic. In 1863, the Alexandria and Washington Railroad Company was authorized to build a railroad bridge alongside the original structure. The new bridge paired with the old one caused serious obstruction to water flow in the Potomac, compounding the problem of silting that had ruined the port of Georgetown for seagoing vessels.

The wooden truss added to the original bridge can be seen in this Civl War view. The railroad bridge is in the foreground (author's collection).
The railroads—the Google, Facebook, and Apple of their day—held unstoppable power in the post-Civil-War years, and they found ways to lay their tracks wherever they pleased. In 1870, the federal government turned the Long Bridge over to the Baltimore and Potomac Railway in exchange for nothing more than an agreement to maintain it. The company removed the separate 1863 railroad bridge and laid its tracks on the downstream side of the original bridge. Railroad traffic then shared the bridge with horses, mules, wagons, carriages, and pedestrians, all of whom had to make their way directly alongside the tracks on the upstream side of the bridge. To shore up the heavily burdened structure, the railroad company dropped large amounts of stone riprap around its sandstone piers and wooden pile foundations, further reducing the river’s flow.

Traveling through the wooden truss that was later added to the railroad bridge (author's collection).

Guards on the Washington end of the bridge, May 1865 (Source: Library of Congress).

“All Kinds of Vice and Debauchery”

Like other border crossings around the world, the Long Bridge saw its share of the seamier side of life. In 1890 a new law went into effect prohibiting gambling within the District of Columbia. Local bookies with shops in D.C. were not about to simply stop doing business, so several of the more prominent ones moved just over the bridge in Virginia, where the Arlington authorities did not harass them. There had been a failed real estate development there called Jackson City, which consisted of handful of small frame buildings. The railroad also had a simple wooden platform here, and soon all of the passenger trains out of the city stopped at it. Saloons, pool halls, and opium dens relocated to Jackson City, which blossomed into a full-fledged den of iniquity, spilling out on to the bridge. The Washington Post later described the scene in vivid detail:
The bridge was used as a place to carry on all sorts of gambling games with dice. Drunken men and women fought, danced, and held high carnival on the staid old structure, their shrieks, groans, laughter, and curses driving the birds scurrying from their nestings among the girders. It was a thoroughfare where all kinds of vice and debauchery were rampant.
The customers did not all arrive by train. Many came on foot over the bridge—alone, at night. Issues inevitably arose. In 1895, for example, the Post reported on the murder of Frank Smith, a former government messenger who had been found lying unconscious on the bridge and later died at Emergency Hospital. An autopsy revealed that he had been fatally thumped on the head, probably with a sandbag. “Another crime added to the list connected with the Long Bridge,” the Post intoned, pointing out the bridge’s dangers: “The Long Bridge affords peculiar advantages for highwaymen... It is illy lighted, and the heavy crossbeams and supports afford good hiding places for thugs. Gamblers pass at all hours of the night, and no policemen are about.”

The crime and debauchery lasted for about a decade. By 1900, the District, responding to numerous complaints, began stationing police officers on the bridge around the clock to discourage crime. The highwaymen were not the only ones affected. “The great number of small boys who were able to buy beer and whisky at the bar over in Jackson City have been forced to abandon their trips,” the Post reported. Within a year, the railroad bought up all of the Jackson City property as a staging ground for the new railroad bridge it was about to build, and Jackson City suddenly disappeared.

Steel to the Rescue

By the late 19th century, complaints about the rickety, outmoded bridge were legion. Traffic was heavy, both over the bridge and in the water beneath. The two draw spans might be opened as often as 20 times in a day, fraying tempers all around. In 1901, work began on a pair of new steel truss bridges to replace the old wooden structure. The Pennsylvania Railroad was responsible for building a new, dedicated railroad bridge, and the freshly chartered Potomac Bridge Commission would oversee construction of its twin highway bridge.

The railroad bridge was finished first, in 1904. At a cost of 750,000 dollars, the Pratt truss bridge stood on twelve piers made of sturdy granite from Port Deposit, Maryland. The piers were many fewer and much stronger than their predecessors from the old Long Bridge, obstructing water flow less and designed to resist ice and flood damage. Rather than the two draw spans on the old bridge, the new one featured a single pivot (or swing) span in the center—a section of the bridge that swiveled out of the way rather than lifting up in the air to allow vessels to pass. The operator of the swing span worked out of a small cabin mounted on top of the cage-like steel superstructure, some 36 feet over the railroad tracks.

