The Storied History of Chain Bridge

Spanning a narrow stretch of the Potomac, this local landmark has provided passage for Civil War soldiers, bootleggers and more.
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During the War of 1812, the bridge provided safe passage for national treasures—including First Lady Dolley Madison, who on August 24, 1814, fled across it to Virginia. As the British laid siege to the capital and burned many of its buildings, Secretary of State James Monroe ordered the evacuation of the Declaration of Independence, which was also smuggled over the river to safety, possibly along with other archival documents.

There are competing narratives as to where the artifacts were hidden once they landed on the Virginia side. Some historians believe they were stashed overnight in linen bags inside the grist mill at Pimmit Run (located at what is now the intersection of North Glebe Road and Chain Bridge Road) before being transported farther west to Leesburg.

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The Amoco station at the foot of the bridge in the mid-1930s. Photo courtesy of Jim Fearson

Chain Bridge would have other brushes with history in the years that followed. In 1826, Secretary of State Henry Clay and Virginia Senator John Randolph engaged in an infamous (not to mention, illegal) duel near the Arlington base of the bridge after Randolph insultingly referred to Clay as a “blackleg” (a slang term for someone who cheats at cards). The altercation resulted in little more than a bullet-grazed overcoat and an eventual truce by handshake.

With the onset of the Civil War, the bridge became a literal battle line, with Union soldiers guarding the D.C. side and Confederates the Virginia side. (Historical accounts suggest the troops were close enough to be within shouting distance of each other.) On one particular night in 1861, Union Private William Scott—henceforth known as the “sleeping sentinel”—fell asleep while manning his post and was court-martialed and sentenced to be “shot until dead.” He was spared when President Lincoln, moments before the firing squad took aim, intervened and pardoned the exhausted soldier.

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Fishing along the C&O Canal in the early 1900s. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress

Fast-forward to Prohibition and the bridge had become a popular trade route for bootleggers. Mackey’s Tavern, a drop-off spot for illegal hooch near the foot of the bridge, was reportedly owned by Darlington Mackey, brother of former Commonwealth’s Attorney and temperance crusader Crandal Mackey, who was, at the time, running for Congress. One must assume his brother’s vocation was an unwelcome factor in the politician’s defeat.

Then came cars. In the 1930s, vehicular traffic began taking its toll on a structure originally designed only for humans, wagons and horses. Following another flood, the bridge deck was reconstructed in 1939, though it continued to use the original stone piers of its mid-19th-century predecessors.

Fearson, now retired from the telephone repair business and living in Fairfax County (Oak Hill) remembers the Amoco station on the Virginia side as being a hub of activity in the 1950s. “We constantly had people in and out,” he says. “The Metropolitan Police would come across the bridge and… stop in on hot days to have a Coke.”

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An artist’s rendering of the bridge, as seen from the Maryland side of the Potomac River in 1839. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress

It was especially busy in spring when the herring and the shad were running up the river. “We would be just overrun for about two or three weeks with all the fishermen,” he adds. “Any wide spot in the road, people would park their cars and clamber down the rocks to go fishing.”

Chain Bridge had a major overhaul in 1982, when construction crews widened its lanes and replaced its heavy concrete deck with modern materials designed to hold more weight.

Today, the structure is busier than ever, traversed by more than 22,000 cars per day, according to estimates from the District’s Department of Transportation. The tavern on the shoreline is gone, but fish still swim the river, and stories live on in the chains that hold this totem of history together.

Matt Blitz writes about local history, people and culture for Arlington Magazine.

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Categories: Local History
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