We are often asked for more information about the most famous train wreck in Washington, D.C., which took place on January 15, 1953.  The following information provides some history about the wreck.  It was compiled by a member of our Chapter and is reprinted with his permission from the January 1999 issue of Potomac Chapter NRHS'  Potomac Rail News.


By: Bob Cohen

In 1953 we witnessed what was perhaps the most spectacular modern runaway passenger train wreck: The wreck of the Federal Express, January 15, 1953, at Washington, D.C.'s Union Station. The exact time of the occurrence--8:38AM--was forever etched in history by the clock in the Station Master's office, which was located at the end of Track 16 and demolished by the 1500+ ton juggernaut when it passed through at a speed estimated to be between 35-50 MPH.

Many Miracles occurred that day:

1) No one was killed on board the train.

2) Somehow the train never derailed as it passed through the maze of switches at the mouth of the station.

3) No one was killed or even seriously injured in the station due in large part to one person's 30-second warning for people to scatter.

4) The telephone in the Station Master's office was uncharacteristicly picked-up on the lst or 2nd ring, probably due to the larger than normal passenger traffic volume created by the impending Presidential inauguration, only five days away.

But what REALLY happened to cause the brake failure? Why had something like this not happened before? Why did it not happen again?

The most authoritative accounts (and most widely available) of the incident were expertly detailed in the August 1953 issue of "TRAINS TRAVEL Magazine" (now known as "TRAINS Magazine"), and the April 1953 issue of "The Locomotive Engineer's Journal," which was published by the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers. These two accounts provide interested readers with the easiest access to information about this pre-inaugural event. Of course, the three Washington Daily Newspapers of the day: The Washington Post, The Times Herald, and The Evening Star all give vivid details and photographs of the day's events and other newspapers throughout the nation gave wide coverage of the accident. Finally, highly detailed information on the events surrounding the accident is provided in the Interstate Commerce Commission's accident report, which is quoted here, in part.

The single cause of the accident was the improper placement of the angle cock on certain New Haven Railroad coaches that caused it to strike a buffer pocket and resulted in the angle cock turning and closing off the application of air to all those cars behind where the angle cock had been turned. The use of angle cocks permits the airbrakes to be automatically controlled from the locomotive. The exact wording of the Interstate Commerce Commission findings and recommendations are as follows:

1. The angle cocks on New Haven car 8665 and other cars of similar construction are so located that the handles of the angle cocks are permitted to come in contact with the bottom cross member of the buffer pocket portion of the underframe end construction.

2. Between the time the brakes of (Train #) 173 were released after the train stopped in Baltimore and the time the engineer attempted to apply the brakes as the train approached Washington, DC, the angle cock at the rear of car 8665, the third car of #173, became closed, obviously as a result of contact between the handle and the bottom cross member, and after this occurred the brakes of the rear 13 cars of the train could not be applied from the locomotive.

3. The engineer was not aware of the condition of the airbrake system until he attempted to reduce the speed by use of the air brakes.

4. Because the air brakes of the rear 13 cars could not be applied from the locomotive after the angle cock had become closed, the engineer was not able to stop the train short of the end of station track #16.

5. The two train-service employees who were in the cars behind the third car did not become aware of the necessity of making an emergency brake application until it was too late for them to take action.


"We recommend that all passenger train cars equipped with tightlock or similar type couplers operated over any railroad subject to the Interstate Commerce Act be inspected immediately, and that such cars on which any angle cock is so located that the handle can come into contact with any other portion or appurtenance of the car be withheld from service until such condition is corrected."

Some interesting parts of this story that have been largely forgotten:

1) The problem had in fact cropped-up earlier on the trip down from Boston and the train was delayed for 57-1/2 minutes in Kingston Swamp, RI, isolating the condition and resetting the offending angle cock on the rear of the third car.

2) When engines and engine crews were changed at New Haven, CT, from the New Haven RR diesels to the New Haven RR electrics, no word was passed on about the angle cock problem to the new engine crew.

3) At Penn Station New York, a complete change of train crews, engines, and engine crews took place. The Pennsylvania RR took over from this point onward. Once again, no word passed on about the problem out in Kingston Swamp, nor was there any reason to suspect that anything was amiss.

4) When the train left Kingston Swamp it was 57-1/2 minutes late and was able to make-up time all the way to Baltimore, MD, being 48 minutes late leaving New Haven, 38 minutes late leaving Penn Station, New York, and only 18 minutes late leaving Baltimore after a 5-minute stop.

5) The engineer's name on GG-1 #4876, Train #173, was Harry W. Brower, aged 65 with over 40 years experience on the Pennsylvania RR. His fireman was John W. Moyer. The conductor was T.J. Murphy.

6) GG-1 #4876 currently resides in Baltimore, MD, as part of the B&O Railroad Museum's collection. It is not on public display and awaits restoration.

7) Moments after the wreck, a surprised and uninjured engineer and fireman calmly stepped out from the front end of cab onto all the debris that had fallen about them. They, like everyone else, were still puzzled as to why the brakes had failed to operate properly. Engineer Brower then suddenly remembered he had left his four timetables in the wrecked motor and asked his fireman to retrieve them for him while he (Brower) looked to render aid where needed.

8) Engine #4876 started its service life painted Brunswick Green. After the Federal Express wreck, it returned to service in October, 1953, painted Tuscan Red and remained in this color scheme until Penn Central/Amtrak when it received the customary Black, which is the color (if you want to call it that) it retains to this day. Retirement came in 1981 after over 40 years of active service.

9) As the engines were changed in New Haven, CT, three additional sleepers were added to the train making it 16 cars in length.

10) At Baltimore, MD, the last stop before Washington, DC, several dozen commuters embarked for the short journey to Washington, unaware, of course, of the historic event that would unfold in less than 45 minutes.

11) Amazingly, there was very little disruption to the normal flow of rail travel, other than the obvious closing of Track 16 and adjacent tracks for rendering assistance and cleanup. Within two days, the entire area was covered over and all returned to normal, except to the trained eye. The passenger cars had all been removed but it would be nearly another two weeks before the GG-1 would be cut up into smaller pieces and removed from the basement baggage room for reassembly in Altoona, PA.

12) Try as they might, no "Communist Conspiracy" was ever seriously advanced. The cause of the accident was plainly and clearly the angle cock striking the buffer pocket.

13) After the engineer applied the brakes, with very little response, the train essentially skidded for up to 2 miles, with a trail of sparks all the way. when the cars and brakes were examined after the wreck, the engine and first 3 cars' brakes were scorched and flat, but the rear 13 cars, brakes showed no signs of wear. It has been said that the 237-ton GG-1 locomotive had flat spots on its wheels over 5 inches long!

14) This writer has been told by a person in the area at the time who worked for Washington Terminal RR Co. that after the stop, a lady commuter disembarked from the rear of the train, totally unaware of the events which had just unfolded with the comment "That's the roughest stop I have EVER had!" It is also recorded that a passenger broke-out one of the windows in his car stating, "I've always wanted to do that."

15) When the brakes were first applied, the train was at legal speed of 80 MPH or so. In the two miles of mostly sliding down a slight downgrade into the station, the train had slowed, by most estimates, to a speed of 35-50 MPH.

Here is a brief summary and timeline of our railroad history

1) February 8, 1808 Washington Bridge Co. authorized by an Act of Congress to construct the "Long Bridge" as a toll crossing. 1835 Long Bridge rebuilt across Potomac River

2) August 25,1835 Washington Branch of the Baltimore & Ohio RR (B&O) opens for service. First station located at 2nd St. & Pennsylvania Ave. NW, now an empty site at the edge of the U.S. Capitol grounds.

