Discover Bethesda, Maryland...365 Days a Year!

Day 144: A Bridge to the Past

Amy on the Union Arch Bridge

If you’ve ever traveled west on MacArthur Boulevard past Wilson Lane you will come to a stop light at a curious one-lane bridge.  Curious because in this day and age of the super highway the idea of stopping for traffic on an ancient bridge while cars pass by single file seems absurd.  The next time you sit at the light patiently waiting your turn you will probably now think of the story behind this bridge.

The story behind the Cabin John Bridge, also known as the Union Arch Bridge, is anything but absurd.  A few years before the outbreak of the Civil War, the world’s longest single arch bridge was being designed to span Cabin John Creek. The bridge was completed during some of the most tumultuous and defining times our Country has ever experienced.  From the start of construction in 1857 to the completion of the bridge in 1864 our nation was literally being ripped apart from the inside out by Civil War and yet, a marvelous bridge was being built with great ingenuity, labor and skill.  The bridge sits 100′ high above the meandering Cabin John Creek below and spans over 200′ from the east to the west embankment. Through the center of the bridge runs the Washington Aqueduct which provides fresh water from its source at Great Falls to its destination in Washington, D.C..   Since the bridge was completed the Aqueduct has been in continuous operation.

Cabin John Bridge Drawing

Only in his early 20’s, a bright young engineer by the name of Alfred Landon Rives was appointed by then President Franklin Pierce to make the necessary calculations for a bridge to cross the Potomac and was then selected to help supervise the construction of Cabin John Bridge by the U.S. Engineering Corps (the forerunner of today’s U.S. Army Corps of Engineers).  In the spring of 1861 the Civil War broke out and Rives returned to his native Virginia to defend the Confederacy against the “War of Northern Aggression.”  As a result of the partisanship of the War, Captain Meigs of the U.S. Army Corps ordered the bridge to be named Union Bridge which was later modified to Union Arch.   When it came time to make a memorial tablet on the bridge to commemorate the two men who led its construction only Meigs was listed.  Alfred L. Rives’ name was replaced with the motto “Esto Perpetua” which in Latin translates to “Let it last forever.”

Amy and I recently visited the bridge and peered over the edge of the sandstone and granite structure as cars on the Cabin John Parkway streamed by.  The first time I saw the bridge was with my father on one of our many real estate related errands he made about town when I was a young boy.  While waiting for traffic to clear off the bridge he told me a story about how when he was growing up “crazy fool kids” would ride their bikes on top of the parapet from one side of the bridge to the other.  This apparently is true as there are reports of this “dare-devil” act that date back as far as the late 1800’s.  Today there are large iron railings that prevent this from happening.  This bridge is a part of our history and they say that water is the elixir of life.  One could argue that this bridge, and the Aqueduct within it, brings life to the most important city in the world –our nation’s capital.  I hope the next time you are waiting at the light you’ll reflect on all this and those daring youngsters who used to ride their bikes on the one foot wide knee wall.  I would have liked to have seen that! ~Brian

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