Postcard view of the 1906 Highway Bridge from the Virginia side. Don't be misled by the caption; this is not the railroad bridge. The pedestrian railings on the bridge indicate it is the Highway Bridge (author's collection).
The deck of the bridge was suspended 21½ feet above the water, a vast improvement over the 10-foot clearance of the old bridge. Its twin, the new steel truss Highway Bridge, opened in 1906, as a replacement for the original Long Bridge, which was finally dismantled. The Highway Bridge featured a spacious 61-foot wide steel deck, including two eight-foot-wide sidewalks, steel banisters, and electric lighting. It was a modern marvel “built of materials impervious to the passing of time and deemed adequate to serve the purpose for which it was built at least a century,” according to an article in the Post at the time it opened.

Undated view of the Highway Bridge with a streetcar crossing (Source: Library of Congress).
The railroad bridge still stands, having survived well over a century. It was strengthened to accommodate heavier traffic during World War II with additional piers and with steel girder sections that replaced the original truss spans. It may finally be replaced or augmented sometime soon.

Buckling Buckle Plates

The 1906 Highway Bridge, on the other hand, did not fare as well. Completed at the very dawn of the automobile age, its Army Corps of Engineers designers had no idea what overwhelming numbers of automobiles, trucks, and buses were destined to traverse it. As early as 1928, the steel “buckle plates” that covered the deck of the bridge had to be removed because they had warped under the heavy loads, creating an uneven surface. The plates were replaced with a grid of steel I-beams topped with creosoted wooden beams, all covered with a layer of asphalt.

An automobile passes under the railroad bridge on Ohio Drive. The Highway Bridge is in the distance (Source: Library of Congress).
By the 1930s, traffic tie-ups were common, though they didn’t always occur in the same patterns that happen today. In early November 1931, for example, a massive jam occurred on a late Sunday afternoon, as hundreds of motorists who had been out in Virginia during the day or weekend all tried to cross the bridge back into town. It took the combined efforts of police from Arlington, the District, and the Park Service three hours to untangle the mess.

As early as 1938, proposals to replace the bridge were introduced in Congress, but little happened. In 1943, the National Capital Park and Planning Commission recommended that a six-lane “super bridge” be constructed to replace the old highway bridge as soon as the war was over. But by 1946, District Highway Department director Harry C. Whitehurst foresaw that six lanes would not be enough. He argued for two new bridges, each four lanes wide; President Harry Truman agreed.

The Twin Bridges

In 1947, work began on the first of the new “twin” highway bridges, and it was completed three years later, in May 1950. Miss Washington of 1949 cut the ribbon at the opening ceremony. Perched on stone piers, the modern highway bridge—christened the Rochambeau Memorial Bridge in honor of the Revolutionary war hero—was much plainer than any of its predecessors. It featured a “bascule” draw span—a span in the center of the bridge that lifts up and is balanced by giant weights. A squat, stone-faced operator’s tower (which still stands) was positioned next to the draw span. The new bridge’s four lanes were dedicated to inbound city traffic. Meanwhile, the old 1906 bridge was used exclusively for outbound traffic. By 1951, these two bridges were carrying over 100,000 cars a day.

It took much longer than planners anticipated for the Rochambeau Bridge’s twin to be constructed. Funding, naturally, was slow to materialize, with a reluctant Congress always on the lookout for ways to cut costs. When the Senate finally approved a funding measure in 1957, it refused to pay for the draw span that was included in the bill passed by the House, thus saving about one million dollars. Construction of the new, fixed bridge—upriver from the older ones, began in February 1960 and was completed two years later. More than 100 District and federal officials gathered at the foot of the new bridge on a rainy day in January 1962 as “a soggy red and white ribbon was snipped” to inaugurate the bridge, according to the Post. The structure was dubbed the George Mason Memorial Bridge in honor of the author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights.

