This piece originally ran on April 14, 2014. We’re republishing it on Columbus Day because Jonny Grave ‘discovered’ something that’s been there for a long time. -ed.
What I am doing is extremely dangerous, and extremely illegal. Sometimes, when the Army Corps of Engineers builds a bridge, they build access points to the bridge’s interior. And sometimes, the locks on those doors deteriorate and fall apart, leaving the access points wide open. The doors are located some forty feet off the ground, and the Army Corps of Engineers take it on good faith that people won’t be reckless enough to try and go inside. I’m pretty reckless.
The story of the Key Bridge starts in late August of 1814. At the height of the War of 1812 (the one we don’t learn a lot about in 8th grade), the British Royal Navy sailed up the Chesapeake, into the Patuxent, and landed near Upper Marlboro, MD. The county’s esteemed citizen, Dr. William Beanes, offered his home to General Robert Ross of the British Army to be used as a headquarters for operation. The English marched on Washington DC days later, and blew the city to smithereens. (It should be noted here that they leveled our city in retaliation for the burning of York, which happened only a year prior– another small facet of the war we often overlook)
On their way back to Marlboro, a group of British deserters sacked small farms. The former governor of Maryland decided to act, and with the help of Dr. Beanes and others, captured the soldiers, and put them under citizen’s arrest in the Prince George’s County Jail. General Ross got wind of the ordeal, and immediately sent the cavalry to bring in Beanes and the rest. They were all taken to the H.M.S. Tonnant on August 31st.
Enter Georgetown lawyer, statesman, amateur poet, and facilitator, Francis Scott Key. Residents of Maryland reached out to Key, who, in turn, reached out to President James Madison. Madison sent Key and U.S. Prisoner Exchange Agent, John Stuart Skinner to speak to the British directly. They sailed under a white flag to meet the fleet in the Chesapeake Bay. After a meeting, the British officers not only refused to let Dr. Beanes and the rest go, but they also deemed Key and Skinner potential threats to the fleet’s security.
The bombardment on Fort McHenry began two days later.
Skinner and Key helplessly sat and watched while the British Royal Navy shelled the Maryland Fort. Sometime during the night, a flag was raised over the fort, although Key couldn’t see whose flag it was. Of course, by dawn’s early light, the Americans saw that their nation’s flag was still waving over the fort. Key was moved enough by the experience to write about it in a poem. This was later put to the melody of “Anacreon in Heaven,” and became our country’s national anthem, sung for the first time in public at 601 Pennsylvania Avenue. (That’s absolutely correct– A Georgetown-based lawyer set the “Star-Spangled Banner” to the tune of an English drinking song.)
None of this, however, has anything to do with the bridge in Washington, DC, except that the Northern terminus of the bridge is the former site of Francis Scott Key’s Georgetown home.
The story of the bridge is much less fascinating. Businesses in Alexandria wanted to link the Alexandria Canal with the C&O Canal in Georgetown. The Alexandria Aqueduct was constructed in the 1830s, drained and turned into a roadway for Union troops in 1865, then eventually closed in May 1886 due to its lack of structural stability. After several failed attempts at either repairing the wooden structure, or building a new aqueduct, Washington DC hired architects Nathan C. Wyeth (a co-designer of the District War Memorial) and Max C. Tyler to design a new bridge in 1916. The Key Bridge was built by the Army Corps of Engineers, and was finished in 1923.
The aqueduct has since been demolished, but two pieces remain: an abutment on the Georgetown side (which is an amazing spot to take a date when the sun goes down), and the pier on the Rosslyn side (which is still claimed by several kayakers and rowers to be an obstacle).
Each of the supporting pillars on the bridge are hollow, sometimes with an access point leading to the interior framework of the bridge. Over the course of several visits to the Key Bridge, I’ve found a handful of these entrances. Some are hard to access and others are wide open. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t know what I was going to find when I found these entrances. Surely more graffiti, but beyond that, I considered my possibilities endless. Then, on a Saturday, my foot brushed against paper. I leaned down with my flashlight to see exactly what kind of paper it was, and it turned out to be a blueprint for the extension of the Whitehurst Freeway from 1958.
The Key Bridge represents one of the many reasons I started exploring around the city I call home. There are entire life stories holding up that bridge– from the Army Corps of Engineers and their shitty locks, to Wyeth’s original plans, to the Lincoln administration using city resources for the war effort, to the Georgetown lawyer-turned-songwriter… The Key Bridge is a monument not just to civil engineering and neoclassical design, but also to the history of Washington, DC. Go there for a sunset. Take a date. Poke around, and see what you can find.