3) 1837-1872 (except April 19,1861 - Summer, 1866) Rail passengers traveling south of Washington take 5 5 mile steamship connection to the Richmond Fredericksburg, and Potomac RR (RF&P) at Fredericksburg (1837-1842) and Aquia Creek, Va. (I842-1861, 1866-1872). Steamship connection continues 1872-1877 until blackmailed by the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) which offered through rail service from Philadelphia to Aquia starting 1872.

4) May 24, 1844 First successful use of Morse code sent from Washington to Baltimore. "What hath God wrought" was the first telegraph message sent by Samuel F.B. Morse from the Supreme Court chambers in the Capitol along wires placed on poles beside the B&O's Washington branch.

5) James Polk becomes first President-elect to travel by train. He rode from Relay, Md. to Washington on February 14, 1845 prior to his inauguration. Andrew Jackson had been the first President to travel on a train from Ellicott's Mills to Baltimore in 1833.

6) April 9,1851 2nd B&O RR Station opens at New Jersey Ave & C St NW, across from the present day Teamsters Headquarters.

7) April 29, 1851 First electric railroad car in history runs from Washington to Bladensburg round-trip- decades ahead of its time.

8) 1855 B&O connects their New Jersey Ave station with the north shore of Long Bridge via Maryland Ave. No tracks placed on bridge until the Civil War. Tracks owned jointly by both the Alexandria & Washington RR and the B&O RR

9) 1855-1858 Alexandria & Washington  RR (A&W) connects Orange & Alexandria RR (O&R) with south shore of Long Bridge & commences service January 1, 1858.  A&W Railroad was important north-south link during the Civil War. Trackage was definitely linked during US Military RR occupation & control during Civil War.

10) February 23,1861 President-elect Abraham, Lincoln arrives under guard from Baltimore via B&O RR for inauguration

11) 1861-1865 Long Bridge fortified & guarded for duration of American Civil War. Second parallel structure built by US Army (I861-1863) and operated by the US Military RR for railroad use during American Civil War. Bridge turned over to B&O after War.

12) July 29,1862 First Horsecar service via rail commences from the Capitol to the State Department

13) 1866-1873 B&O constructs its 'Metropolitan Branch" from Washington to "Point of Rocks"; Branch opens May 25,1873

14) June 21, 1870 Congress approves the Baltimore & Potomac  RR (B&P) entering Washington via a bridge across the Anacostia River and a tunnel under Virginia Avenue, SE from I Ith to 8th St. and tracks on Virginia Ave to 6th St. SW with a location for its station on the Mall at 6th & B St. NW (today's Constitution Ave). The Baltimore & Potomac station was built on the present-day site of The National Gallery of Art. Today's freight only Virginia Avenue trackage was the original freight & passenger mainline until Union Station's opening.

15) 1872 Maryland Ave street trackage disconnected in one night connecting the B&O and Long Bridge per Boss Shepherd's political dealing and cleaning up city streets. City bankrupted due to corruption & so many public works projects and it would be over a hundred years before "home rule" returns to D.C. by U.S. Congress.

16) July 2,1872 B&P RR enters Washington via Magruder Branch breaking B&O's Baltimore-Washington monopoly. B&P also gains control of the Long Railroad Bridge (I870) and the Alexandria & Washington RR (April, 1872) and builds the connection between Alexandria & the RF&P at Aquia Creek, Va. (the Alexandria & Fredericksburg RR opens July 18,1872).

17) 1872 B&O RR gets control of the Orange, Alexandria & Manassas RR to compete with the - B&P and renames it The Washington City, Virginia Midland & Great Southern Railway (WC,VM&GS). B&O relinquishes control of WC, VM & GS to Richmond & Danville Railway in November, 1881.

18) August 1, 1873 B&O starts construction at Hyattsville on 12.4 mile long Alexandria Branch to Shepherd's Landing and completed January 24, 1874.

19) 1874 Only. Passengers cars floated across the Potomac River from Shepherds' Landing to Alexandria, VA.

20) 1874-1876 Freight cars continue floating across from Shepherd's Landing to Aquia and from Shepherd's Landing to Alexandria (I 874-1906) ceasing with the opening of Potomac Yard on October 15,1906.

21) July 2,1881 President James A. Garfield shot by Charles J. Guiteau, a disappointed office seeker at B&P station. Garfield dies from blood poisoning September 19,1881.

22) 1883 Southern Maryland Railroad begins construction. Only 2 miles ever in place. Construction starts from future "Chesapeake Junction" in NE Washington

23) October 17,1888 First experimental electric trolley in Washington 7th & NY Ave NW to 4th & T NE, only months after Frank Sprague's successful demonstrations in Richmond, Va.

24) Late May/early June, 1889 Potomac River floods cause extensive damage to C&O Canal. Would be another 2+ years before the canal reopens, now under the control of the paralleling B&O RR. Canal reopened September, 1891 & never 'made money' again.

25) May 12,1890 Cable car operation commences

26) 1892 Georgetown Branch construction commences; Only 2 miles completed to Chevy Chase, Md in 1892. No further work until 1909-1910 when the I I mile branch is completed to Georgetown. A 2.2 mile spur was later completed to assist in Lincoln Memorial construction 1915-1922.

27) 1894 Congress mandates NO overhead wires or power poles in Washington city proper; causing a delay in perfecting different current collection for electric street cars.

28) 1896 B&O enters bankruptcy, forever ending most expansion plans.

29) July 29,1896 First successful electric conduit operation for streetcars in Washington. Only Washington & New York City-Manhattan Island ever adopt this type of operation in the United States. Overhead wires permitted outside city limits (remember we had Washington CITY as well as Washington COUNTY until after the turn of century) necessitating 'plow pits' for changing from conduit to overhead trolley & vice-versa.

30) September 29,1897 Capital Traction Co. cable car powerhouse bums on site of present Wilson/District Building and Ronald Reagan Building.

31) October, 1897 Construction commences from "Chesapeake Jct." on the Chesapeake Beach Railway using original Southern Maryland RR right-of-way & trackage. Reaches Upper Marlboro October 27,1898 and finally Chesapeake Beach October, 1899. Mainline & yard trackage totals 34.363 miles. Chesapeake Beach 'resort' was envisioned by builder and Colorado magnate Otto Mears as an "American Monte Carlo". Chesapeake Beach resort opens officially June 9, 1900

32)1898 Last Horsecar operation

33) July 23,1899 Last cable car operation in Washington, D.C.

34) 1902-1906 New Long Railroad Bridge (August 25,1904) & Highway Bridge (February 12,1906) open across Potomac River. Construction concurrent with station consolidation in city proper, Potomac Yard & other McMillan Commission recommendations. Railroad bridge remains to this day, although largely altered during World War 11. Highway bridge removed from service 1961 and replaced; finally demolished May, 1967- March, 1969.

35) February 28, 1903 President Theodore Roosevelt signs into law a measure "to provide for a Union Station in the District of Columbia."

36) October, 1903-1908 Union Station constructed & opened at a cost of $16 million including facilities, Brentwood car shops, etc. 24 at-grade crossings with B&O removed from service by relocation & new construction. Washington Terminal RR created to provide switching services for station owners (B&O and PRR) and tenants from the south (Chesapeake & Ohio, RF&P, Southern, Atlantic Coast Line, and Seaboard). Many at-grade crossings eliminated from the Virginia Ave mainline with new elevated trackage.