Postcard view of the Twin Bridges Marriott Motor Hotel, completed in 1957, and located on the Virginia end of the bridges. This was the very first Marriott hotel (author's collection).
Much debate ensued about whether the old 1906 Highway Bridge was so bad off that it couldn’t be saved as a backup for use during rush-hour, but it was in bad shape and would have required extensive rehabilitation. Finally, in 1967 it was dismantled and removed. Parts were floated down to the Navy base at Dahlgren, Virginia, where they were used as targets to train bomber pilots on how to attack bridges in North Vietnam.

In 1972, a third, unnamed highway bridge was added to the group. It was constructed alongside the George Mason Bridge, offering two lanes of traffic in each direction for use as express lanes. By this time, the days of draw spans opening on the Potomac were over. When the Rochambeau (1950) bridge was repaired in 1975, its bascule draw span was permanently disabled, and the operator’s tower next to it was closed up and abandoned in place.

Tragedy on the 14th Street Bridge

Many Washingtonians remember the fateful winter day in January 1982 when Air Florida Flight 90, taking off from National Airport during a snowstorm, quickly lost altitude due to ice on its wings and crashed on to the north side of the Rochambeau bridge. The plane struck four northbound cars and landed in the river just beyond the bridge. The crash and icy water killed 74 of the 79 passengers onboard as well as four motorists on the bridge.

Rescuers were deeply moved by the heroic actions of one of the passengers in the water, Arland D. Williams, Jr., who repeatedly passed a lifeline from the rescue helicopter to save other passengers. He finally disappeared in the frigid water while waiting for the helicopter to return. The Rochambeau Bridge was later renamed in his honor, and the Rochambeau name was transferred to the previously unnamed span next to the George Mason Bridge.

At this point there were four bridges: the George Mason (1962) and Rochambeau (1972) bridges next to each other, the Arland D. Williams, Jr., (1950) bridge a little further downstream, and the old 1904 railroad bridge furthest to the south. In April 1983, a fifth bridge was added—the Charles Fenwick Bridge that carries the Metro yellow line over the river just north of the railroad bridge. Thus, we have five heavily-used bridges at work today where a rickety, mile-long trestle first crossed the river 200 years ago.

The Metro bridge is at the center of the three bridges in this view. On the left is the Arland D. Williams bridge with its disused operator's tower. (Source: HABS).
In time, the derelict operator’s tower on the Arland Williams bridge became an eyesore, its glass windows replaced with bare plywood. In 2005, the District Department of Transportation, working with the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, decided to hold a competition for an art installation to make the tower more attractive. Massachusetts artist Mikyoung Kim won the competition, and in 2009 the tower was refurbished and Kim’s kaleidoscopic artwork was installed inside. Six acrylic cones mounted inside the tower’s windows reflect light in different colors when viewed from different angles. The colorful, disco-like tower now adds a small note of interest to an otherwise harsh expanse of utilitarian bridges designed to serve their purpose efficiently and unobtrusively.

* * * * *

Sources for this article included: Gary A. Burch and Steven M. Pennington, eds., Civil Engineering Landmarks of the Nation’s Capital (1982); Adam Costanzo, George Washington's Washington (2018); Fred A. Emery, “Washington's Historic Bridges” in Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Vol. 39 (1938); Historic American Buildings Survey, Long Bridge, Spanning Potomac River near Jefferson Memorial, Washington, District of Columbia, (HABS DC-50); Robert C. Horne, “Bridges Across the Potomac” in Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Vol. 53/56 (1956); Vincent Lee-Thorp, Washington Engineered (2006); Robert J. Kapsch, Building Washington (2018); Donald Beekman Myer, Bridges and the City of Washington (1974); Pamela Scott, Capital Engineers (2005); and numerous newspaper articles.

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  1. Really enjoy the terrific history and images provided here. Great job! Thank you :)

  2. Colonel%20Royal%20Whitman–Whitman%20Saddle%20Company1.jpg​ Photos of Long Bridge flyer,selling the timbers of the Long Bridge, purchased by my Great-Great Grandfather, Colonel Royal Whitman. Civil War Veteran rode w/ General Sheridan, Indian War Hero of Camp Grant Massacre, & designer of the Whitman Saddle that is still used today.


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