Charlotte Coffield, 83, has lived in the historically black community of Lyttonsville in Montgomery County her entire life. She is pictured at the Talbot Avenue bridge, which linked her home to adjacent white communities. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

For nearly a century, longtime residents of a historically African American neighborhood in suburban Washington have thought of a small wooden bridge as a critical piece of a painful past.

Built in 1918, the one-lane Talbot Avenue bridge northwest of downtown Silver Spring carries vehicles over tracks for the CSX railroad. But for much of the 20th century, the bridge also connected Lyttonsville, a Montgomery County community founded in 1853 by a free black laborer, to neighborhoods where black families weren’t allowed to live.

Charlotte Coffield, 83, recalls her grandmother walking across the bridge to clean the houses of white residents in the adjoining North Woodside neighborhood.

Growing up, Coffield said, she relied on the bridge to reach public buses on Georgia Avenue, a mile away, for shopping trips into downtown Silver Spring, even though she and other African Americans weren’t permitted to try on hats or clothes in the stores. When her family wanted to eat in a restaurant or go to the movies, the bridge helped them reach buses that could take them into the District.

“It was really our lifeline to all the amenities on the other side,” said Coffield, a third-generation Lyttonsville resident. “Anything we needed that people normally would have, we had to use the bridge to get to it. . . . We’ve all benefited from that bridge.”

But what Coffield and some other longtime Lyttonsville residents value as a historical remnant of America’s racial segregation soon will be lost. The Talbot Avenue bridge is slated to be torn down and replaced when the Maryland Transit Administration builds the light-rail Purple Line. State transit officials say the 105-foot-long bridge is too short to span what will be a wider rail corridor once two light-rail tracks run adjacent to the freight-rail tracks. Moreover, they say, the county-owned bridge is so badly rusted — it was recently rated the most deteriorated bridge in Montgomery — that local officials didn’t object to the state plan to demolish it.

“The county would have replaced this bridge a long time ago if not for the Purple Line” project doing so, said Charles Lattuca, Maryland’s executive director of transit development and delivery.

Historian David Rotenstein, who lives in Silver Spring and said he generally supports the Purple Line’s construction, said he discovered the bridge’s past while researching a book about gentrification and the erasing of African American history. Rotenstein noted that in 2001, the Maryland Historical Trust deemed the bridge eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. The trust, which is Maryland’s historic preservation agency, cited the bridge’s steel girders as a “significant example” of early 20th-century bridges designed to handle increasingly heavy traffic, according to state records. However, the trust also determined that the area around the bridge “does not appear to be eligible for historic designation.”

By relying on that limited finding, Rotenstein said, Purple Line planners failed to consider the bridge’s value as the “connective tissue” between historically black and white communities.

“They didn’t look beyond the steel and wood to the people who actually used the bridge and attached historical significance to it,” said Rotenstein, who first wrote about the bridge on his blog, History Sidebar.

Had the state and federal agencies overseeing the Purple Line appreciated the bridge’s social history, Rotenstein said, they might have required designers to find a way to keep the existing structure or incorporate elements of it into a new bridge.

One of Charlotte Coffield’s friends is pictured in 1954 in what they called “the dollhouse,” the structure where many Lyttonsville children played. (Courtesy of Charlotte Coffield)

Neighborhood children are pictured in Lyttonsville in about 1950. (Courtesy of Charlotte Coffield)

Construction on the $2 billion, 16-mile Purple Line is scheduled to begin late this fall, pending resolution of a federal lawsuit aimed at stopping the project amid scrutiny of its ridership forecasts. If built on schedule, the Purple Line will begin carrying passengers between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in 2022.

Maryland transit officials say they are well aware of Lyttonsville’s history and recall residents advocating to keep a crossing over the train tracks. However, they said, no one pushed to preserve the existing bridge.

