Posts Tagged ‘Woodrow Wilson’

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The Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge

You would think that a mile and a quarter long, multi-span drawbridge which carries a twelve-lane interstate highway used by more than a quarter of a million vehicles every day would not be a very good location for riding a bicycle, but that is not the case with the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge.

The Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge, commonly referred to as the Wilson Bridge, was planned and built as part of the Interstate Highway System created by Congress in 1956. Construction of the bridge began in the late 1950s, at which time it was called the Jones Point Bridge. It was renamed the “Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge” in honor of our country’s 28th President in 1956 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower as part of that year’s centennial celebration of Woodrow Wilson’s birth on December 28, 1856. President Wilson was an advocate of automobile and highway improvements in the United States, and during his presidency reportedly spent an average of two hours a day riding in his automobile to relax and, as he would say, “loosen his mind from the problems before him.”

The Wilson Bridge opened to traffic on December 28, 1961. First Lady Edith Wilson, the widow of President Wilson, was supposed to have been the guest of honor at the bridge’s dedication ceremony honoring her husband on what would have been his 105th birthday. However, she died that very morning at the family home they had shared in northwest D.C.

The Wilson Bridge as it was originally constructed was designed to handle between 70 and 75 thousand vehicles a day. But by 1999 the bridge was handling 200,000 vehicles a day. This caused not only traffic issues but serious maintenance problems as well. Despite undergoing continuous patchwork maintenance beginning in the 1970’s, and being completely re-decked in 1983, the overuse took its toll and in 2000 construction began to replace the bridge with two new side-by-side drawbridges. The massive $2.357 billion construction project utilized 26 prime contractors and 260 subcontractors employing 1,200 full-time workers.  The 230 thousand ton, 1.2-mile long structure was completed almost a decade later.

The Wilson Bridge currently consists of two parallel bridge structures, each with 17 fixed spans and one 270-foot twin double leaf bascule span. The northern span carries the Inner Loop of the Capital Beltway, which is comprised of Interstate 95 and Interstate 495, while the southern span contains the beltway’s Outer Loop.  And with eight leaves, each weighing four million pounds, giving the drawbridge 32 million pounds of moving mass, it is the biggest drawbridge in the world.

Connecting the city of Alexandria, Virginia, with National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Prince George’s County, Maryland, the Wilson Bridge also crosses the tip of the southernmost corner of D.C., giving it the distinction of being the only bridge in the United States that crosses the borders of three jurisdictions. The 300-foot mid-span of the western portion of the bridge is also the shortest segment of Interstate Highway between state lines.

But to me, one of the most impressive features of this massive structure was the forethought to make it bicycle friendly. The northern span of the bridge includes a pedestrian and bike passageway known as the Wilson Bridge Bike Trial. The 3.5-mile trail extends from Oxon Hill Road across the Potomac River to the Huntington Metro Station in Virginia. The trail connects to the network of trails, including the Mount Vernon Trail at Jones Point Park in Virginia.  And future plans call for it to connect with the Potomac Heritage Trail in Maryland. The trail has a steel railing on the north side called the bicycle barrier and a concrete barrier with a short steel railing on top called the combination barrier to separate the bikeway traffic from the highway traffic. The trail, which opened on June 6, 2009, is approximately 12 feet wide, with “bump-out” areas where users can stop to observe views of D.C. and Old Town Alexandria.

The Wilson Bridge Bike Trial has a speed limit of 10 m.p.h., which is a good idea due to the bridge’s many steel joints that can damage bike tires and rims at high speeds. The speed limit for bikes is also a good idea since the trail is also used by many pedestrians.  While riding on the trail it’s also a good idea to remember that it is a drawbridge and may open periodically, so paying attention to warning lights and bells is necessary. The trail is closed between midnight and 5:30 a.m.  It is also closed during snowstorms, so much like the D.C. area, it has had a rough go of it this winter.

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Woodrow Wilson House

Woodrow Wilson House

While most Presidents happily retire back to their home state after leaving office, Woodrow Wilson decided to remain in D.C.   In fact, he is the only American President to select D.C. to be his home following his final term in office.  So on a recent bike ride I chose to go by the Woodrow Wilson House in northwest D.C.   Sometimes referred to as “the other executive mansion,” the house is located at 2340 S Street (MAP) on Embassy Row in the city’s Kalorama Neighborhood.

Late in 1920 after leading the nation through the first World War, winning the Nobel Peace Prize, and creating the League of Nations, the 28th President’s second and final term was nearing its end.  Needing a place to live after leaving The White House, his wife Edith Bolling Wilson began to search for an appropriate residence.  His second wife, she had lived in D.C. before they met and received a small fortune when her former husband, a prosperous local jeweler, passed away.  However, her husband made his own plans.  On December 14, Wilson insisted that his wife attend a concert.  When she returned he presented her with the deed to the Georgian style mansion on S Street.  He had bought the house despite having never even seen it.  The former President and his wife moved into the home on Inauguration Day in 1921.

The Wilsons moved into their new retirement haven, but it wasn’t an easy move.  Prohibition forbid the transportation of alcohol, and that presented a problem for Wilson, who did not want to leave his fine wine collection in the White House for his successor.  The recently elected Warren G. Harding was known to be a heavy drinker.  He appealed to Congress, and Congress granted an exception to Prohibition by passing a special law just for him, which allowed one person on one specific day “to transport alcohol from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to 2340 S Street.”

Wilson, partially paralyzed from a stroke he suffered in 1919, spent his few remaining years in partial seclusion at the house, under the continuous care of his wife and servants.  It was from the balcony of this house that Wilson addressed a crowd in November of 1923 as his last public appearance.  On February 3, 1924, he died in an upstairs bedroom.  He was laid to rest in Washington National Cathedral, becoming not just the only President to remain in D.C. after his presidency, but also the only President to be buried in D.C.   Mrs. Wilson continued to live in the residence until her death in 1961.   She bequeathed the property and all of its original furnishings to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which designated it a National Historic Landmark in 1964.  The National Trust continues to own the house, and currently operates it as a museum.

I think President Wilson would have approved of my adventures biking around and exploring D.C.  He cycled regularly, including several cycling vacations.  However, as President he was unable to bike around D.C. for security reasons.  Unable to ride, he took to playing golf with equal enthusiasm.  In fact, Wilson holds the record among all U.S. Presidents for the most rounds of golf, having played over 1,000 rounds, or almost one every other day.

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