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

By John Kelly
Wednesday, April 21, 2010; B02

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.

"It's almost certain this bridge would not have occurred if he had not been on this project," Dario said. "There was no precedent before in the United States for this bridge. We think that he brought in the technology, he brought in the experience."

The clues were in the design analyses done for the bridge, which relied on techniques taught in France, computations that Meigs himself admitted were foreign to him, computations done by Rives. Furthermore, Rives had studied a similar single-span bridge in England. Meigs had first proposed a six-arch span.

Meigs was sure to display his own name prominently on his completed projects. He even had it cast into the 39 iron risers of a set of stairs in a Washington Aqueduct building. But at one point, he was so appreciative of Rives's work that he ordered the assistant engineer's name be included underneath his own on the Cabin John Bridge.

Dario and David found that order in the aqueduct's offices. They also found Meigs's order from a month later rescinding the request, replacing "Alfred L. Rives" with "Esto Perpetua," Latin for "Let it last forever."

David said: "It's really exciting when you find that sort of thing. In a sense that's sort of a smoking gun."

What had happened in the interim to change Meigs's mind? Fort Sumter had been fired upon.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Rives quit the half-completed project, returned to his native Virginia (his family owned slaves) and was named acting chief of the Engineer Bureau of the Confederate States.

Meigs might have forgiven him if not for the events of Oct. 3, 1864. His beloved son, John Rodgers Meigs, was part of a Union surveying party that encountered three Confederate cavalrymen near Dayton, Va. Shots were fired, and the young Meigs was mortally wounded.

Though the facts of that day were disputed, Meigs believed that his son had been murdered by guerrillas and not killed in a fair fight. His animosity toward the South never abated.

"The two of them never reconciled," David said. "[Meigs] even went so far as to denigrate Rives's involvement."

David and Dario think a plaque should be added noting Rives's contributions.

To an engineer, a bridge is the most perfect thing, a masterpiece of grace and strength unsullied by preening architects.

"A bridge is in the hands of the engineer," said Dario, who believes that until Montgomery Meigs snatched it away, the Cabin John Bridge was in the hands of Alfred Rives.

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