Figuring out the fences under the Woodrow Wilson Bridge
By John Kelly,
The new Jones Point Park under the Woodrow Wilson Bridge is great, but I am curious about something. Many of the gigantic concrete beams supporting the bridge have chain-link fences about halfway up and across the width of the beams. They are about 20 feet from the ground and are almost horizontal to the ground. What is their purpose?
— Kurt Wisecarver, Alexandria
The fences are there to catch any condor chicks that might fall from nests built under the bridge.
Answer Man is, of course, joking. The fences are actually to keep people from climbing up the bridge piers and getting into mischief. They’re only on the first few piers, “where the angle might invite a teenager to climb up,” said John Undeland, a spokesman with the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project. “In engineering terms it’s called an anti-climb barrier.”
In Answer Man terms it’s called a “Hey, watch this” barrier.
The fences are not on the higher, steeper piers, only on the shorter, shallower ones, where the angle might be inviting enough for a knucklehead to climb up it. You can be sure that the Department of Homeland Security also had a hand in mandating the fences.
Security considerations also prohibit parking directly under the bridge. The parking lot there is strictly for employees of VDOT, the National Park Service, local law enforcement and the like. But there is parking just adjacent to the revivified park, which is worth a visit.
The park has been open to the public since July. There are basketball courts and two playgrounds. There are playing fields (currently roped off as newly planted grass comes in). There is a comfort station. There are floating docks. There are numerous interpretive signs recounting the history of that particular patch of land, at the southeastern tip of Alexandria.
“I think that Jones Point kind of exemplifies a lot of the history of Alexandria that people have forgotten,” said Bryan Wheeler, a National Park Service interpretive ranger at the park.
For much of its history, Alexandria was a commercial place, a manufacturing center and transportation hub. Jones Point was critical in all of this. Seasonal fishing camps were set up to pull shad, eel, herring and striped bass from the water. Sailing ships came down the Potomac from other points along the Chesapeake, as well as from Europe and Asia. Because so much ship traffic plied the river, a lighthouse was placed on the point. Ropes for ships’ rigging was made on the point. During World War I, ships themselves were hurriedly built at a shipyard and launched into the Potomac.
And, of course, in 1791 the southernmost cornerstone of the District of Columbia was laid on Jones Point. You can still see the cornerstone today, by looking down through a nifty porthole. (Erosion has eaten away at the shoreline where the stone was laid. The battered marker is now inside a tunnel in the seawall.)
With the shipyards and other industries long gone, the area has reverted to the marsh and wetland it was in pre-Colonial days.
“It’s a small area that you can go to and not have to travel too far, but you can get out of the city and be in a largely natural-looking park,” Bryan said. “It’s a place you can just come down and sit on a park bench and look out across the river, enjoy yourself and relax.”
Of course, there’s no forgetting that you’re right under the Beltway. But, frankly, it’s better to be under the Beltway than on it, especially here. Even with the tacked-on anti-climb fences, the Woodrow Wilson Bridge looks majestic, a testament to human ingenuity. There is art in the swooping concrete span. There is music, too, as countless car tires beat a rhythmic tattoo above your head.
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To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.