37) October 15,1906 Potomac Yard opens, removing most unsightly yard switching from along Virginia Ave. & the Mall, per McMillan Commission & the "City Beautiful" movement. Shepherd's Landing-Alexandria freight car ferry operation ends with Potomac Yard opening.

38) December 30,1906 Train wreck at Terra Cotta near present day Fort Totten. 52 killed on train & platform resulting in ICC banning future wooden body passenger car construction

39) Sunday, October 27,1907 Last B&O train leaves from New Jersey Ave. station (2:52 AM the "Duquesne Limited" for Pittsburgh) & Ist train arrives (6:5 0 AM from Pittsburgh) into partially completed Union Station. Old B&O station abandoned & quickly demolished.

40) November 17, 1907 1st PRR train in & out of Union Station. Other rail lines from the south also commence usage. B&P station & adjacent Mall trackage abandoned. Old B&P station demolished after August, 1908.

41) February 7, 1908 Washington, Baltimore & Annapolis Electric RR opens between Washington & Annapolis. Service opens to Baltimore March 25,1908 departing Baltimore Park Ave. terminal at 10: 15 AM

42) June 24, 1908 First streetcar service to Union Station, over 8 months after opening (compliments of DC City Commissioners).

43) 1908 Union Station formally dedicated. Designed by architect Daniel Burnham who also was instrumental in the 1893 Columbian World's Fair

44) 1915 In this peak period of Washington trolley history there were traction lines radiating out to the following destinations: Great Falls (Maryland shore), Glen Echo Amusement Park, Rockville, Kensington, Laurel, Annapolis, Baltimore, Seat Pleasant, Congress Heights, Mt. Vernon, Alexandria, Vienna, Fairfax, Leesburg, Great Falls (Virginia shore), and Bluemont.

45) Late March (29),1924 C&O Canal finally ceases operating after another of many floods (the 5th) causes excessive damage.The Canal had been owned for many years by the B&O RR, keeping other would-be competitors (the Western Md. Railway.) from the property. B&O keeps the canal serviceable though mostly dry until the 1936 floods and then sells the entire 184.7 mile long canal, Georgetown, DC to Cumberland, Md to the US Park Service in October, 1938 for $2,000,000.

46) January 17,1932 Last Arlington & Fairfax streetcar departs from 12th & D Streets, NW, abandoning all service in Washington, D.C.

47) December 1, 193 3 Capital Transit formed by consolidation of Washington Railway & Electric Co and Capital Traction Co. thereby placing all street railways under one management for the first time

48) January 28,1935 Mainline electrified train service commences on PRR Washington to New York.

49) April 15,1935 Last Chesapeake Beach Railway train leaves "resort" at II:50 AM. Only 2.9 miles of inner line kept & reorganized as East Washington Railway for switching coal to Pepco at Benning power plant via Capital Transit Steeple cabs and the B&O RR.

50) Summer,1935 Several major streetcar abandonments in favor of bus substitutions: P Street line, Anacostia-Congress Heights line, Rockville line, Connecticut Ave line, Kensington-Chevy Chase Lake line all converted to internal combustion.

51) August 20,1935 Washington, Baltimore & Annapolis electric inter-urban railroad abandons all operations.

52) 193 7 First streamlined road passenger diesels in the country begin operation on the B&O RR Washington-New York & Washington-Chicago.

53) June 3,1942 Shepherd's Landing emergency bridge construction across the Potomac River commences.

54) November 1, 1942 First train crosses 3,3 60 ft. long Shepherd's Landing Bridge connecting B&O's Alexandria branch with Potomac Yard, Alexandria.

55) April II, 1944 Washington, D.C. Chapter, NRHS chartered.

56) November 14,1945 Shepherd's Landing bridge withdrawn from service. During 3 years of service required I train a day to maintain safety. Averaged 3 to 7 trains daily with a maximum of 184 trains reached in the entire month of October, 1944. Bridge demolished early 1947.

57) October 21,1951 First chartered fantrip by Washington Chapter, NRHS Washington, D.C. to Strasburg, VA via Harpers Ferry on the B&O RR.

58) Thursday, January 15,1953 Pennsylvania RR "Federal Express" train wreck injures 43 at Union Station; no fatalities.  Read  more about the Wreck of the Federal Express .

59) Saturday, June 7, 1953 C&O Hudson #490 comes out of retirement for Washington Chapter excursion to Charlottesville, Va. This was the last C&O steam into or out of Washington. Engine is preserved today at the B&O RR Museum in Baltimore.

60) November 2,1953 Last regularly scheduled steam run, B&O train #22 "The Washingtonian" Eng #5306 Class P7 Washington to Baltimore-Camden Station departs at 6:30 PM

61) Sunday, January 3,1954 last Union Station steam passenger train departs Washington to Richmond RF&P eng #622 "Carter Braxton" departs at approx. 1: 40 PM

62) December 29,1954 East Washington Railway takes over switching directly from B&O to Pepco Power plant at Benning, eliminating 3-way transfer and switching costs.

63) Summer,1955 Congress revokes Capital Transit Co franchise following 45-day strike by carmen and passes Public Law #389 which specifies that the new operator will provide an all bus system within 8 years. Takes over I year to find a buyer for franchise.

64) September 7,1958 Eckington-Mt. Rainier-Branchville street car line abandoned

65) January 3,1960 Glen Echo, Friendship Heights & Georgia Avenue street car lines, abandoned. Only conduit operations remain.

66) Sunday, January 28,1962 Navy Yard, 14th & Colorado, Bureau Engraving, Calvert Street Loop, 17th & Penna. Ave SE & Union Station street car lines abandoned. Last street car pulls into Navy Yard carhouse ending 99 1/2 years of street railway service in the Nation's Capital.

67) April, 1962 First steam since 1954 The "General" of Civil War fame visits under its own power

68) Saturday & Sunday, August 15-16, 1964 First mainline steam since 1954. Reading Rambles Washington to Baltimore & Philadelphia powered by Reading T- 1 #2102

69) Saturday & Sunday, October 2-3, 1966 The first and only Southern Railway steam specials originate from Washington Union Station. All future specials originate from Alexandria, Va.

70) 1969-1970 3 Sisters Bridge construction in Georgetown commences causing release of funds for Washington Metro subway. Subway construction finally nears completion as of 1999. 3 Sisters Bridge never built.

71) May 1, 1971 National Passenger Railroad (Amtrak) a quasi-government corporation formed to takeover, maintain & operate virtually all inter-city passenger railroads, commences service.

72) May 1972 Last steam passenger excursion into Washington Union Station Reading engine 2102 Philadelphia-Washington round trip.

73) 1974 Maryland Dept.of Transportation (MDOT) begins subsidization of commuter service.

74) Saturday, March 27,1976 First 4.6 miles of Washington Metro subway opens. Brentwood Shops of Metro largely took over former Eckington coach yards of B&O at Ivy City

75) 1978 East Washington Railway abandons all operations.

76) 1984 Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC) name applied officially to Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) service.

77) June, 1981 Washington Terminal Company purchased by Amtrak. Takes until December, 1985 to assimilate all unions into its Washington Division.

78) September 15,1981 Smithsonian hosts a 150th grand celebration of the "John Bull" steam locomotive, with it operating on the B&O's Georgetown Branch

79) January 13,1982 First fatalities on Metrorail occur almost simultaneously with unrelated Air Florida airline crash 30 minutes earlier. Three killed on Metro- 78 die on airliner.

