There’s not a whole lot of substance to this article, but it’s hard for me to resist a photo with an evening sky this vivid.
There’s obviously a lot going on here: a fiery sunset vying with menacing nimbostratus clouds; the reflection of it all on an expansive river; the evenly spaced lighting that enhances the enormity of a bridge; the flurry of cars venturing toward the horizon line as part of their commute. The vantage point is significant as well: it’s a lookout point on a well-used pedestrian bridge that traverses the twelve-lane highway featured so prominently in this photo. In other words, it’s a bridge over a bridge, and the sinuous sidewalk with two prominent lights in the lower right of the photo serves as the ADA-compliant ramp up to the point where I’m standing.
However rich with details this photo might be, what’s most interesting are all the features that remain invisible. So here’s a marked-up version clarifying what I mean.
Look at all those political boundaries. The photo features the mammoth Woodrow Wilson Bridge, part of the southern part of the heavily used Beltway (Interstate 495) that circumscribes the fast-growing Washington DC metro, a 1.25-mile bascule bridge constructed as part of Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System. Like most modern bascules (drawbridges), it consists of two leafs, allowing boat traffic of unlimited height to pass through this stretch of the Potomac River. Completed in 1961 with Wilson’s widow Edith as its guest of honor (except that she died the morning of the dedication ceremony), the Woodrow Wilson Bridge has undergone one thorough improvement in the early 1980s and an expansion with a replacement bridge in the mid 2000s. Most compellingly, as indicated by the pink lines drawn atop my photo, the bridge stretches across not two but three jurisdictions: a state (Maryland), a commonwealth (Virginia), and a District (Columbia).
It’s typical for bridges to span state boundaries. Bridges often cross rivers, and rivers are common political lines. But this particular bridge just barely cuts across the District of Columbia. The wedge confirms this: it is part of the absolute southernmost tip of the District, creating an acute angle where the Maryland side of the Potomac meets Alexandria and Arlington, both of which were part of the District of Columbia’s original boundaries, before the 1847 Retrocession ceded the lands on the southwest side of the Potomac River back to Virginia. For the last sixty years, the Woodrow Wilson Bridge has traversed this unusual juncture, with approximately 300 feet of its span running through the District of Columbia, while only the tiny portion hugging the west bank of the Potomac belongs to Virginia. The rest is Maryland.
From this vantage point are three “states”, a condition I suspect many locals are blithely unaware of. The only welcome signs belong to Maryland and Virginia. But it’s not hard to see the evidence: any map’ll do. After the bridge’s opening, the District of Columbia decided it didn’t want the maintenance costs for its tiny segment, so it granted a permanent easement to the other two states, who have joint ownership of operations and maintenance. As the photo indicates, it also features a pedestrian component (added during the massive expansion and replacement in the mid and late 2000s), giving adventurous joggers and bicyclists the opportunity to venture across the three jurisdictions while climbing a considerable slope, the apex of which offers unobstructed views of the Washington Monument and US Capitol, straight down the Potomac on a clear day.
Those clear views undoubtedly informed the location for this bridge: it was already a convenient nexus between US 1 in Alexandria, Virginia and Overlook Avenue, an arterial that linked southeast Washington DC to Prince George’s County, Maryland. It was the last reasonably narrow point on the Potomac River before it widens considerably just to the south, which would have escalated costs astronomically. And no point northward along the river to the north was all that suitable because of major civil works installations that already hogged one or both banks of the Potomac: Naval Support Facility Anacostia and Bolling Air Force Base on the east (Washington DC) side (now merged into Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling), and Washington National Airport (now Reagan National Airport) on the west (Virginia side). This weird convergence of three boundaries really was the best place for major thoroughfare linking different halves of a metro split by a mighty river.
While for the vast majority of people, the Woodrow Wilson Bridge is just a part of a daily commuting headache—the bottlenecks are much worse in the evening than in the morning—it offers a better than average array of visual pleasures. And, lurking beneath the waters of the Potomac, is a little bit more than the usual political intrigue. It is the DC Beltway, after all.