John Kelly's Washington

Md. bridge history includes breach that couldn't be spanned

By John Kelly
Wednesday, April 21, 2010

This is a story of ego, intelligence, death and retribution. This is the story of the Cabin John Bridge.

I refer to the bridge that carries MacArthur Boulevard over the Cabin John Parkway, not to the Capital Beltway's American Legion Bridge. The one-lane span wasn't built to be a bridge at all. It was built to be an aqueduct, bringing water from the Great Falls of the Potomac and quenching the thirst of a city that once relied on wells and cisterns.

It is a bridge both handsome and historic. When it was completed in 1863, the 220-foot-long granite bridge was the world's largest single-span masonry arch.

The question is: Who designed it?

That should be easy to answer: Chiseled on the side is the name Montgomery C. Meigs, U.S. Corps of Engineers.

Meigs, a career Army officer, was perhaps the most accomplished engineer Washington has ever known. He was certainly the busiest. It was Meigs who put the cast-iron dome on the Capitol. It was Meigs who designed the Pension Building. It was Meigs who oversaw the construction of the Washington Aqueduct.

But did Meigs design the aqueduct's most famous feature: the Cabin John Bridge, also known as the Union Arch Bridge?

No, say two Ohio researchers, who have distilled three years' worth of research into a paper published recently in the Journal of Performance of Constructed Facilities.

"We went into this not wanting to denigrate Meigs's contribution, because he was doing an amazing number of things simultaneously in the years before the Civil War," said historian David Simmons, one of the paper's authors. "He was a pretty remarkable individual."

So, too, was Alfred Landon Rives.

Rives (pronounced "Reeves") was born 1830 in Paris, where his father was U.S. ambassador. He graduated from VMI, then went to school in France, where he was the first U.S. graduate of the prestigious École des Ponts et Chaussées -- School of Bridges and Roads. He was just 25 when Meigs hired him to work on the aqueduct.

The older engineer quickly recognized Rives's skill, according to David's co-author, Dario Gasparini, a professor of civil engineering at Case Western Reserve University.

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