80) April 30,1983 Charles Fenwick bridge on Metro's Yellow Line crossing the Potomac River is opened to revenue service. This is the longest structure of its kind in the world devoted exclusively to

81) 1986 Georgetown Branch abandoned

82) Thursday, September 29, 1988 rededication of Union Station after $160 million + spent in revitalization

83) June 22,1992 Virginia Railway Express (VRE) commuter RR commences service from Northern Virginia

This information compiled by Chapter Member Bob Cohen.


"The Richmond-Washington Line" by Richard E. Prince, 1973

"Impossible Challenge" and "Impossible Challenge 11" by Herbert Harwood, 1979, 1994

"100 Years of Capital Traction" by Leroy 0. King, 1972, 1976, 1989

"Railroad Magazine" & "Railroad Stories Magazine" various issues 1932-1979

"Rail Excursions From Washington the First 20 Years 1951-1971 " Washington, D.C. Chapter NRHS

"The World Almanac & Book of Facts" 1999

"The Chesapeake Beach Railway" by Ames Williams, 1975,

"The Baltimore & Potomac Railroad" by John M.Wearmouth, 1986

"Alexander R. Shepherd and the Board of Public Works" by William M. Maury,

"The Story of Metro" by Ronald H. Deiter,

"Southern Railway System" by Richard E. Prince, 1970, 1983

"Every Hour on the Hour" by John Merriken, 1993

"Trains Magazine" a Kalmbach publication various issues 1940-1999

"The Met" by Susan Sonderberg, 1998

"Old Dominion Trolley, Too" by John Merriken, 1987

"Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad-The Capital Cities Route" by William E. Griffin, Jr., 1994

"One Hundred Fifty Years of History Along the Richmond, Fredericksburg And Potomac Railroad" by William E. Griffin, Jr., 1984

"Washington - Past & Present - A History" Vols I & 2 of a 5 Volume set Copyrighted 1930

"Home On The Canal" by Elizabeth Kytle, 1983

"A Brief History of the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad" by John Mordecai, 1940

"A History of Relay, MD & the Thomas Viaduct" by Daniel Carroll Toomey, 1976, 1984

"Washington & Old Dominion Railroad, 1847-1968" by Ames W. Williams, 1970, 1977, 1984 ++

"Rails to the Blue Ridge 1847-1963" by Herbert H> Harwood, Jr.,c I 963,

"Washington The National Capital" prepared by H.P. Caemmerer, 1932

History of the Long Railroad Bridge Crossing Across the Potomac River

by: Robert Cohen, copyright 2003;
published with permission of the author

The year is 1925. Can you name all the bridges across the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers which are within the confines of the District of Columbia which have rails across them? Give up? The answer is ALL of them except one (Chain Bridge).

Interestingly enough, of fifteen bridges constructed across the rivers since 1925, only three new bridges have had rails placed upon them. Two were for Metrorail in the 1970's & 1980's. The third was a temporary emergency structure constructed during World War II.

That temporary structure was the Shepherd's Landing railroad bridge connecting Alexandria's war-vital Potomac Yard with Southeast DC and is a story in itself, but better left for another day.

The bridges in 1925 which had rails upon them, located from North to South on each river were, first, on the Potomac:

  1. The Aqueduct Bridge (out of service);
  2. Francis Scott Key Bridge;
  3. the 14th Street Highway Bridge; and
  4. the Long Railroad Bridge.

Along the Anacostia, they were;

  1. the PRR's Magruder Branch bridge;
  2. Benning Rd. bridge;
  3. the PRR's freight bridge;
  4. the precursor to the current Sousa Bridge taking Pennsylvania Ave. extended across to the Randle Highlands; and,
  5. the 11th Street (Navy Yard) Bridge.
This is the story of one of those bridges; a most vital one, even today - The Long Railroad Bridge, traversing the Potomac River.

From all available information, there was considered a need by the fledgling republic to have this crossing almost from the very start. When the seat of Government was first established at this locale in 1800, there was no easy way to reach the disconnected part (Alexandria) of the National Capital except by ferryboat, which was treacherous and perilous at times, especially when a freshet occurred.

Accordingly, on February 8, 1808, the Washington Bridge Company was authorized by an Act of Congress to construct the "Long Bridge" as a toll crossing of the Potomac River. President Thomas Jefferson signed the authorization into law.

The bridge was designed as a timber pile structure with two draw spans to connect the western end of Maryland Ave. at the foot of 14th Street SW with the Virginia shore of our Nation's Capital. Interestingly, the bridge's name seems to have been derived from its planned size and not as a memorial to any particular individual.

On May 20, 1809, Long Bridge was opened to traffic. Five years later, on August 25, 1814, following their successful victory at the Battle of Bladensburg the previous day, the invading British, led by General Robert Ross, set fire to the north end of the Long Bridge as they entered our Nation's Capital. Simultaneously, the American forces set fire to the south end of the bridge, now behind their rather hasty retreat into Virginia.

After the cessation of hostilities, the bridge was restored to service by 1816. On February 22, 1831, high water and ice carried away several spans of the Long Bridge.

In 1832 Congress purchased the bridge for $20,000 and quickly appropriated $60,000 for its repair and upgrading. Additional appropriations were necessary to bring the bridge up to full specifications.

Amid a great deal of pomp and ceremony, it was reopened by President Andrew Jackson and his Cabinet on October 30, 1835 who crossed the rebuilt structure to mark the momentous occasion.

Throughout its early 45-year history, only foot, horse and stagecoach traffic used the structure. This circumstance remained until the mid-1850's.

Since 1835, the B&O Railroad had been serving the city from the north. Meanwhile, an act signed into law by President James K. Polk retro ceded Alexandria back to Virginia on September 7, 1846. By the early 1850's, railroad fever was rampant in Alexandria.

A number of lines were either operating or planning operation by the middle 1850's. These included:

  • Orange & Alexandria;
  • Manassas Gap;
  • Alexandria, Loudoun & Hampshire; and
  • Alexandria & Washington.
Other railroad schemes abounded in these early days of optimism and growth, but these four were among the principals.

The B&O, ever interested in expanding, aligned itself with the Alexandria & Washington in Washington City. The A&W connected from the B&O's station at the edge of Capitol Hill to the north shore of the Long Bridge by about 1855 and from the south shore to Alexandria City by late 1857 or early 1858.

Amazingly, the Virginia legislature forbade the A&W from making any physical connection with any other railroad and no tracks were placed on the bridge at this time. The nuisance process of transferring goods off railroad cars to omnibus for crossing the bridge and transferring them back to railroad cars again was an annoyance which was unfortunately necessary at the time.

On more than one occasion, John W. Garrett, President of the B&O, appealed to the government for permission to construct a newer, sturdier span to either augment or replace the then current structure, but the appeals fell on deaf, politically motivated, ears. Soon, the drumbeats of war and internal strife were sounding. Current events were going to require changes.

With the outbreak of hostilities between North & South and Virginia's May 23, 1861 secession from the Union, the Long Bridge now took on a new, added importance.

Alexandria was quickly occupied by the Union Army and the US Military RR and the bridge's north and south shores were well guarded by Federal troops, ever vigilant for spies, infiltrators, contraband and of course, invasion. Let us remember that the White House, President Lincoln, the Capitol and the entire Federal Legislature were less than three miles from water's edge.

Rails were now placed on the ancient, rickety bridge. It was quickly confirmed that the structure could not safely support the weight of locomotives and freight cars. Instead, lightly loaded railroad cars were transhipped across the mile-long structure, pulled by good old-fashioned horse power.

