By Jeremy L. Korr
Forty years ago this month, on Aug. 17, 1964, the full Capital Beltway opened to traffic after nine years of construction that cost $189 million. Engineers had designed the road's Maryland portion to carry 55,000 vehicles per day and Virginia's to carry 49,000. Both figures were exceeded by the end of 1965. By the turn of the century, about 1 million vehicles were entering and exiting the Beltway at some point each day.
Over the past four decades, the Beltway has altered the Washington landscape and spurred the region's growth. One engineer who worked on the project recalled the rural scenes he encountered while surveying the "virgin area" of the road's right-of-way in Fairfax County. "There were scattered homes here and there, and many had outdoor plumbing rather than indoor plumbing, and kids walking barefoot," he told me as I was researching the Beltway's history. "If you can believe what this area looks like now, and what it looked like then -- how can I put it? One never would have estimated such growth could develop."
But, of course, the road is more than just a 64-mile-long loop of concrete. Since 1983, when then Post reporter and "Federal Diary" columnist Mike Causey -- who was also one of the first people to circumnavigate the highway after its completion -- gave the phrase "inside the Beltway" a political spin, it has figured prominently in the national discourse, instantly summoning up the capital's political insularity.
And over the decades, for better or worse, the thoroughfare has played a memorable role in the lives of countless local residents and visitors. Here are some of the stories they told me when I conducted interviews for my 2002 doctoral dissertation in American studies, "Washington's Main Street: Consensus and Conflict
on the Capital Beltway, 1952-2001."
The Lie of the Land
I remember walking from University Boulevard to the east, toward New Hampshire Avenue, and when I came to an overlook over the Northwest Branch ravine, standing up on a rock on top and looking down. The [current] bridge deck itself, if I remember correctly, is about 127 feet above the streambed. And we were up a few feet even higher than that. Quite a spectacular view down into that valley, which is not -- we don't think of that in this area, having a close to a 150-foot drop here, looking into a valley or a gully -- that deep! And then on the New Hampshire side, it was even higher. We were really huffing and puffing by the time we walked down the hill and then had to climb up the other side, a very steep climb out of there.
-- William Shook, a retired engineer now
living in Silver Spring, recalled surveying the Beltway's right-of-way in Maryland
I remember back when the Beltway had not opened yet. Some of us Alexandria teenagers used to sneak onto the new Beltway and have drag races -- until, of course, the Alexandria police would show up and run us off.
-- Bonnie Douglas, Elk Creek, Va.
Long before the Beltway was completed, Cabin John Bridge was there, and if you measure it, it makes a great drag strip. We would flag off on the Virginia side, make the run and turn around on the other side. The side from Virginia to Maryland is the best side to race; it's actually a bit straighter. We raced nearly every night of the week. And some of those races were really serious; people came from all over the Washington area. Some raced for car titles, some raced for what at the time was very big money. Only once can I remember anyone actually getting caught -- one of the guys was out of the car when the sirens roared and everyone took off, so he jumped over the side (right at the beginning, where it isn't a great drop) and had no place to hide. The troopers thought it was funny, and they didn't write him up for any illegal activity.
-- Name withheld, Arlington
I was a member of the Precisionettes majorette group and took lessons at the Silver Spring Boys Club on Forest Glen Road. We would practice for parades on what we called "the road being constructed over the hill from the Boys Club."
-- Carolyn Marion, Silver Spring
On the day the Beltway was completed, my husband-to-be and I (who were very poor college students at the time) celebrated by driving the entire road. It had been opening in sections and we had visited each separate section. This special night we traveled the entire length without stopping. Driving the entire Beltway was the way we celebrated our engagement!
-- Marcia Amos, Columbia
I actually tried growing pot inside the big curve of the cloverleaf at Kensington Parkway. The plants grew, and I'd go and visit them once in a while. Then one time I visited and they weren't there. I don't know what happened to them.
-- Name withheld, Arlington
The Lullaby of the Beltway
The Beltway was my lullaby. It put me to sleep every night as a child. You get used to the noises and they become almost like a symphony. The sound it produced was always the same: a whoosh, whoosh, click, whoosh, whoosh. Even the downshifting trucks were part of the orchestra. Whoosh, whoosh, click, whoosh, whoosh, ch-ch-ch brrr rrr rrr. The only deviation was the sound of an emergency vehicle's siren. As a child the sounds that came from our stretch of the Beltway were the most constant comforting songs. To this day, I have no problem sleeping near a busy road.
-- Toni Levin, Rockville
Danger and Tragedy
Living in Kensington near the Beltway in its early years, numerous times I was awakened by crashes. Severe, horrible crashes. You'd hear screeches and squealing, and then this huge impact, glass shattering and, of course, sirens and all a little bit later. And being awakened from that and the fear and the scare of that. On at least one occasion I very clearly remember going down through the woods and to the edge of the Beltway, to the guardrail almost, with both my older brothers, and seeing the glass and bloody bandages and wrappers and bandages thrown about, and seeing where this had been this horrible crash where probably someone died.
-- Paul Foer, Annapolis
We had the Inner Loop assignment, between Connecticut Avenue and Georgia Avenue, for an accident involving an infant that had been ejected. And so we're thinking, holy crap, here we go, this is gonna be a big one. We get there expecting the worst. We don't see a kid anywhere. But we see a guy. There's a man lying in the road. Well, he has been ejected from one vehicle, and has slid on his chest about a hundred feet down the road. But amazingly enough, he was not that badly hurt. He was drunk as a skunk, but he was not that bad. He had some real serious road rash. But there was a child ejected from another vehicle. The child, an infant, had been ejected into a hillside. Soft landing. Not a thing wrong with the kid.
-- Robert Spence, Kensington
Volunteer Fire Department
I've stopped the Beltway many times. And let one lane or a shoulder go by, and seen the attitudes on people's faces, when they drive past. I feel sorry for them, but I've still got to do my job. I've been cursed out. We've had fatals where there's just stuff everywhere. But the people, they don't care. They just want to get to where they're going. "Open up the road, I don't care if that person's dead or not." They sit there, they curse you out and use foul language against you. They blame it all on you. You're just doing your job, you're just doing what you have to do to preserve that accident scene.
I just blow it off. I think, it's ignorant people, they just don't know. I would say, if it was one of their family members in the accident, and they needed to shut the Beltway down because they needed to do some type of life-saving, they needed to get the helicopter or something, they wouldn't be arguing about the Beltway being shut down. They'd be like, you can shut the Beltway for my mother, my father, to transport them out of there. They only see it on one side.
-- Sgt. Lorenzo Miller, retired,
Maryland State Police
In the mid-1990s, my uncle was killed while traveling home from work on the Capital Beltway. It happened just before the overpass for Good Luck Road. It was early on a Saturday morning. He was killed due to someone else's ignorance and lack of attention to driving. The one person who witnessed it did not get the tag of the vehicle that caused the accident. My uncle was in the far right lane (slow lane) on the Inner Loop heading home to Oxon Hill. The person in the next lane over decided they wanted to get into his lane, without looking or signaling. My uncle swerved onto the shoulder to avoid an accident and struck a parked tow truck, dead-on in the rear, at about 60 mph. He was killed instantly. Someday, I think it would be appropriate to perhaps have a memorial to those who have died on the Beltway. I'm sure it has claimed as many lives as a small battle in the Civil War.
-- Kenneth P. James, Arlington
Author's e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Jeremy Korr, who grew up in College Park near Beltway Exit 25B, is a visiting assistant professor of history at the University of California at Irvine.