More about the history and name of Cabin John Bridge

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By John Kelly
Wednesday, April 28, 2010

My column last week about the Cabin John Bridge -- the one on MacArthur Boulevard, not the Capital Beltway bridge -- prompted all sorts of responses from readers. Some had memories of death-defying bicycle rides on the bridge's parapet. Others, of the days when it was a two-lane bridge (until the mid-1970s).

And many pointed out that it wasn't only Alfred L. Rives who got stiffed creditwise. He's the Virginia engineer whose allegiance to the Confederacy infuriated Montgomery Meigs, the Corps of Engineers captain in charge of building the Washington Aqueduct. Jefferson Davis went down the Memory Hole, too.

Davis was secretary of war under President Franklin Pierce when the bridge was started and therefore was entitled to have his name chiseled on it. When he joined the Confederacy, he was entitled to have his name chiseled off, the traitor. It wasn't until 1909 that Davis's name was reinstated, at the direction of President Teddy Roosevelt. (Davis's name is on the bridge's western abutment, facing south.)

Author Ernest "Pat" Furgurson took exception to my crediting Meigs as the man who put the cast-iron dome on the U.S. Capitol. Meigs, Pat wrote, "was in fact the nemesis of the architect of the Capitol, Thomas U. Walter, who designed the cast-iron dome and supervised its construction during the war. Meigs constantly tried to take over the project and claimed credit for Walter's work."

The two bickered incessantly, and Meigs was finally replaced in 1859.

Meigs's animosity toward the South didn't stop at allegedly shortchanging Rives of any credit for the Cabin John Bridge. As several readers mentioned, it was Meigs who set in motion Arlington National Cemetery, directing that Union soldiers be buried on the grounds of Robert E. Lee's mansion. Meigs's son, John Rodgers Meigs, is buried there, under a statue that depicts him in death.

Before we leave the bridge and its neighborhood behind, let us address a question posed by Carolyn Harwood of Fort Washington: Who or what was Cabin John?

People have been trying to figure that out for 300 years. If only people would write these things down when they do them.

Judy Welles has lived in Cabin John for more than 30 years and is the author of the book "Cabin John: Legends and Life of an Uncommon Place." She said there are a couple of dozen legends about how the neighborhood got its name. Although some involve a hut-dwelling hermit -- i.e., John of the Cabin -- it is generally accepted that "Cabin" is a corruption of "Captain."

Ah, but which captain? Some stories say it was a pirate captain. Others, an Indian captain. People in Cabin John like thinking it was Capt. John Smith, he of Pocahontas fame, who explored the area in 1608. References from about 1715 mention Captain John's Run, or creek -- what we know today as Cabin John Creek.

Recently, another Captain John has been proposed: Capt. John Addison. He was a Potomac ranger in the 1690s, responsible for chasing down what were then referred to as "skulking" Indians. "It's just a theory, but I think there may be some validity to it," said Mike Dwyer, the retired Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission historian who raised the possibility in an article last fall.

Smith is certainly the most romantic candidate. Many a contemporary Cabin John resident owns a T-shirt showing the map of Smith's voyage in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. "They're totally into it here," Judy said.

But unless someone finds a brass ingot carbon-dated to the early 17th century and engraved with "We named the hood after that dude who founded Jamestown," we may never know for sure.

Able to leap tall in boxes

Reader Jim Ward of Alexandria thinks that before Rosslyn can compare itself to Gotham City, it needs a superhero doing deeds of derring-do. Wrote Jim: "All I can come up with is Bureaucrat Man, who wraps up evil in red tape."

Those who can, do

Easton's Jeff Barron spotted this Maryland license plate recently: I TEECH. His comment: "The best case scenario I can imagine for this is 'I TEACH' was already taken, and the owner is so dedicated (!) to the profession, that he or she saw this as the next best thing."

At least it wasn't a bumper sticker proclaiming, "If you can reed this, thank a teecher."

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