Not until 1863 was a new, stronger, parallel structure completed, one which could hold the weight of newer, heavier locomotives and freight cars.

The lack of an adequate crossing during the first years of the war was a motivation, at least in part, for the US Military RR headquarters to be located in Alexandria. Of course, the 'ready-made shops' of the Orange & Alexandria and other railroads in that city had something to do with their decision, too.

This new bridge was constructed about 100' down river and had two draw spans like its parallel predecessor. Both structures remained in use throughout the remainder of the Civil War.

Following General Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox, Va., the B&O regained use of the old A&W connecting railroad and leased the bridge from the government. But then came a competitor from the north which ultimately and forever wrenched control from the B&O. That competition was to become known as The Pennsylvania Railroad (nicknamed the Pennsy).

Suffice it to say that the story of the Pennsy and how they got things done has filled many volumes and is too detailed to repeat here in its entirety, but a brief outline of their shenanigans and goings on, where it pertains to this narrative, does merit some repetition.

First, in 1853 came the charter for the Baltimore & Potomac Railroad with its little observed codicil permitting branch lines no longer than 20 miles in length. Then came influential Pennsylvania Senator Simon Cameron, a stockholder in the Pennsy's Northern Central RR which had just gained entry into Baltimore in early 1861.

Cameron became Secretary of War at the start of Lincoln's administration, but was removed only a year later amid charges of payoffs, influence peddling, etc. Things stayed kind of quiet for the duration of the Civil War.

By 1867 though, the pieces of the puzzle were starting to come into place. The Pennsy was financing the B&P, especially its 'branch line' of just less than twenty miles length, and the rest of the 75-mile Baltimore & Potomac RR mainline in order to break the B&O's railroad monopoly of the District of Columbia.

Of course Senator Cameron was there to help with the June 21, 1870 Congressional approval of the Virginia Ave. routing and trackage and securing the prestigious site on the Mall at 6th & B Streets, NW, with 14 acres of Federal Land thrown in for good measure as the location for the B&P station.

Perpetual use of the Long Bridge was also part of this deal provided the railroad kept it in good working order.

One of the original persons securing the 1853 B&P charter had been none other than Oden Bowie. He had been a stockholder right from the beginning and by 1869 this same Oden Bowie just happened to be the Governor of Maryland.

Other events were unfolding in fairly rapid succession on the Virginia shore which would also affect local railroad history forever as well.

The B&P took over the dormant Alexandria & Fredericksburg RR's 1864 charter and started connecting Alexandria with the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac RR just north of Fredericksburg, a task completed on July 18, 1872. The Pennsy interests also secured control of the A&W connecting railroad on the District shore by April 1872. Alexander Robey "Boss" Shepherd, future Territorial Governor of the District of Columbia, and controller of the all-powerful Board of Public Works, felt the Capital City needed many civic improvements, among which were the elimination of the A&W's many at-grade crossings in the city.

As the A&W was now controlled by Pennsy interests, they acceded to not remove rather than build the expensive elevated trackage to be required. Boss Shepherd thereby quickly had the B&O disconnected with the south for a generation. The B&P, of course, quickly constructed their own trackage and connections with the Long Bridge.

At the onset of its ownership, in the early 1870's, the Pennsylvania RR (actually the Baltimore & Potomac RR) upgraded the bridge in anticipation of the greatly increasing traffic flow, by now, still just a single span.

From 1882 to 1890 much of the area now known as East & West Potomac Park, the Tidal Basin, Hains Point and the Maine Avenue waterfront were created and enlarged by filling in the swampy, shallow mud flats. No longer would floods or "freshets" inundate Washington's city streets almost as far as the President's House, as they had previously.

However, the Pennsy, even way back in the 1870's and 1880's, had the annoying practice of doing as it wanted and rather than perform a major rebuild of the Long Bridge they simply dumped "rip-rap" beside their piers, choking the openings and creating a partial dam, with predictable results.

Long Bridge was damaged by floods (freshets) in 1831, 1841, 1856, 1860, 1863, 1866, 1867, 1870, 1881, 1887 and by the same May 31, 1889 storms which caused the famous Johnstown, Pennsylvania flood.

Each and every time, it was repaired and brought back to "reasonable" specifications. However, after the 1889 freshet had severely inundated the Mall and much of downtown Washington City, as the Pennsy's critics had envisioned, something had to give.

In 1881 the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore RR (PW&B) finally came under the complete financial control of the Pennsylvania Railroad. More paperwork changes in ownership took place on November 1, 1902 as the Philadelphia, Baltimore & Washington (PB&W) came into existence as a consolidation of the PW&B and the B&P.

By June 6, 1896, the Long Bridge was also taking passage of one of the newest rages in the country; for an interurban trolley line also crossed the Potomac River on this structure, sharing rights on the Pennsylvania RR controlled bridge.

This ancient, single-track, antiquated structure was now being tested to its thoroughly congested limits. No fewer than 250 trains of all classes were scheduled on a daily basis. It is recorded that there seemed to always be a train of some sort waiting to cross the river.

It has also been recorded that the draw span, with a vertical clearance of only 10.3', opened 6,597 times during 1896, an average of nearly 20 openings per day! Trains of six different railroads plus the trolley line shared the bridge and, once again, something had to give.

As the new century dawned, a "City Beautiful" movement took form in the Capital City. There was a strong civic desire to restore the Mall to the beautiful vistas as planned and envisioned by L'Enfant. This required removal of, among other things, the unsightly smoke and steam belching locomotives from city streets and a consolidation of train stations.

Out of this movement, Potomac Yard in Alexandria County, Va. and Union Station in Washington City were created. The old, separate city stations were removed. The plan also necessitated a new railroad bridge across the Potomac River at lower 14th Street to handle the increased freight and passenger flow.

Approximately 150' upriver from the old bridge, a new 13 span steel truss bridge was built, this time with only one draw-span. The new double-tracked structure was opened for traffic on August 25, 1904. As originally constructed, it was 2,529 feet long with 11 fixed truss spans and a swing draw span of 280 feet, 6 inches across two 100 ft. clear channels.

All steel placed for the new bridge was previously used except for the swing draw and one of the truss spans. Five of the spans were made of wrought iron dating from 1892 and five more were made of steel dating from 1898. All this used iron had come from a bridge formerly crossing the Delaware River at Trenton, NJ. This 'new' Long Bridge cost $927,000 including approaches to reassemble and complete.

Five hundred feet farther upriver, a new highway bridge, with a swing-span similar to the railroad's, was opened on February 12, 1906. The trolley line's tracks were placed on the deck of this new thoroughly modern bridge with 11 fixed spans plus a swing span of steel truss construction.

This structure cost $1,196,000 including $219,703 for the land and secondary bridge over the Washington Channel (the earlier site of the second draw span). The bridge was 2,667 ft long, 40 feet wide and provided for a 21 ft. clearance above mean low tide.

Two years after completion, the new Highway Bridge was entertaining average daily traffic of 252 trolley cars, 103 automobiles, 780 double teams, 369 single teams, 9 equestrians and 543 pedestrians. Nearly a hundred years later, this writer thinks the overall average daily traffic has increased just a tad bit over these intervening years; don't you think?

Interestingly for river traffic, the new railroad bridge, while nearly doubling its former low river clearance, still had an 18" lower margin than the Highway Bridge. Equally intriguing, due to the grade separations taking place and with all the new construction, the moving of the trolley operations was not completed until April 8, 1906 and for a while, at least, it appears there was simultaneous use of all three structures! Some time after late 1906 the old, unsightly Long Bridge was demolished to the regret of no one.

