After I wrote about Lefkowitz and Lyles, many readers shared their own bits of Smootiana. Several pointed out that the name is a venerable one in Northern Virginia. Besides the sand and gravel company founded by the dredge-owning Lewis E. Smoot, there was (and still is) a Smoot Lumber Co.
JoAnn Sanner of Temple Hills wrote: “Did you know that National Harbor overlooks Smoot Bay? I believe one of Smoot’s old dredges rusted away there. You could see it from the Wilson Bridge in the Sixties and Seventies.”
Neil Richard lives in King George County, Va., where Lewis Smoot is well known. “Our local library bears his name and Caledon State Park was donated to the state by his wife,” Richard wrote.
I heard from one of Smoot’s nephews by marriage, Byron Hopewell.
“Both he and my aunt, Ann Hopewell Smoot, were very generous to the Commonwealth of Virginia and to the George Washington Parkway between Old Town and Mt. Vernon,” wrote Hopewell, of Alexandria. “I visited with him and my aunt back in the Fifties and early Sixties.”
Smoot, said Hopewell, was a very interesting fellow and very much the stereotypical Virginia gentleman.
Amazingly, I also heard from a relative of Bryant Lyles. David M. Frantum is a cousin, one generation removed. He said Bryant wasn’t the only family member to die while working for Smoot Sand & Gravel.
In July 1928, Frantum’s 17-year-old uncle — William Washington Dodson, known as Buddy — was working a summer job with the company.
“On that day he was working on a dredging operation at present-day Roaches Run, north of the future Ronald Reagan National Airport,” Frantum wrote. “While working on a barge, Buddy fell into the river and did not resurface. Attempts were made to save him but to no avail. His body was recovered later in the day.”
Smoot Sand & Gravel almost killed something else: Dyke Marsh, a freshwater, tidal wetland on the Virginia side of the Potomac. From 1940 to 1972, the company hauled away over half of it — 270 acres — for sand and gravel, destabilizing it and accelerating its erosion, said Glenda Booth.
Booth is the president of Friends of Dyke Marsh, an organization founded in 1976 by locals who, she wrote “were appalled by the dredging’s destruction of the beloved marsh.”
Ever since, they’ve worked to protect it. Wrote Booth: “Thankfully, after many years, the Park Service has started to restore Dyke Marsh.”
One of the contemporary newspaper accounts of Lyles’s death mentioned that he was barefoot when he died. Was it common to work without shoes?
Tom VanPoole of Arlington said it may have been, given the language he found in the 1913 U.S. Navy Uniform Regulations. Paragraph 41 states in part: “when the decks are wet or in hot climates or in boats, shoes may be dispensed with unless the men are to go ashore. . . . Shoes should be dispensed with whenever practicable in boats.”
Wrote VanPoole: “I have no idea why — perhaps bare feet were less slippery on deck, or allowed more sure-footed climbing in the rigging, or more effective swimming if one fell overboard, or maybe bare feet just saved shoe leather.”
Mike Reis pointed out that Lyles died just as the United States was sending its first soldiers off to the Great War. Perhaps that headstone inscription wasn’t intended to damn Smoot but to tie the young man’s demise to a patriotic home-front duty.
“Dredging the Potomac in that era of so much economically crucial waterborne commerce was a popularly supported aid to navigation even in normal times, but in the war period, it was critical to allow for vessels to reach the Navy Yard and the D.C. wharves,” Reis wrote. “So perhaps being ‘killed by Smoot’s dredging machine’ could have been viewed as underlining, by his family, that Bryant suffered a Stateside but quite patriotic death, equivalent to the fates to be risked by his friends who were being drafted?”
All of this has given Jason Lefkowitz a lot to think about. And, as he wrote, “It shows how even a ‘small’ story like this can touch more lives than you’d ever think at first glance.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.