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Charmed Life

Bridge Lessons

Christopher Myers

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 12/11/2002

For a city that's so divided by waterways, Baltimore is notably lacking in great bridges. Key Bridge, of course, is magnificent, although it lies mostly outside the city line. Closer to the city proper, where other burgs might have built monumental bridges, the Monumental City opted for tunnels. And our most impressive spans aren't exactly bridges at all. Huge as they are, the ramps between downtown and I-95 have a swooping grace that accommodates 18-wheelers going 60 miles per hour.

Then there's the Hanover Street Bridge, which is easily seen from the northbound lanes of I-95. Known formally as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Bridge, this shabby-elegant viaduct has spanned the murky Middle Branch of the Patapsco River since 1916. The bridge links the city's center to its southernmost neighborhoods, including Cherry Hill and Brooklyn. Incidentally, the latter community got its name because, like Brooklyn, N.Y., it lies across the river from downtown--making the humble Hanover Street span our city's answer to the mighty Brooklyn Bridge.

Essentially, the Hanover Street Bridge consists of a roadway running 2,290 feet across a series of concrete arches, with an arched steel drawbridge at midchannel set off by four slightly ornamental watchtowers. From a distance, the pale, evenly spaced arches give the structure a serene, classical quality that has long attracted artists. In fact, my visit to the bridge last week was prompted by an urge to draw it; writing about it was a convenient afterthought. The view I chose, looking up the bridge toward the skyline, reminded me of the great viaducts of Europe. A follow-up trip to the site was stalled by, of all things, the opening of the drawbridge--a rare occurrence that I'd never seen before. The entire bridge was jammed with waiting automobiles.

At close range, the bridge's stained, eroded surface betrays a history that is anything but serene. Its construction, from 1913 to 1916, was heckled by skeptics, who said the heavy piers would sink into the river's seemingly bottomless silt, and by sentimental fans of the wooden "Long Bridge" that it displaced. (The older bridge, which crossed from the south end of Light Street, had itself replaced a ferry at some point in the 19th century. The point of land at Light Street is still known as the Ferry Bar.)

Throughout the 1920s, as naysayers had predicted, the bridge was plagued with sinking columns, cracked abutments, and a collapsing roadbed. In 1934, the bridge's concrete piers were found to be worn halfway through by the action of water and ice. When the city's chief engineer, Frank Duncan, inspected the site in 1939, he determined that the bridge's original concrete had been poured incorrectly, resulting in a deeply flawed foundation--"Somebody was asleep," Duncan groused. A special high-pressure cement gun was required to inject new material below the water line. Ultimately, the entire deck had to be rebuilt at great expense.

Another major reconstruction in 1969 cost $2.74 million--more than it had cost to build the bridge in the first place. One result of the remedial work was the disappearance of sculptured whales that used to grace the watchtowers; they were simply cemented over. And one day in 1982, the little-used drawbridge jammed open when a 33-foot-long steel strut snapped off and plunged into the Patapsco. An eight-hour disruption ensued while workers nudged the heavy draw-spans back into place using hand-operated jacks. Nothing so spectacular has happened since then, but maintaining the bridge is a never-ending task. Yet another massive renovation took place in 1990. Earlier this year, the bridge was closed at least twice for planned repair work, including replacement of the drawbridge's steel-grille roadbed.

According to a spokesperson for the city's Office of Transportation, which maintains all city bridges, the Hanover Street span comes up for a review next year. The renovated drawbridge, which seems to be working just fine, is still operated by a city employee who sits in one of the little towers. The view is great, but given the facility's infrequent use, the job must be one of the dullest in Baltimore.

In the next few years, the city may have a fresh motive for giving the bridge a thorough sprucing up. Having used up the precious Inner Harbor waterfront, Baltimore seems poised to rediscover the long-neglected Middle Branch, currently home to the Baltimore Rowing Club, scores of wrecked boats, a number of well-fed herons, and little else. Big-box retailers have lately sprung up on the underbelly of the South Baltimore peninsula, and, just last month, a local development team announced plans to launch a new marina and a restaurant on the site of the defunct Dead Eye Saloon, at the north end of the bridge. Meanwhile, the federally funded Gwynns Falls Trail is making its way through Leakin Park and will soon reach Middle Branch Park, providing access to hikers and bikers. Should this "new" harbor come to fruition, the old bridge stands ready to serve as its elegant landmark.

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