The Ghosts of Washington DC Drawbridges

DC has multiple drawbridges and at the same time has zero drawbridges.

Recently Dear Husband and I took a trip that we are calling “Autumn Back East 2021”. Our goal was to visit friends and family, and I wanted to show DH what autumn leaves really look like in a region that isn’t primarily covered in evergreen trees, and introduce him to our nation’s capital.

We flew to Atlanta, picked up a rental car, then drove to Alabama, North Florida, Georgia, Eastern Tennessee, Western North Carolina, and then drove to Washington DC by way of Virginia. Then we flew back home.

It was an amazing trip which lasted 15 days, and since I’m now only blogging every other day, if I gave you a day to day account like I have on trips past, it would take a month, and you’d be heartily sick of the subject before we even left peach country. So I’ve decided to focus on highlights, which I’ll do my best to keep in order. You can find the first post in the series here, and a link to the next post in the series, when it becomes available, below.

We arrived in Washington DC from North Carolina just before dusk, and after about 8 hours in the car, I was in a bit of a stupor. And I hadn’t even been the one doing the driving.

Crossing the Potomac felt rather surreal. Most people who arrive via Interstate 395 would probably tell you that their first glimpse of DC was the Jefferson Memorial and the Washington Monument. Clearly these people aren’t bridgetenders like I am.

The first thing I saw was quite unexpected. I saw a tenderhouse, which is where a bridge operator opens and closes a drawbridge. It was a beauty, too. For some reason that I still can’t figure out, the windows reflected a rainbow. I had to snap the pictures quickly, because DC traffic is horrible enough without us coming to a dead stop on a major entryway to the metropolis. I could swear I saw a bridgetender in the windows, and I still maintain I can see one in these pictures.

I remember thinking, “Wow, what a cool gig! You get to have a spectacular view, and you can explore this amazing city on your days off. Sign me up! I hope they are paid well, because living around here must be expensive. I wonder where they park their cars? I wish I had time to go knock on their door, but we’re only here for a few days, and our itinerary is packed solid.  But I don’t see a bascule… How does the bridge open? What’s going on?”

We were staying at the Hotel Hyatt Place, right across from NASA Headquarters, and very close to the National Mall, with its Smithsonian museums. That would be our primary focus. But that night, my primary focus was to get all our luggage out of the car and into our hotel room, and then collapse into a deep sleep.

While I slept, Dear Husband went to dinner with his nephew. After doing all the driving, I’m really impressed that he found the energy. He brought me back some takeout afterward, which I gratefully ate, and then we drove around the city and took pictures of it after dark as we’d be turning in the rental car the next day, but those amazing photos will be for another post.

When we got back to the room, we read books for a while, and then I was able to fall right back to sleep again despite my deep evening nap. Usually I struggle to sleep on my first night in a strange place. And I was excited about all the things we were going to see during this visit. I hadn’t been to DC in decades, and back then I had very little time and even less money to do much of anything. So you’d think I’d be doing a mind grind in anticipation of our several days here. But no. I slept the sleep of the profoundly exhausted.

By the next morning, I had forgotten all about that intriguing tenderhouse, and in fact I didn’t think of it again until I was reviewing our photographs while planning for my next blog post. But there it was, bold as brass. Which is crazy, because I had never even heard of a drawbridge in DC. Clearly I had some homework to do.

After some digging I discovered that DC has multiple drawbridges, and at the same time has zero drawbridges. There’s definitely more to this city than meets the eye. So follow me, if you will, down a really interesting internet rabbit hole.

According to Wikipedia, the bridge we crossed is part of the 14th Street Bridge complex. That takes a bit of explaining. This complex includes two train bridges and three automobile bridges.

The Long Bridge carries railroad trains. The Charles R Fenwick Bridge carries metro trains. There’s a southbound span called the George Mason Memorial Bridge, and that one is for cars but also includes a side path for pedestrians and cyclists. There’s also a two-way span called the Rochambeau Bridge.

But the bridge we’re interested in is the northbound only span, complete with its pretty tenderhouse. This bridge was named the 14th Street Bridge when it first opened in 1950 and was the first of the automobile bridges in this complex little complex of ours. It was renamed the Rochambeau Bridge in 1958, thirteen years before the current Rochambeau Bridge was built. Our bridge was then renamed the Arland D. Williams Jr Memorial Bridge in 1983, so the Rochambeau name was foisted off on its current bridge, which had gone years with no name at all.

Whew. Are you still with me? Because it gets even more interesting.

There actually used to be a sixth bridge, called the Highway Bridge, that was built in 1906 for streetcars and horses and wagons and the like. It has a kind of sad ending. It was torn down in 1968 and taken to the Naval Surface Warfare Center to be used for bombing practice.

Removing the bits and pieces of the Highway Bridge in 1968 required a crane and barge to be floated up the river. When that equipment was no longer needed, it required the Long Bridge and our Williams Bridge to open their spans for the very last time, on March 3rd, 1969. In fact, the Long Bridge had been welded shut a few years previously, so they had to remove those welds in order to open that one.