Mike Madden, deputy project director for the Purple Line, said he and other state transit planners have worked closely with Lyttonsville residents and have had “very good relationships” with community leaders. He said residents focused on making sure their future light-rail station had safe pedestrian access and persuaded the state to move the location of a Purple Line train storage yard farther from their homes.

“The Lyttonsville community didn’t bring up the historical significance of the bridge,” Madden said.

The only concerns voiced, officials said, came from residents in the North Woodside neighborhood, on the other side of the bridge, who said replacing the bridge with a wider two-lane crossing would bring more cut-through traffic to their residential streets.

Coffield and other Lyttonsville residents remember events differently. Coffield recalled that residents “lobbied hard” to keep the original bridge as “something to hold on to,” even if it had to be moved to a park or somewhere else in the community.

She said Madden was “very, very sympathetic” at a community meeting during early Purple Line planning and “promised us he’d do everything in his power to keep the bridge.”

Some longtime residents and a local historian say the one-lane Talbot Avenue bridge in Lyttonsville should be protected for its historical significance. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Coffield said she remembers the decision coming down to money. If the county wanted its bridge rebuilt with the Purple Line project’s federal funding, she said, it had to be replaced with a two-lane crossing to meet federal standards. Otherwise, she said, the county would have had to pay for what was estimated to be a nearly $3 million project.

Patricia Tyson, 74, a retired federal worker who has lived in Lyttonsville since 1946, said she and others told MTA how important it was to keep a crossing there.

“We questioned them an awful lot about the bridge,” she said.

Tyson said she remembers when public buses didn’t serve Lyttonsville and taxi drivers refused to drive on its muddy, potholed roads, which — unlike in surrounding communities — weren’t paved until the 1960s. When she and her sister wanted to catch cabs into Washington, she said, they met them at the bridge.

“To me,” Tyson said, the bridge “symbolizes a time in life of survival. . . . The bridge was a passage to people’s livelihoods and a passage back to their refuge, to their homes and families. It was a path of life for the neighborhood. It’s just always been part of Lyttonsville in a very special way.”

The MTA evaluated the Talbot Avenue bridge as part of a federally mandated study of the Purple Line’s potential impact on historical properties. The study found that it was one of three sites along the planned route that would suffer an “adverse effect,” given the state’s plan to tear it down.

State and federal transit officials determined that replacing the bridge was unavoidable and in 2014 signed an agreement with the Maryland Historical Trust promising to photograph it and document its history. The records will be publicly available at the Library of Congress, officials said. The MTA also agreed to include “historically themed interpretive work,” such as historic photos or artwork, at Purple Line stations.

Scott Whipple, head of the Montgomery planning department’s historic preservation unit, said the county agreed to that approach, which he called a common practice when replacing historic structures is deemed unavoidable.

“The decision that came out of the planning department was that this was the preferred [Purple Line] alternative, and that required demolition of the bridge,” Whipple said.

Montgomery transportation officials say they inspect the bridge every three months. Though it’s in “serious” condition, they say, it remains safe for passenger vehicles under the weight restrictions in place since at least 1973.

Montgomery County’s Talbot Avenue bridge was for many black residents the only link between exclusively white areas and Lyttonsville, which was founded in 1853 by a free black laborer. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Today, Lyttonsville, like other parts of Silver Spring, is more racially and ethnically diverse than many Maryland suburbs. As in other areas along the Purple Line route, residents are now focused on how much new development their community can — and should — absorb around its future light-rail station.

While Tyson said she hopes state officials will look for ways to preserve the Talbot Avenue bridge, Coffield said it’s probably too late. She said she’d like the new bridge to have a plaque or sign commemorating the old one.

The two-room schoolhouse where Coffield and other black children used textbooks cast off from the white schools is gone. So, too, are most of the original homes that, even in the middle of Washington’s burgeoning suburbs, lacked running water and sewer systems until the 1960s.

“This is the only remaining historical structure for this community,” Coffield said. “Everything else has been destroyed.”