Old Wilson Bridge Dec. 28, 1961-July 15, 2006

From Its Hapless Beginning, Span's Reputation Only Fell

Work on the bridge last year brings traffic to a standstill on the inner loop in Maryland. Few motorists appear to mourn the passing of the 45-year-old span.
Work on the bridge last year brings traffic to a standstill on the inner loop in Maryland. Few motorists appear to mourn the passing of the 45-year-old span. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)

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By Steven Ginsberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 15, 2006

Were it a child, people would lower their heads, shake them from side to side and say with all due sympathy: The Woodrow Wilson Bridge was just born bad.

Nothing ever went right for poor little Wilson, which is leaving this world for good today after antagonizing nearly every single one of the billions and billions of drivers who crossed during its 45 traffic-choked years.

The bridge got off to an inauspicious start when Woodrow Wilson's widow, Edith, the intended guest of honor at the dedication ceremony Dec. 28, 1961, died that morning at age 89.

Things went downhill from there. The day, chosen because it was the 105th anniversary of the former president's birth, was so bitter cold and windy that all anyone wanted to do was to get the ceremony over with and get inside as quickly as humanly possible. In a sign of things to come, the last place anyone wanted to be was on the Wilson Bridge.

"It was so cold it was unbelievable," recalled Frank Mann, 86, who was mayor of Alexandria and, like all the other speakers, scrapped his written remarks. "The wind blowing across that bridge was really a gale. We made a lot of friends because we all literally ran off the stage."

The fast exodus came after the abbreviated remarks of Commerce Secretary Luther H. Hodges, who christened the milestone structure this way:

"This bridge is 6,000 feet long, has 2,500 feet of approach roads, cost $15 million, all paid for by the federal government, and everyone in the country has an interest in it. Let's cut the ribbon!"

And that's about the nicest thing anyone ever said about the old Woodrow Wilson Bridge.

Really, what can you say about a bridge best remembered for the day in 1998 when it caused 20-mile backups and a seven-hour regionwide traffic jam because of a suicide jumper? (Luckily, the bridge wasn't even good for that. The man was pulled from the Potomac River with no noticeable injuries.)

The Golden Gate this was not.

The Wilson Bridge was one of the biggest bottlenecks on one of the most heavily used interstates in the nation, made even worse when its drawbridge opened. Its legacy will surely be its never-ending, never-yielding workday jams. Not so much the historic jams, like the jumper of '98 or the Veterans Day snowstorm of '87, but the day-in, day-out, no-way-around-it, please-Lord-let-me-get-to-the-other-side congestion.

Everyone together now: Backups from Barnabas to the bridge.


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