Cannons boomed, bonfires burned and fireworks exploded along the Anacostia River a century ago today when a two-lane bridge built for horse and carriage officially opened, joining the neighborhoods of Capitol Hill and Fairlawn.
Those who lived on the east side of the river then, as now, saw themselves as ignored by the larger piece of the city that contains the Capitol, White House and District Building. And so it was that the opening of the Pennsylvania Avenue Bridge was greeted with an evening of festivities, including music, congressional oratory and boat races.
Three bull oxen were cooked on Aug. 25, 1890, to feed the thousands who came to celebrate. Above the cooks, the bridge was packed with visitors.
So crowded was the bridge that police closed it to horseback riders and carriages.
The river had been crossed and residents felt they were finally getting something for their tax money.
All that news came as a bit of a surprise to Robert Barksdale, a 20th-century taxpayer who spent the eve of the anniversary fishing beneath the east side of what is now the John Philip Sousa Bridge. Barksdale hooked a catfish from the Anacostia, pulling it from the brown water onto the grassy slope near where the oxen roasted a century ago.
"Are they going to do that again?" he asked, upon learning of the historic party.
No, they're not.
A steady stream of cars and trucks thumped over the patched roadway above him, and the novelty of having a link between east and west is clearly lost on the thousands of commuters who use the span each day. The six-lane bridge of today was opened in 1940 to replace the old bridge, hopelessly inadequate in the face of Washington's rush hours.
Among the relatively few pedestrians who use the bridge today is Brenda Blount, who walks daily from her home in Anacostia to the Capitol just for the exercise. Ignoring the bent railings where cars had plowed across the concrete sidewalk, Blount saw not danger but beauty.
"The water is so beautiful and I love to see the birds," she said.
A century ago, those crossing the bridge on foot were more likely heading for work in downtown Washington, where a real estate boom meant jobs for most everybody. The bridge made both business and social calls possible for those of each side of the river.
The struggle and the politics involved in getting money appropriated for the 1890 Pennsylvania Avenue Bridge sounds very much like a story of today. Taxpayers of what was called East Washington, the portion of the District that includes all of Northeast and Southeast Washington, felt discriminated against. They wanted a bridge, and the District commissioners, who ran the city, ignored them.
Just as today, District residents felt quite free to take their pleas to Congress. The East Washington Citizens Association began lobbying Congress in 1886 and got $170,000 appropriated for their bridge.
Perhaps the District commissioners were somewhat reluctant to finance the building of a bridge where two others had been burned. The first time, it was burned during the War of 1812 to keep the British from advancing on the city. It turned out the British never came near the bridge. It was rebuilt in 1815 by the company that owned it after the federal government was forced to pay $20,500 in damages.
The wooden bridge finally burned to the waterline when accidentally set afire in 1845 by a steamer. At the dedication of the new bridge in 1890, the old wooden supports were still visible in the river.
Probably the highlight of the dedication was the roasted bulls, cooked for a full, tantalizing 12 hours.
Five thousand people pressed against the three-foot-tall fence built to keep them back. Four thousand loaves of bread were piled nearby. When the meat was done, a dozen carvers walked into the enclave created by the dense crowd.
As reported in the next day's paper, "For every sandwich handed out there were a hundred hands raised to take it, and as a result it was impossible to control the crowd.
"Several times the fence gave way, precipitating hundreds into the the centre of the square, whom the carvers were compelled to drive out on the points of their knives."