Rock Creek Park, with its many streams and deep valleys, is a wonderland of bridges. Some of the spans were considered engineering marvels in their time. Often the architects and sculptors combined to create works of art that just happened to cross a creek.
Rock Creek valley is not the Grand Canyon. But don't underestimate the challenge of building bridges from one side to the other.
The Taft Bridge (above), more than 900 feet long, was one of America's first cast concrete bridges and remains one of the world's largest unreinforced concrete structures. Completed in 1907 as the Connecticut Avenue Bridge at Calvert Street NW, it was so expensive that Washingtonians commonly called it the Million Dollar Bridge before the span was renamed for William Howard Taft in 1931.
The Dumbarton (or Q Street) Bridge, finished in 1915, was built with a gentle curve so the span could connect Georgetown with the Dupont Circle area. Construction crews also had to cope with a big obstacle directly between Q Street in Georgetown and the west end of the bridge: the Dumbarton House mansion. The house was moved 100 feet north of its original location.
It took the completion of the 16th Street Bridge over Piney Branch in 1910 for development to reach many of the neighborhoods north of Mount Pleasant. [Note to bridge geeks: this span is considered the first parabolic concrete arch in the United States.]
Lions and Tigers and Bison – Oh My!
These larger bridges were often beautifully adorned. The Taft Bridge is guarded by four bronze lions, with iron eagles taking flight from the lampposts. The limestone Duke Ellington Bridge, built in 1935 as the Calvert Street Bridge, features four sculptural reliefs alongside its three graceful arches; each relief represents a different mode of travel: auto, train, ship and airplane.
Sculptor Alexander Phimister Proctor created the massive bronze bison (right) on the Q Street Bridge (as well as bison keystones on Memorial Bridge and two bison heads in the State Dining Room at the White House). He was originally hired to sculpt four bison for the 16th Street Bridge as well. Believing they would be too expensive, he came up with a cheaper alternative: a quartet of tigers.
The Q Street Bridge also features sandstone busts (left) of an American Indian chief—taken from a life mask of Kicking Bear, a Lakota Sioux who fought alongside his cousin, Crazy Horse.
Boulder Bridge (left) has been the iconic image of Rock Creek Park nearly from the time it replaced an older plank bridge in 1902. As the story is told, the designer called for "man-size" boulders—meaning rocks big enough for a man to handle on his own. But the message was misinterpreted, with workers bringing in boulders nearly the size of a man. Theodore Roosevelt is credited with naming the span when he placed a classified ad in the Evening Star in 1902 looking for a gold ring he lost "100 yards above boulder bridge." Just south of the bridge, you can still see stone supports for a late 19th century span that took the old Blagden's Mill Road across the creek.
The Ross Drive Bridge (left, built in 1907), a half-mile south of Joyce Road, was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 at the same time as Boulder Bridge. For engineering fans, the National Park Service points out that it is "one of the earliest known triple-hinge bridges in the United States." For those of us just enjoying the view, we can agree with the NPS that the columns "complement the deep ravine and add to the quality of the setting."
Many of the footbridges found in the park today were constructed by New Deal workers during the 1930s—including Bluff Bridge, Boundary Bridge, Rapids Bridge, Riley Springs Bridge and Rolling Meadows Bridge.
The park's oldest bridge is the 1872 span across the creek at Peirce Mill, although it has been significantly renovated over the years.
One of the park's prettiest bridges stood for only about 60 years. The Pebble Dash Bridge (right, built in 1902) took Beach Drive over Broad Branch creek. Just east of the bridge, travelers had to depend on a ford to cross Rock Creek. When the ford was removed in the 1960s, the bridge was torn down so the entire intersection could be rebuilt.
There's a good reason why cyclists have to duck when riding the path under the Pennsylvania Avenue Bridge. The original 1860 span (below) was renowned for its low arch, formed by a pair of cast-iron pipes. These four-foot-wide water mains supported the bridge, even as they served as part of a system of reservoirs, tunnels and pipes that brought water into Washington from Great Falls. The current span constructed in 1916 retained the silhouette—and those iron pipes are still there, imbedded in concrete.