Finally, in 1918 the actual ownership of the Long Bridge was officially in the name of the Pennsylvania Railroad, even though they had, in fact, controlled a structure at this locale for nearly 50 years by this time.

In July 1928 the Highway Bridge was closed for repairs for a short time, perhaps in preparation for the Mount Vernon Memorial Highway construction about to commence soon afterward.

Then, in the 1929-1932 period, the Mt. Vernon Memorial Highway (today we know it as the George Washington Parkway) was built on fill land on the Virginia Shore. Both the railroad and highway bridges had the last two most southerly steel truss spans removed in favor of lots of fill for the new road, built to celebrate the Bi-Centennial of the birth of our first president.

Also, in this same 1929-1932 period, 2 miles or so upriver, the Arlington Memorial Bridge was built. Little known today is the fact that this too was a draw span, not of the swing variety but of the double-leaf bascule type, a type which was growing in greater favor at the time.

Today, you can still see the bridge tender's control house located beneath the steel draw structure as you drive northbound on the George Washington Parkway. Please, however, pay strict attention to the cars on the highway ahead and behind as you drive on this busy, busy road and don't stare at this interesting, but oft-unexplained sight.

Both the Memorial Bridge and its most modern connecting highway were opened to public traffic on January 17, 1932 at an astronomical cost of $470,000 per mile. This was also the last day for the Mt. Vernon, Alexandria & Washington's trolley service to downtown Washington from Alexandria, crossing over the 14th Street Highway Bridge for the final time.

The Pennsylvania RR in the 1934-35 period added catenary across the Long Bridge as they carried their electrification program into Potomac Yard and their servicing facilities for their freight operations.

By 1937-38 the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad needed some new equipment, so they ordered five modern 4-8-4 steam locomotives from Baldwin Locomotive Works in Chester, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia. Amazingly, they were several inches too wide to properly clear the tunnels in Washington. More importantly they had too heavy of an axle-load to traverse the Long Bridge.

These two factors forever consigned these beautiful engines to the Virginia side of the river and freight service. Although they were pressed into emergency passenger service on occasion, they always stayed on the south side of the river. One can only wonder how they were delivered from their Pennsylvania manufacturer to the RF&P at that time.

By 1942, with World War II underway, the weight restrictions on the Long Bridge were becoming a more serious obstacle, so all the truss spans, except the swing span were replaced with new supporting girders and new piers placed between the old ones to support the additional weight. By these actions the Coopers Bridge rating had been raised from an 'E60' to 'E65'.

When the RF&P went to the locomotive manufacturers again for new motive power during WW II, while the weight problem was no longer an issue, they didn't repeat the excess width error of the prior order.

After World War II when all rationing restrictions were removed, it became quickly apparent that a new highway bridge was needed to accommodate the increased traffic load, so from 1947-1950 a new north bound only 14th Street Bridge was built with a double-leaf bascule (draw) span in the channel.

Opened in May 1950, the river traffic clearances on this new span were even greater than the venerable highway bridge. The new bridge was constructed of more modern design and materials than were available at the turn of the century. It was (and of course still is) built of riveted steel, with reinforced concrete decking. When opened and until the 1982 Air Florida plane wreck, it was named "Rochambeau."

The reasons for all the extra information about the highway bridges here will become apparent shortly, as they figure in a bit of railroad trivia which one hopes you will find interesting.

In the mid-1950's, came the move to modernize our highways, otherwise known as the Interstate Highway Act. Lots of concrete upon which all those gas guzzling, rubber-tired vehicles could go faster, farther and, hopefully, safer.

In the Washington region, hearings were held questioning the further need for opening draw bridges on the upper Potomac & Anacostia Rivers and it was ultimately decided they were no longer necessary. The old highway bridge was to be replaced with a new structure without a draw span, thereby negating their need forever.

Imagine the sight in the early to mid-1950's if you were a highway commuter crossing the river on one of these bridges, watching this seemingly perpetual motion as a high clearance boat headed up river toward Georgetown.

First, the railroad bridge swings open; then before that move was completed, the Rochambeau double-leaf draw span would go up. Even as these first two bridges were completing their circular and rotational moves, the old highway bridge would swing into action to complete these maneuvers. Perhaps 15 minutes or so later, the Memorial Bridge would go up and down too. The movements were reversed going down river, as well.

Of course all these things were taken in stride if you were a commuter then, as the world seemed to be moving a little slower than now and "rush hour" was a whole bunch shorter and slightly less 'rushed.' Who was in a big hurry to get anywhere, anyway?

Today, who enjoys getting stuck in traffic when the Woodrow Wilson Bridge draws up to let river traffic through? What about when the South Capitol St. Bridge (Frederick Douglas) swings around for Navy Yard ships and then gets stuck in the open position for hours?

Legend has it that the first time the South Capitol Street Bridge was swung open for river traffic, it got stuck in the open position, and that was 1950!

Accordingly, the city swore they would never build another swing-span again (and they haven't!). The only reason this one was built in the first place was because of the Anacostia Naval Air Station & Bolling AFB which used to land aircraft at nearby runways. The drawbridge/swing span was right in the plane's flight path.

All flights into or out of Bolling & the NAS ceased in 1958, not related to any issues connected to the river or bridge clearances.

About 1957, a contractor was chosen to build the new "southbound" 14th Street Bridge. His equipment included steam powered cranes mounted on barges. They were floated upriver from his home base of Newport News, Va. to just upstream from the present day bridge which they were about to build.

At this time the job of 'bridge-tender' was a 24-hour affair with river traffic and bridge openings taking place any hour of any day throughout the year. No advance notices like we see today, here in the Washington area.

As construction proceeded to near the river channel, letters were first sent to the affected parties stating the need for 24 hour notices to be given so that the contractor's equipment could be clear of the channel for any swing-span movements. The bridge could still swing open fully, for the reinforcing steel rods in the new channel pier were bent back until the actual zero hour for ending bridge openings arrived.

As an aside, I have been told that the last opening of Memorial Bridge was around 1960 for the removal of the floating Watergate barge involved with summer concerts. Unconfirmed rumor had it during the mid to late 1960's, that to prevent one or more of the Civil Rights marches from crossing, the Memorial Bridge drawspan was raised to prevent passage, but no documentation has been found to confirm that anything like that ever occurred.

Then the zero hour finally arrived and no more swing span openings - except there was to be at least one more, for Diamond Construction Company's equipment needed to depart the same way as it had arrived.

The old Highway Bridge could no longer swing all the way out its full 90-degree extension as new pier #11 of the soon to be named 'George Mason Bridge' partially blocked its way. The equipment squeezed through the narrowed passage of the old Highway Bridge, now only able to swing 60 degrees or so, and no longer the full 90. The Rochambeau and Long Bridges opened seemingly one last time and that was that. End of this part of the story . . . But not quite.

The new George Mason Bridge opened for highway traffic in the early 1960's and the old highway bridge sat there, idle, right next to it, in silent sentinel awaiting its day of reckoning. That was to come starting in early 1967 and would take nearly two years to complete the removal of this old and interesting bridge.

The interstate highway construction bandwagon was well under way when it was decided to remove the old highway bridge and replace it with a new one, of design and specifications similar to the nearby Rochambeau & George Mason structures.

The contractor chosen to remove the old bridge & its piers and put in the first phase (water piers only) of the new bridge was to be none other than Diamond Construction Co. This meant barge mounted steam-powered cranes and at least two more openings of both the Rochambeau Highway and Long Railroad Bridges.