It’s a sad day for bridgetenders everywhere when drawbridges are decommissioned. Why was this happening? Well, the Mason Bridge, a fixed span, was built in 1962, and it only has about 15 feet of clearance. Needless to say, that eliminated passage for the majority of the seagoing vessels that had taken this route. As our drawbridge had less and less to do, it slowly ground to a halt until it completely stopped operations in 1969. In 1976 the bascule was removed altogether, but the tower still stands.

Our bridge must have a serious identity crisis. Not only is it a drawbridge without a bascule, but it’s also had a confusing array of names. It makes sense that it was originally called the 14th Street Bridge, because that’s the street in DC where this whole tangle of bridges dumps out at. But you know, politicians always have to put their two cents in, so in 1956 this huge debate began, which you can read about on the Wikipedia page if you really care. Suffice it to say it was eventually named the Rochambeau due to a compromise. Rochambeau was a French General who helped us defeat the British in the Revolutionary War.

So why, then, after all that arguing, was it later renamed the Arland D Williams Jr. Memorial Bridge? That’s a rather sad story. I’ll let Wikipedia tell it.

“On January 13, 1982, the Williams Bridge was damaged by the crash of Air Florida Flight 90. The Boeing 737-222, which had accumulated ice while idling on the runway at National Airport, stalled soon after takeoff, fell on the bridge, and slammed into the iced-over Potomac River. The crash killed 74 passengers and crew, plus four people in cars on the bridge. The repaired span was renamed the Arland D. Williams, Jr. Memorial Bridge on March 13, 1985 – following a December 4, 1984 vote – after one of the passengers, who passed a lifeline to five survivors before permitting himself to be rescued. He succumbed to hypothermia and drowned while rescuers worked to rescue the last of the survivors.”

You can see a brief video of one of the survivors on Youtube here.

There’s also an even longer video that pops up, explaining why the tragedy happened, but I didn’t feel like getting that upset, so you’re on your own with that one.

So that’s the story of the bridge and the tenderhouse that I saw in DC. I can’t tell you why I thought I saw a man standing inside, when the building has been locked up for years. I swear you can see him in the pictures above. Maybe he’s the Ghost of Bridgetenders Past. I’ll let you decide.

But while doing research for this post, I came across yet another DC drawbridge that’s no longer a drawbridge, and I crossed it multiple times during my visit without even realizing what I was crossing. The Arlington Memorial Bridge is a lovely span with big beautiful statues depicting valor and sacrifice. The bridge takes you to the Western End of the National Mall, right behind the Lincoln Memorial.

This bridge was built in 1932, and would have been built several decades earlier were it not for a lot of political foolishness that you can read about on its Wikipedia page. The reason I didn’t recognize it as a drawbridge is that it was replaced by a fixed span in 2018. But the original moveable span hadn’t opened since 1961. It also fell victim to the Mason Bridge effect.

There’s no tenderhouse to see, but this bridge does have an interesting secret that is only revealed to boaters who cross under it. According to Atlas Obscura, under the middle section of the span, you can see a large control room that apparently hasn’t been entered since 1976. Inside is the 91 year old machinery that used to operate the bridge when it was a draw. Apparently the 4 million pound counterweights are still down there as well. (Because why move 4 million pounds if you don’t have to?)

Man, I’d give my right arm to be able to go down there and explore that control room! That would have been the highlight of my already amazing trip to this city. Alas, I have no pull in our nation’s capital.

I have a confession to make. I was actually operating under the illusion that I could write about my time in Washington DC in two or three posts. Poppycock. There’s just so much to see and do in our Nation’s capital that it will take me forever to tell you of all the wonders I beheld. Which is fine, but I fear I might scare off some of my readers who really aren’t interested in travel posts. Therefore, from here on out in this series, I’m going to make every other post about DC until I’m done. In between these posts, I’ll write about other things. In other words, expect the next Washington DC post in 4 days, but the next blog post about heaven knows what in 2 days. Thanks, Dear Reader, for sticking with me!

The ultimate form of recycling: Buy my book, read it, and then donate it to your local public library or your neighborhood little free library!


Author: The View from a Drawbridge

I have been a bridgetender since 2001, and gives me plenty of time to think and observe the world.

6 thoughts on “The Ghosts of Washington DC Drawbridges”

  1. That’s the downside to travel with a companion and a tight itinerary; missing out on exploring those serendipitous finds to accommodate others and/or the all controlling itinerary. Sorry you had to explore your personal interest through internet after the fact. Your tender house ghost could’ve given you the inside scoop on it’s history that you’d never find in official documentation. 🙂

    1. Well, it all worked out for the best, actually, because it turns out there’s no sidewalk to that old tenderhouse anymore, so to get to it, I’d have to walk in the busy traffic and most likely be killed or arrested. Getting killed would make it easier to talk to the ghost, but it would make it a lot harder to blog about. 🙂

  2. Of course we want you alive as long as possible, but when you do cross over perhaps a ghost blog for those who believe? 🙂 The video on the plane that crashed into the Arland D. Williams Jr. Memorial Bridge is geared towards those with aeronautical backgrounds. Very detailed description of technical aspects contributing to the accident. Focus wasn’t on the loss of life, so not that upsetting.

  3. There’s a couple of “ghost” swing bridges here in Skagitropolis [aka Mt. Vernon]…one is over 100 years old…I’d recommend waiting a while to come see them though, because things are a bit chaotic right now, what with meteorological and subsequent hydrological extravaganzas.

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