Answer Man: Opening Up About Bridges

By John Kelly
Monday, February 13, 2006

I worked in downtown D.C. for seven years, crossing daily on the 14th Street Bridge. I noticed what seems to be an operator's tower, long boarded up, in the middle of the span and also that the adjacent railroad bridge has a swivel mechanism built into it. Farther upriver, the Memorial Bridge has what might be a removable section, although the deck on top is solid. Can you tell me what the purpose of all this is? Is it that an emergency could necessitate the navigation of the upper Potomac by larger ships?

C.J. Fuhs, Bristow

Answer Man fully expected to show up in the newspaper last week under a headline reading: "Post Columnist Detained; Was Snooping Around Bridges With Camera."

That he didn't is probably due to one thing: It was too bloody cold for any cops to bother him. As he trudged along the Potomac trying to get closer to the 14th Street Bridge, Answer Man kept muttering to himself, "Why can't people ask questions about indoor things?"

Several Potomac and Anacostia River bridges once had the ability to open (and some still do). This wasn't so aircraft carriers could reach Georgetown in the event of an emergency, but so the great beast Commerce could flex its mighty muscles. The Potomac may not be a working river in the way that the Mississippi is -- we don't have mile-long barges delivering sorghum to Washington Harbour -- but it once was much busier than it is now. In 1896, the bridge carrying railroad traffic between Virginia and the District opened nearly 20 times a day to allow boats to pass.

Boats sailed upriver to Georgetown, where, said Donald Beekman Myer , author of "Bridges and the City of Washington," "There were piers and shanties and little factories." There was a lime kiln in Georgetown along with lumberyards, mills and other kinds of fairly substantial industry.

And so, when they were built, several bridges had sections that either lifted up or swung apart.

Take, for example, the Long Railroad Bridge (which, incidentally, is so named because it's long ). There's been a bridge at this location since 1809, although the present structure dates from 1906 and has been much modified since then. It can no longer swing open. The corrugated metal shanty that the bridge tender -- the person who operated the swing mechanism -- sat in was razed in 1983.

Nearby are the three spans known collectively as the 14th Street Bridges. The oldest is the Arland D. Williams Jr. Memorial Bridge. Completed in 1950, it used to open, which is why there's a hexagonal bridge-tender's tower overlooking the roadbed.

Just upriver from it is the northbound Rochambeau Bridge (completed in 1971) and the southbound George Mason Bridge (completed in 1962). They don't open and never did.

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