It had been six or more years since the giant gears, weights and motors involved in these operations had moved and the draw & swing mechanisms were crusty to say the least. Some time just prior to Diamond's March 1967 entrance to the region, the DC Department of Highway & Traffic rerouted northbound 14th Street traffic and thoroughly greased, lubed and tested old Rochambeau. No major hitches took place and when the equipment arrived, both bridges performed flawlessly. (It is to be presumed the PRR also tested out their railroad bridge, but that detail is lost to history.).

Throughout the summer of 1967, the old piers and bridge spans were removed one by one with new piers going into place. By early autumn, only one full span of the old highway bridge remained; old Span #10, the last from the Virginia shoreline.

The US Navy decided that this old bridge was just what they needed for target practice down at Dahlgren, Va. for their bombers to practice upon prior to dropping ordnance on North Vietnam. How to get it from Washington, D.C. to Dahlgren, Va. fifty miles down river? No problem!

As Diamond Construction already had the method of floating off each span and then rolling it over land on the nearby Virginia shore for local demolition, it would be relatively minor to adjust for a 50-mile journey, rather than a 50-yard trip.

In early October they started the preparation process, but a couple of complicating factors surfaced.

Since part of the span was over land and they were going to have to go through the narrow drawbridge river channels, they were going to have to change their center of gravity for floating off the span.

As the pumps removed thousands of gallons of water from the barges which had been floated under & partially sunk beneath old Span #10 and the tide came in, the old span began to lift off its moorings as planned, but it also started an alarmingly unsafe amount of buckling.

This writer remembers gingerly stepping from the South Abutment to the bending, floating span as the decision was made to halt the operation. The procedure had to be quickly reversed and the old span strengthened in order to survive its last journey. Next time in two weeks would be different . . . and it was!

By early November all was in readiness for the journey down river. At 4:15 on that Wednesday afternoon, old span #10 was parked right next to Rochambeau's draw span, only 25' or so from the left lane. Some of us wondered aloud if some driver would think it was a new left turn. Thankfully, of course that didn't happen.

Thursday, 5:30 a.m comes, the horn sounds, the bell rings and Rochambeau goes up and down on cue. The 100-yard long Span #10 passes through under the able stewardship of the Tugboat "Capt. Toby." In 15 minutes, Rochambeau was back down with highway traffic flowing smoothly once again. Where was this writer? He had a front row seat and was safely on the tugboat enjoying and marveling at the action!

Now came the real fun; to watch and see the venerable Long Bridge swing around 90 degrees!

In the intervening six years or so, since swing-span movements had been an everyday occurrence, straight track had been put in across the channel and now had to be removed at each end of the double-track, guard railed swing span. That took several hours and by shortly after noon, all was in readiness.

The contractor's 150 cfm air compressor sprung to life as demand for its services strengthened and grew. Then the docking/alignment clamps were released followed in short order by the air operated lifts releasing their hold from the ends of the swing span.

The operator moved the 'Johnson Bar', gently tugged at the 'throttle' and the Long Bridge swung clockwise around into action. Further, further, further until we had moved the full 90-degree extension!

Now, the impatient ocean going tugboat "Frank Jackson" took charge of this 60+ year old bridge span for the journey down the river and its thousands of tons of steel, and away they went. The "Frank Jackson" couldn't normally travel north of the Long railroad bridge because its clearances were 10' too tall.

Long Bridge swung back into place, the lifts raised up, docking clamps were reset and the rails put back into place and all was done. I was told at the time that the US Navy had to pay the Pennsylvania RR $5,000 to have the Long Bridge opened for this special short notice purpose.

On February 1, 1968, a new owner appeared for the Long Bridge due to the merger of the New York Central and the Pennsylvania Railroads.

In the summer of 1965, July 1st to be exact, an interesting event occurred which could have changed Long Bridge and this part of the story.

Somehow, a fire had broken out in the fender system guarding the channel and the fireboat "Firefighter" was called to the rescue. It was a stubborn and difficult to deal with affair but the able fire fighting crew saved the day as they have so many times before and since.

Had the flames been much worse, they might have seriously damaged the swing span that day, not to mention tying up this major North-South rail route. Some of those charred remnants may still be evident even today, more than 30 years later.

By early 1969, things were winding down on the substructure construction job. Old Pier #2, the last one remaining of the old Highway Bridge, was being removed and we wondered aloud if, as it was being dredged, we might be pulling the stopper out of the river.

A strong northwest gale came that day and coupled with an abnormally low tide, water was easily 5 or more feet below anything we had previously seen. Looking downstream, 100 feet or so beyond the current Long Bridge we saw these protrusions above the water in neat symmetrical fashion.

There they were, the remnants of an earlier, ancient incantation of today's Long Bridge. Ever the vigilant, Washington's late great evening newspaper, The Evening Star, was on the ball, for this was the feature photograph on page 1 of the Tuesday, February 11, 1969 edition!

Talk about a slow news day! When the 10 piers & 2 abutments of the old highway bridge needed to be removed, a new, then virtually unknown demolition company with 'revolutionary' ideas was subcontracted to loosen the old concrete and mortar down to the river bottom. Today their fine handiwork of causing structures to implode in very narrow confines, is well-known and has been seen world wide via the media and Hollywood. That's right - the Loizeaux family - Controlled Demolition, Inc. performed one of their very early tasks on the old 14th Street highway bridge's piers and abutments.

Now, Diamond Construction's equipment had to leave once again, so here would truly be Rochambeau and the Long Bridges' last openings! The contractor's equipment was parked next to Rochambeau early that March 3, 1969 evening.

As I walked out onto Rochambeau's deck very late that night, here was something I had not seen before! The long dark, silent, traffic signal controlling highway traffic for the draw span was lit a bright green, signaling and spelling GO for highway traffic. At about 1:45 a.m. the bridge signal now changed from the green GO to an unmistakable red STOP and traffic was now being diverted north to the Memorial Bridge, for the highway crews must have sensed something.

It was snowing quite heavily in these early morning hours but the Bridge Tender Crew went about their tasks. Earlier, they had turned on the control panel, checked the relays and prepared for action. 1:50 a.m. and up, up, up it went the double-leaf bascule span for its last time, until the maximum angle of nearly 80 degrees from horizontal was reached by each leaf of this graceful, beautiful bascule span.

It took nearly 15 minutes for the three steam-powered cranes' barges to be pushed safely through and secured between Rochambeau and Long Bridges. Once the 'safe signal' was received, it was time to close the draw bridge and reopen the roadway to traffic.

With feet on the 'dead-man' controls, the levers were moved again and the north leaf (DC side) started down, down, down without incident, all the while nothing was happening on the south leaf. There it stood at attention. Uh-oh.

Quickly now, several people came out of the bridge tender control house and clambered down the steps into the gear and counterweight room below. Up they went on ladders with hammers in hands. Then they started hitting this crusty old limit switch contactor.

After a few minutes, all of a sudden, a loud motor started into motion with a loud 'hum' and the huge counterweight started swinging back up where it belonged, causing a very rapid human movement down those same ladders to quickly get out of the way of those tons of concrete and steel which were swinging in their direction.

The south leaf now came down, and the north leaf was raised slightly again to realign the interlocking mechanisms just one last time. The drawbridge closed for excess-height river traffic forever. The traffic control signal on Rochambeau was changed to green fifty-two minutes after it all began and the bridge was reopened to motor vehicles once again.

