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Bridges Carry Bits of History Along With the Traffic

By John F. Kelly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 21, 2005; Page GZ42

Most of the bridges that carry us over the moister parts of our region are named after people or things we recognize.

The Woodrow Wilson Bridge? That's easy. It's named after Woodrow Wilson, our 28th president. The American Legion Bridge? Even if old-timers will forever call it the Cabin John Bridge, we know that the American Legion is a veterans group.

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Duke Ellington, John Philip Sousa, Francis Scott Key. . . . We have at least a dim idea about all of them.

Other namesakes, though, are less identifiable. (And some roads seem to suffer from multiple personality disorder. See "Honored in All but Name," Page 12.)

Meet the people behind a few spans:

Whitney Young Memorial Bridge

In 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson bestowed the Medal of Freedom on civil rights activist Whitney M. Young Jr. Three years later, President Richard M. Nixon sent a U.S. Air Force plane to Nigeria to bring Young's body home.

Born in Kentucky, Young was an Army vet and social worker who went on to lead the National Urban League. A quiet pragmatist, he was instrumental in getting America's corporations to participate in the civil rights movement. That didn't always earn him friends. Philip Geyelin, a former editor of The Post's editorial page, wrote that many people believed "a black man had to be suspect who dealt with the Rockefellers and the Fords."

But Young thought it was critical to make those connections, and he took his message to boardrooms across America, as well as to the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon White Houses. It was said of Young that he could bring together all the people -- black and white, rich and poor -- because he could talk to all of them.

In March 1971, Young was part of an American delegation attending a conference in Lagos. He was swimming in the Atlantic Ocean when he apparently had a heart attack and drowned. He was 49. In 1973, the East Capitol Street Bridge was renamed in his honor.

Francis Case Memorial Bridge

It's always nice to see a newspaperman make something of himself. Before he became a politician, Francis Higbee Case worked at various papers published in his home state of South Dakota. He was editor and publisher of the Custer Chronicle when he was elected as a Republican to the House of Representatives. In 1950, he was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he got the nickname "Senator Comma" because of his obsession with detail.

Case chaired the Senate's District Committee. He was architect of the legislation that finally allowed D.C. residents the radical act of actually voting in a presidential election. He also was interested in building bridges -- or, more correctly, in not building one. Case opposed the District highway department's plan to cross the Potomac at 11th Street NW by bisecting Roosevelt Island. His compromise was to build a bridge farther south, grazing the bottom tip of the island.

Case died in 1962. Two years later, the South Dakota Senate delegation lobbied to have the bridge that carries Interstate 395 over the Washington Channel renamed in his honor. They couldn't name the bridge he'd worked on after him. It was already named after Teddy Roosevelt.

Betty Cooke Memorial Bridge

Scotts Run tumbles into the Potomac about a mile and a half west of the American Legion Memorial Bridge. The stream passes through a forest of hemlock, beech, maple and ferns. It was that patch of nature that Elizabeth Miles Cooke wanted to preserve for future generations.

The longtime McLean resident was an artist and historian and author of a book on Old Georgetown Pike. She and her husband, the curator of paintings at the National Gallery of Art, lived in a 200-year-old house near Swinks Mill Road and Georgetown Pike (Route 193). In 1970, she was among those who opposed plans to build 300 luxury homes on the 340-acre site known as the Burling Tract. The battle was tough, but Cooke prevailed and the land is today the Scotts Run Nature Preserve.

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