Arlington Memorial Bridge History

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Watch to learn more about Arlington Memorial Bridge's history and significance.

President Harding at Lincoln Memorial looking at Arlington Memorial Bridge site in 1922 or 1923.
President Harding and the Memorial Bridge Commission at the Lincoln Memorial in 1922 or 1923.

Library of Congress / Harris & Ewing Collection

Designed as a memorial symbolizing reunification of the North and South after the Civil War, Arlington Memorial Bridge links the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., and Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee Memorial, in Arlington, Va. The bridge also serves as the ceremonial entrance to Arlington National Cemetery, our nation’s most hallowed ground and the final resting place for more than 400,000 active duty service members, veterans and their family members. The following is based on an article written by Richard F. Weingroff, historian for the Federal Highway Administration about the bridge's history, construction, and significance.

Learn more by reading the Historic American Engineering Record's report on Arlington Memrorial Bridge.

Based on an article by Richard F. Weingroff

Arlington Memorial Bridge is one of the Washington area’s most beautiful bridges. What seems like such a great, even obvious, idea today was conceived in the 19th century and succumbed to the fate of so many monumental projects: delay. A traffic jam prodded it along.

In a speech on July 4, 1851, Secretary of State Daniel Webster attributed the idea for a bridge at this general location to President Andrew Jackson (1829-1837). No one succeeded at moving the project ahead for almost 100 years.

On November 11, 1921, President Warren G. Harding was on his way to Arlington National Cemetery for the dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. His car got stuck in what the Associated Press called “the worst traffic jam the National Capital has seen in many years.” The jam, apparently started when a small touring car ran out of gas on the Highway Bridge (successor to the Long Bridge), and kept thousands of people from reaching the ceremony. In response to the the traffic jam, Harding was personally involved in moving the project ahead.

On December 18, 1922, President Harding and Vice President Calvin Coolidge met with members of the Commission of Fine Arts. After a brief discussion, they took White House cars to see sites for the bridge. President Harding expressed his preference for the Lincoln Memorial site as the best alternative for residents and tourists. Not long after, the Commission moved ahead with plans for a bridge to link the north and south between the Lincoln Memorial and Arlington House.

From design to completion took another decade, spanning the death of President Harding on August 2, 1923, the administration of President Calvin Coolidge, the election of former Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover as President, and the start of the Depression.

Officials arranged the opening of Arlington Memorial Bridge to coincide with the opening of the Mount Vernon Memorial Highway, even though neither was fully completed. In 1928, President Coolidge had signed legislation authorizing construction of the highway in anticipation of the 200th anniversary in 1932 of the birth of George Washington. The Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) designed and built the 15-mile road as a parkway from Washington’s home at Mount Vernon to Arlington Memorial Bridge. This road eventually became part of the George Washington Memorial Parkway.

Finally, nearly 80 years after Secretary Webster spoke of the bridge that would link North and South, the bridge was ready for traffic, if not quite completed.

The bridge, built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at a cost of $6,650,000, did not have lighting for nighttime traffic. Officials had not agreed on “the final design of illumination, in keeping with the dignity of the project.” The Commission of Fine Arts would determine the design for additions to the bridge. The final touches were not completed until September 1933.

Many years later, The Washington Post published a special feature about Washington area bridges. Regarding Arlington Memorial Bridge, the article stated
  • Considered by many Washington’s most beautiful bridge, its structure is relatively simple: eight neoclassical arches. The monumentality derives from all the extras, including eight-foot-bas-relief eagles atop 35-foot pylons, eight-foot bison (by Paul C. Jennewein), a pair of gold figures (by Leo Friedlander) and the elegant white stone (North Carolina granite). One curious note: It has a draw span, a rarely used 216-foot marvel of American engineering that was designed by Joseph B. Strauss, who later engineered the Golden Gate Bridge.
The city’s most beautiful bridge, first proposed (possibly) by President Jackson in the 1830s, was made possible, at least in part, by a moment in time when the President of the United States (and everyone else) became stuck in traffic. t


Last updated: January 27, 2020

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