The first bridge to cross the Potomac in the Washington area was constructed in 1797 when Georgetown merchants built the “Falls Bridge” at the “Little Falls.” The bridge was built to replace ferry service and was primarily used to drive cattle across to the Georgetown auction markets after the cattle had drunk heavily at Pimmit Run.
There have been eight bridges built on this site. The original one was a covered wooden structure that collapsed in 1804, and the second was destroyed by floods after only 6 months. In 1810, a third bridge was constructed that was truly a “Chain Bridge,” the name by which all subsequent bridges have been known. Two chains were made from four-foot links of wrought iron and suspended from massive stone towers at either shore. The bridge itself was 136 feet long and 15 feet wide. This was a toll bridge which reported $9,000 in collected tolls in 1810. Tolls, thought to be high, were:
Four Horse Carriage: 1 ½ dollars
Two Horse Carriage: 1 dollar
Four Horse Wagon: 62 ½ cents
Two Horse Wagon: 37 ½ cents
Gig: 36 ½ cents
Man: 6 ½ cents
It was a relatively low bridge, and floods were a continuing problem. The third, fourth, and fifth structures were all swept away by high water.
The present Chain Bridge, a simple continuous steel girder structure, was built in 1939 with a vertical clearance between the bridge and the river of 45 feet. Nevertheless, in times of severe flooding, such as that experienced during Hurricane Agnes in 1972, the water level was so high that it became within a few feet of the bridge’s floor.
Do you remember Chain Bridge during the 1972 flooding?