For the Long Bridge, the procedure was the same as previously described with one minor exception. The operator, this time, kept the 'Johnson Bar' in neutral and opened the throttle, admitting air into the cylinder chambers for nearly an hour to clear things out, unlike the previous openings, so that all would be better lubed this time.

It was kind of like opening the cylinder cocks on a steam locomotive. By 9:47 a.m., all restraining rails had been removed and we were ready for action. As this writer stood fearlessly out on the south end and the lifts & docking mechanisms released their grip this one last time, it felt like floating on air.

Once again, we rotated clockwise, with the north end swinging down river. The air compressor did its function, the operator did his job and the Long Bridge performed its tasks flawlessly. Within 20 minutes it was all over, the bridge was back into place. The equipment was gone and the track gang was back at work respiking and rebolting some 16 running and guardrails back into place.

By the 1970's the old bridge tender's cabin on Long Bridge had become a haven for homeless and other miscreants. The cabin also became the object of various annual high schools' ritualistic pranks to put their graffiti upon the outside of it. The cabin was removed and with it the problems just described have disappeared. Some of the old gears are still visible, but they now only await their ultimate call to the high iron.

Of course, there have been a few other changes along the way as well. After the Penn-Central debacle, came the creation of Conrail, as they became the owners of Long Bridge commencing April 1, 1976. And right on schedule, June 1, 1999, the new owner is CSX, following the carefully managed dismemberment of Conrail.

By November 1981, Conrail could no longer justify the use of electrification, so the catenary, originally placed by the Pennsylvania RR way back in 1935, was de-energized and removed sometime afterward.

After the January 1987 collision between an Amtrak passenger train and Conrail freight engines, north of Baltimore at Chase, Md. came the most dramatic changes to the region, albeit a few miles south of Long Bridge; the total dismantling of the Potomac Classification Yard.

If only Rip Van Winkle had lain down to sleep only in 1985 or so and re awoke in the new millennium, he would scarcely recognize the region. Of course, that assumes he was a railfan.

Today, in the year 2003, 60 and 100 years after the last two major rebuilds (1904 & 1942), Long Bridge is still a major north-south railroad gateway on the east coast. From 1809 to 2003 and probably for many years to come, a Long Bridge has served and will continue to do so for both freight and passenger traffic. It has seen it all -- horse, buggy, foot, steam, electric, diesel power -- and will probably live to see whatever the next generation has to offer.

( A bibliography is available upon request, please send a stamped self-addressed envelope with your request to: Editor, the Timetable.)

NOTE: June 2013: A study is under way to replace the bridge. More information about the project is available at

Here is a list of some of the significant landmarks in Washington, D.C. Rail History:

1) Former B&O route into Washington, D.C.

2) Union Station

3) B&O New Jersey Ave station site

4) B&O Penna. Ave, station site

5) Maryland Ave trackage sites

6) B&P Station site & Atlantic Coast Line Ticket office

7) Lincoln Park Streetcar Bam (now condominiums)

8) 14th & Colorado streetcar station

9) Dupont Circle "down-under"

IO) Georgetown conduit trackage

11) Old Car barn in Georgetown

12) Old Shops in Georgetown

13) Arizona Ave bridge

14) Dale Carlia Tunnel

15) Long RR Bridge

16) Naval Research Lab/Shepherd's Landing Bridge site

17) Alexandria Branch of B&O

18) Virginia Ave. trackage/tunnel

19) L'Enfant Station of VRE

20) Eckington Carbarn of DC/Capital Transit

21) Anacostia Tower or Virginia Ave. tower (CP Virginia)

22) Former Atlantic Coast Line Ticket Office Building at Pennsylvania Avenue & 6th St. NW which still has "Atlantic Coast Line" on it.

23) Washington Georgetown Railroad Car House770 M Street SE

Kansas City-based architect Walter C. Root designed the two-story Romanesque Revival-style Washington & Georgetown Railroad Car House for the Washington & Georgetown Railroad Company. Construction company S .H. and D. F. Adams built the cable car barn in 1891. The façade features angled towers, watch towers, blind arrow slits, conical roofs, and corbelled parapets. The rectangular building occupied the eastern half of the square between M and L streets SE and is the only extant purpose-built cable car building in Washington, DC. In 1909 a one-story addition, carried out by the Capital Traction Company, expanded the building to occupy the entire square. Cable was a short lived venture; between 1890 and 1899 only two District companies utilized cable as a substitute for horse drawn traction. After this experimental phase, the building was modernized to provide electric traction, operating as such until 1962. The Washington & Georgetown Railroad Car House is listed in the NRHP under Criterion A as one of the four streetcar-related buildings by Root and the only extant purpose built cable car building from its period. It is also listed under Criterion C as an industrial building that employs the character-defining features of the Romanesque Revival-style

24) Ivy City Shop Complex

25) Benning Yard

26) CP Virginia

27) First Street Tunnel

28) Railway Express Agency Building (adjacen to Union Station).


In reality, the first railroad through the region which came to be the Benning Yard was the Baltimore & Potomac RR, a surrogate of the Pennsylvania Railroad. They came thru this area as part of their "break the B&O's Maryland to DC monopoly" in the early 1870's, 1871 or perhaps early 1872 and they proceeded to croos the East Branch (today's Anacostia River) on a trestle, along a right-of-way similar but not exactly what we see today until approaching 6th Street SW when the line turned north along or near 6th Street until they crossed the Mall to where a depot was eventually constructed near where the 1941 National Gallery of Art Bldg. is located.

 However, back to the Benning's area, this became a yard for them for many years, one of many in the DC region.

About a year later, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad built a totally different line from their tracks which are located several miles west of the original Baltimore & Potomac line.

This line came (and still does) from Hyattsville thru the Benning's area down to a place, now long-forgotten called Shepherd's landing, some 12.5 miles from Hyattsville. While a totally separate corporation, it had the fancy name of "The Washington City & Point Lookout RR" and from its op[ening in March 1874 until November 1906, floated freight and passenger cars across the Potomac River from Shepherd's Landing to the Wilke's Street Wharf in Alexandria.

 Both the B&O and the Pennsylvania RR had Benning yards and exactly which one did what and with whom, I do not totally know today but suffice it to say the B&O and the PRR were NOT on the friendliest of terms and had minimal; interchange for many years. Thankfully, that all changed over time, especially after the B&O's receivership of 1896-1899 when they were financially weakened to such an extent that the Pennsy actually had control of them, although they were forced to divest under ICC regs some years later, but the spirit of "friendship" and collegiality was sort of encouraged and they got along better after that and were made a major partner in the Potomac Rail yards as well as Washington's union station which was opened in late 1907, combining the 2 RR's separate depots located about a mile apart without connecting tracks in between.

As for the old Washington City & Point Lookout RR, it became known as the Alexandria Branch and during WW II, the Government built an emergency bridge across the Potomac River between the old Shepherd's Landin and near the Alexandria Power Plant and it was used by the B&O as an extra by-pass for the extra busy days of freight and troop movements during WW 2. After the War, it was offerred to the B&O which declined and it was removed in 1946 or 1947 and the Alexandria Branch settled into the sleepy little backwater line it amost always had been.

 Over the next 20-30 or so years, the few remaining customers along the line slowly slipped away, all except the one at the end of the line just past the Naval Research Laboratory; Blue Plains treatment plant. After 9-11, the wisdom of shipping tankcar loads of the highly toxic chlorine along this line where thousands of people travel daily came into play and substitute methods of shipment or newer, less-toxic chemicals were substituted and the last 5-6 miles of the line, past bennings were finally abandoned.

 Compiled by Robert Cohen